Companion planting has its roots in many different ancient cultures, some dating back more than 10,000 years ago with the indigenous peoples of North America and the domestication of the Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans). This practice, planting different crops in proximity to one another for mutually beneficial growth, has blossomed into popularity over the years as its benefits have proven to be extremely helpful in maintaining a healthy garden, growing better food, and increasing soil health.
How does companion planting help fruit trees? For all of the same reasons that help your garden, companion planting serves fruit trees just as well. One of the biggest reasons people use companion plants to help their fruit trees is because of the nutritious benefits that it gives to the soil. Some plants are “fixers” for specific nutrients that soil requires for optimal growing. Clover, for example, is a great nitrogen fixer for soil, so if your garden bed or orchard space requires higher nitrogen levels, planting clover would help boost those levels and provide those necessary nutrients to grow better quality crops.
When planning for which companion plants we wanted to include in our own orchard at Troll’s Knoll Park, we knew that clover would be a good nitrogen fixer for the soil, and marigold an important pest deterrent. Volunteers scattered them around the perimeter of the fruit trees so as not to overcrowd their bases, but still keep them in a proximity close enough to benefit the nearby soil. We considered planting borage as well, a blue star-shaped edible flower that deters bad and attracts good pests, and is also helpful for adding potassium and calcium to soil. However, its root structure can become very large and spread wide and far, which would risk impeding the growth of new fruit trees that hadn’t established some root system yet. We plan to return to plant strawberries and lavender, which will aid in repelling unwanted pests and enhance growing conditions for the trees and other companion plants.
Companion planting can deter unwanted pests and bring helpful insects to your growing space. The scents and colors of some plants, like the strong smell of alliums for example, can keep invasive and threatening insects away from your trees; “The scents and bright colors of herbs and flowers repel and confuse harmful pests and can attract beneficial insects and pollinators” (West Virginia University). Getting plants that bring pollinators to your growing space is another great purpose for companion planting, but first look into what pollinators your crop or tree needs. Complementary planting can also provide opportunities for planting other food resources, and thus diversifying your garden or growing space!
For long term success for your soil health, you’ll want to switch out companion plants each season to allow your growing space to receive different types of nutrients over time, which will create a diverse and healthy foundation for your plants to feed off.
For further reading on companion planting, check out these resources: