Visit Our Location in Portland, OR
6469 SE 134th Ave
Portland, OR 97236
So, here you are with your new baby fruit tree, maybe you picked it up locally or received it in the mail. After all that winter planning, you picked out just the right spot so that it can grow into a beautiful fruiting specimen. Now, it’s finally time to plant!
You grab your shovel, maybe a pickaxe depending on where you live, a few soil amendments. Off to dig that mighty hole your new fruit tree will call home. With great care the soil is put back in the hole, gently you apply a thick organic mulch, water it in. Repeating the process until all your trees are in the ground.
But, when you stand back somehow it looks…rather disappointing. Just sticks with a few side branches sticking out of the Spring mud. You notice that 8-15 feet of barren ground between all those trees, it will take some years before the tree mature and their canopies fill in to fully soak up all that great sunlight. Surely, there must be some other way. Let’s fill up this empty space – companion plants for fruit trees to the rescue!
Which companion plants are the best has been hotly debated amongst gardeners for decades. There’s plenty of room to experiment. But, what is for sure is that good companion plants are the ones that are beautiful, ecology enhancing, soil building, pollinator attracting, drought tolerant, dynamic accumulating, pest predator attracting, and more. A list of beneficial plants could fill many a page, but we’ve come up with a list of our absolute favorites based on their ease of cultivating and their benefits to the young orchard.
The first group of companions most home orchard and permaculture folks think of are the mighty nitrogen fixers. A special group of plants that are able to turn atmospheric soil nitrogen (N2) into a form of nitrogen that can be uptaken by plants (Ammonia – NH3 and Ammonium – NH4) through a symbiotic relationship that occurs in their roots with certain bacteria.
Many of the most known nitrogen fixers are in the Fabaceae or Pea Family. These associate with Rhizobia bacteria in root nodules. But, there are also many in other families, such as our native Red Alder, Garrya, Willow, Sea Buckthorn and Elaeagnus, or the Ceanothus genus that instead associate with Frankia and other bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form. For our needs, it is one of the most useful adaptations in the plant kingdom . Prior to the chemical fertilizers, farmers and gardeners alike relied heavily on the nitrogen fixing powers of these plants. But instead of going down that rabbit hole, let’s list some of our favorite nitrogen fixers in the perennial garden…
Dynamic Accumulator Companion Plants
What exactly is a dynamic accumulator? You can think of them as deep soil miners that send their vigorous deep root system far below the depth where most plants send their roots, bringing to the surface nutrients that have slipped down through the soil horizons and concentrating it in their leaves. Over time, these types of plants rejuvenate soil by pulling up more and more nutrients and creating humus around their root zone.
The most famous of these is Comfrey and has long been touted as the best plant choice for “chop and drop” mulching, where you simply chop its abundant foliage back a few times per year and use that as a nutrient rich, weed suppressing mulch. Comfrey also has many medicinal and therapeutic uses and is an incredibly multi-functional plant. It has gotten a bad rap for its ability to rapidly spread via seed, but the varieties we carry cannot produce seed and are much more manageable.
One such plant is the Bocking 14 Russian Comfrey which is a clumping variety which can only be spread if you till and spread the roots through the soil. For a more aesthetic garden look, consider the gold leafed Variegated Axminster’s Gold Comfrey. It looks like a soft leaved hosta, and though it is not as vigorous as the Bocking 14 Russian Comfrey, it still has all the same wonderful properties. If you wish to remove comfrey after your fruit trees are established a thick sheet mulch will easily do the trick and you can take great joy in knowing that your comfrey plant’s root mass will act as a deep soil compost for your fruit trees.
Chives and perennial onions are an often overlooked companion plant. They are not only easy to grow, but many are worthy additions to the kitchen. Carpets of these plants may confer some immune system benefits to surrounding plants. Their beautiful small flowers provide nectaries for many beneficial insects including tiny harmless parasitic wasps that hunt pest insects. Many onions often intermingle very well with other forbs planted in the understory.
Globe Thistles (Echinops ritro) and Green Globe Artichokes and Purple Italian Artichokes are huge clumping plants that produces tons of biomass, habit for beetles, and are great insectaries – while pulling up nutrients from great depths with their huge taproots! All the power of soil building properties of thistles but with without the spines. Plant these giving them plenty of space to flop around.
Yarrow is our other most revered soil miner! This plant can be found growing in lawns and fields nearly all over the temperate world and the reason for this is that it loves growing in disturbed soils. Like a diligent soil repairman, yarrow sends its deep roots into even the toughest rocky soils. Many new cultivated forms have been selected for their graceful foliage and flower colors, so you can now customize your ecological plantings. Yarrow is also a beneficial insectary plant as well as a useful medicinal herb.
Time to Go Get Planting
This is a short coffee-fueled morning rambling of some of our favorite companion plants chosen for their multifunctionality, ease of cultivation, and beauty in the landscape, but many other species can fit the bill as a companion plant. Water needs for your site may increase but by planting a diverse array of ground covers, small shrubs, and herbaceous perennials you bring in all sorts of beneficials to your site which decreases weed pressure by filling up the empty spaces.
Go out and experiment, try all sorts of new plants between your fruit trees and other plantings. Plant up those edges and borders. If the hydrozones are managed correctly, drought tolerant and xeriscaping plants will thrive amongst your more water thirsty fruiting plants. Don’t be afraid to cut things out if they get overcrowded. Study nature and copy examples you see using analogous plants of your choosing. Try alley cropping with vegetables. Create different patterns, textures, and smells! And plant more Monkey Puzzle trees – they are long-term human companion plants. Your grandchildren will thank you!