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Fruit trees and family friends: beneficial plant neighbors make balanced ecosystems, gardener Lauri Newman explains.


Fall is here, and it's time to plant fruit trees! Along with planting your fruit trees in the cooler weather, when plants are starting to put energy into their roots, a great way to ensure that you have the healthiest and most productive fruit trees is to practice an old gardening tradition called "companion planting."

Companion planting is the practice of planting a diversity of beneficial herbs, flowers and cover crops (also called living mulches) in an intimate grouping. In companion planting, these plants are called "family friends," and planting them together around a main crop such as a fruit tree forms a "plant neighborhood." Plants that have friends and live in a plant neighborhood grow better and produce more.

Companion planting has been around for centuries. Native Americans used the "Three Sisters," a classic example of companion gardening. They combined the planting of corn with beans and squash. The corn provides a vertical structure for the beans to climb up. In turn, the beans fix nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil, enhancing soil fertility. And, the squash vines provide a living mulch for the plant neighborhood. These plants work together to ensure high productivity, spatial efficiency, increased soil fertility, and a quality product with minimal environmental impact.

How exactly does companion planting work? The plant neighborhood sets up a beneficial situation where plants complement each other. Some plants add nitrogen to the soil and some plants attract beneficial insects, while others work to repel pest insects. These plants also benefit each other and the fruit tree by creating a living mulch, which retains moisture, insulates the soil, Suppresses weeds, prevents soil compaction and reduces your chances of nicking the fruit tree with the weed eater or lawn mower.


Here are three easy steps you can take to start a plant neighborhood in your yard:

1. Pick the main crop (fruit tree): apple, pear, persimmon, plum, or cherry. Choose the type of fruit tree best suited for your area and site.

2. Pick some family friends: Choose flowers, herbs and nitrogen fixers. Pick at least one plant from each of the "family friend" categories that will enhance the fruit tree's development and fruit size. (See the Companion Planting Guide below for a list of possible companion plants.)

3. Plant the neighborhood within the fruit tree's mulch ring. The mulch should be four to six inches thick and extend one to two feet outside of the fruit tree's drip line. The mulch ring and family plantings should grow as the tree grows.


* Marigold: annual, full sun. A great pest deterrent and slug trap. Keeps soil free of harmful nematodes.

* Nasturtiums: annual, full sun. Edible leaves and flowers. Pungent aroma and peppery taste. Plant under fruit trees to repel bugs. Deters wooly aphids, whiteflies, squash bug, and cucumber beetles. One of the best at attracting predatory insects.

* Pansy: annual, full sun to part shade. Edible flower. Repels Japanese beetles.

* Sweet alyssum: annual, full sun to part shade. Drought tolerant and will re-seed readily. Will spread to form a ground cover. Tiny flowers are perfect for attracting delicate beneficials like chalcid wasps and hover flies, whose larvae devour aphids. The sweet smelling blossoms also attract bees.


* Borage: annual, full sun. One of the best bee-attracting plants. Its periwinkle blue blossoms are edible, and it self-seeds readily, but is not aggressive. Borage adds trace minerals to the soil and is a good addition to the compost pile and fruit tree mulch. It is said to benefit any plant it is growing next to by increasing resistance to pests and plant disease.

* Chamomile, German: annual, full sun. Host to hoverflies and wasps. A low-growing annual that accumulates calcium, potassium and sulfur, later returning these nutrients to the soil at the end of its cycle. Will re-seed and can tolerate many soil conditions. Growing chamomile of any type is considered to be a tonic for anything you grow in the garden.

* Chives: perennial, full sun. Great companion to fruit trees. Planted among apple trees, it helps prevent scab, but it takes about three years for the chives to prevent the disease.

* Comfrey: perennial, full sun. Large leaves die back each year, making it good mulch. 'Mines' nutrients by sending down a long tap root that can go as deep as ten feet. Its taproot enables it to accumulate minerals and vitamins in its leaves, including calcium, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A, C and B-12. When the leaves are composted, these minerals and vitamins are returned to improve the soil and made available to plants.


* Garlic: perennial, full sun. Repels apple scab, borers, Japanese beetles, peach leaf curl disease, spider mites, aphids, ants, cabbage looper, rabbits and cabbage maggot.


* Beans: annual, full sun. All beans enrich the soil with nitrogen fixed from the air. They can be planted so they will use the fruit tree trunk as support.

* Clover: perennial, full sun to part shade. Long used as green manure and plant companion. You can kill clover by mowing it at flowering time. Built in weed control. Attracts many beneficials, including bees. Useful planted around apple trees to attract predators of the woolly aphid.

* Peas: annual, full sun. Nitrogen fixer. Can grow up fruit tree.

By using companion planting techniques, you can naturally discourage harmful pests without losing beneficial insects, build soil and nourish plants. Companion planting combines beauty and science to create an abundant and well-balanced ecosystem.

Have fun and be creative in your companion planting, and you'll see there are many ways to incorporate these useful herbs and flowers into your orchard and garden. And remember ... plant those fruit trees!

Lauri Newman is a compulsive gardener living in West Asheville with her four-year-old son, Elder. Lauri is the owner of Farm Girl Garden Designs, which offers ecologically conscious garden and landscape designs, installations and maintenance. For more information, visit or call 828-253-3340.
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Title Annotation:digging in
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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