Companion planting is the idea that certain plants attract beneficial insects and fix soil nutrients in the edible garden. It’s not a dog-eat-dog world out there; it’s a bug-eat-bug world that forms the food chain that feeds us.
Fresh fruit picked off your own trees is a hot horticultural pursuit these days. Homeowners envision delectable apples, pears, peaches, plums and cherries dripping from their trees. Well, truth be told, there’s a lot of work that goes into those beautiful fruits. Bumps and blemishes from an army of fruit tree pests are the reality of the orchardist.
Organic gardeners know the first step in pest control is to work with Mother Nature. The majority of bugs in the garden are good guys: beneficial insects that pollinate and form the framework of the web of life. Every time one of these beneficials stops a pest, it is one step towards a productive and healthier garden. Planting plants that attract the good guys is a good leap forward in designing and planting a successful stand of fruit trees. The plants that attract pollinators and protectors and aid in providing soil nutrients and improved vigor are called companion plants.
Much about companion plantings is pure garden lore, unproven by scientific research, or has conflicting results. All of the plants described here are utilized at Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden, which is the largest edible landscape in the country.
The first step is to always choose fruit tree varieties hardy and adapted to your specific region and select varieties of proven disease resistance. Even after growing the most recommended varieties for our region, Powell Gardens saw marked pest reductions and healthier trees after they were moved from our nursery in a fescue field to their permanent location in the Heartland Harvest Garden where they were surrounded by companion plantings.
A dwarf ‘Red Delicious’ apple tree thrives with lemon balm (beneath) and chives (foliage in the background) as companions.
Apples | (Malus pumila varieties and hybrids)
Apples suffer from a host of maladies from apple scab to pests like the coddling moth, Oriental fruit moth, flat-headed apple borer and others. Apples are not self-fruitful so they must have pollinating insects (native bees are best) to cross pollinate compatible varieties. “Wild roses” are great shrubby companions to apples because they host predatory insects. Try Illinois prairie rose (Rosa setigera), rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa), short Arkansas prairie rose (Rosa arkansana), apple rose (Rosa villosa formerly R. pomifera), sweetbrier rose (Rosa eglanteria) as well as a few new single-flowering cultivars such as Rainbow Knock out and ‘Oso Easy Fragrant Spreader’.
Long-blooming, self-sowing anise hyssops (Agastache foeniculum) can attract beneficial insects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) planted around the trunks of young apple trees protect them from apple borers, prevent apple scab and attract beneficial insects to their flowers. Deadhead chives or you’ll have pernicious seedlings. Mulleins (Verbascum spp.) act as traps for stink bugs that can damage young fruit. Plant perennial Verbascum chaixii, which reblooms if deadheaded and will self-sow lightly. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is another perennial that attracts parasitic insects to control pesky caterpillars, though other members in the carrot family also work.
Ground covers of strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa) serve as host to apple-protecting insects. White “Dutch” clover (Trifolium repens) not only provides nitrogen to the soil but attracts predatory insects like various species of ground beetles. It also blooms early with the apples helping to attract pollinators. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is also a good companion where it can be confined.
Pears | (European Pyrus communis and Asian Pyrus pyrifolia varieties and hybrids)
Pears are close apple relatives and also not self-fruitful. They require pollinating insects to cross-pollinate different cultivars of each species. Pear flowers are malodorous so various native flies, wasps and beetles are the pollinators. Chives also protect the trunks of young pears from borers so plant them around their bases. Three groups of mints are great companion plants. True mints (Mentha spp.) are outstanding companions to pears, but they need to be controlled or in confined spaces. Bergamots and beebalms (Monarda spp.) are good companions, but mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) might be the best. Native perennial mountain mints attract an assortment of flies and wasps when in bloom—and no, they don’t attract house flies and yellow jackets. Fennel is another must near pears. We recommend dark bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) for color contrast.
Yellow-flowering marigolds, white-flowering garlic chives and the flower stalks of dill going to seed are companions to peach trees in Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden.
Peaches and Nectarines | (Prunus persica and var. nectarina or nucipersica and hybrids)
Peaches are self-fruitful but still require pollinating insects like honeybees. Garlic (Allium sativum) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are the two most important companions to peaches as they deter their worst pests, the two species of peach tree borer moths. Plant these around the trunks of the trees. You may grow the garlic as a crop but be sure to deadhead garlic chives because, just like chives, it is a pernicious seeder and difficult to remove once established. Garlic chives’ fall bloom attracts an array of beneficial insects.
Strawberries are an essential ground cover beneath peaches as they are an alternate host of a parasite that attacks Oriental fruit moths (supported by research). Plant wild strawberries and let them be or plant your favorite cultivars of June-bearing or ever-bearing varieties, which require a bit more seasonal care. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is another perennial ground cover companion with ferny leaves and daisy-like flowers. It attracts beneficial insects but does not provide habitat for borers.
The annuals borage (Borago officinalis), dill (Anethum graveolens) and marigolds (Tagetes patula) are companions to peaches. We’ve had good results from all three.
Cherries | (Sweet Prunus avium and pie Prunus cerasus, their varieties and hybrids)
Sweet cherries are mostly self-infertile (‘Lapin’ is an exception) and require a compatible cultivar for cross pollination. Pie or sour cherries are self-fruitful but require pollinators. There are hybrids between the two groups (‘Danube’, ‘Jubilieum’) that have wonderful sweet-tart fruit and are also self-fruitful. Cherries are closely related to peaches and also suffer from the peach tree borer so the use of garlic and garlic chives near the trunks is beneficial. Utilize the same companion plantings as for peaches.
Plums | (Prunusspecies and their hybrids and varieties)
Plums are mainly self-infertile and need another cultivar for cross pollination. Plums are also closely related to peaches and do better with the same companion plants. The plum curculio weevil is the bane of this plant, so plant white clover, which promotes ground beetles. Weevils are controlled by plants in the Laurel family, which includes our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and we’re going to add it as a companion beneath plums.
(Photography by Alan Branhagen)
Alan Branhagen is director of horticulture at Powell Gardens where he selected and designed all the permanent plantings in the Heartland Harvest Garden (America’s largest edible landscape).