Companion Planting and Fruit Tree Fair Workshop Notes

On Saturday April 15th 2017, I attended the Baltimore City Fruit Tree Fair where I presented a Companion Planting Workshop.  In the companion planting workshop, I went into a few plants that go together and explained the concepts of a guild.  Below are my notes from the companion planting workshop.

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Hello – My name is Todd McCree and I’m here today to talk to you about companion planting.  But first, let me tell you a little bit about myself.  My day job for the last 30 years has been IT.  In my nights and weekends, I’ve been following my passion of gardening.

I have taken quite a few courses on subjects such as permaculture, plant propagation, and soil restoration.  I also took off of work for a while and WWOOF’d – Willing Worker on Organic Farm – this is where I volunteered my time to work on a farm and they put me up and fed me.  We put in 3000 foot of swales and earthworks and planted almost 5000 trees.

About the farm

In 2012, I bought a property in Romney, WV that had 42 mature fruit trees on it.  I now have a foodforest and almost 600 edible plants on the property.  One of the things I strive to do is to put in plants that get along with one another.  Believe it or not, there are plants that do not get along together and there are plants that get along great together.

In 2015, I opened Great Escape Nursery and Great Escape Farms.  The nursery propagates and sells plants, mostly shrubs, online.  The farm does a lot.  We do product reviews, how-to videos, and a bi-weekly podcast about gardening and homesteading.

Companion Planting

Plants that do get along well together are called companions.  That is the topic of this workshop, companion planting.  Some of the ways that plants help one another could be as simple as attracting insects for pollination or as complex as biological processes that provide nutrients to one another.  We are going to talk about plants that help one another, but we are going to go one step further and talk about a group of plants that all provide help to a centerpiece, which would be the tree you received today.

Plant Guild

A plant guild is a grouping of plants that work together to support one another to the fullest and provide better production than they would otherwise by themselves.  We try to mimic the stacking and relationships found in nature while also providing useful resources to humans.  In a guild, we may use a nitrogen fixer to provide nitrogen in the soil, a dynamic accumulator to bring nutrients to the surface for other plants, a plant that attracts beneficial insects to protect other plants and a plant that wards off larger prey like deer.

That Sounds Difficult!

While my last statements may sound like this is a lot more work than it is worth, it really is quite simple.  Let’s pick apart some of the terms that I just mentioned:

  • Dynamic Accumulator: This is a plant that has a very long tap root and mines nutrients way down in the ground and brings the nutrients up to the surface. What are some plants that have long tap roots?
    • Here’s a few: Dandelion, white clover, borage, comfrey, chickweed, yarrow, nettles, chicory, amaranth, lamb’s quarters, mulberry, plantain, Buckwheat, Burdock, Carrots, Dock, Beets
  • Nitrogen Fixer: These are plants that put nitrogen into the soil. This could be done via a symbiotic relationship with other organisms or in other ways. Any guess what plants put nitrogen into the soil?
    • Here’s a few: pigeon pea, mimosa tree, Siberian pea, lupin, clover, vetch, groundnut, kudzu, honey locust, Alfalfa, Wisteria, Elaeagnus
Yep – Bugs too
  • Beneficial Insects: These are plants that Lure pollinators and pest predators. It is a bug eat bug world out there, and that is a great thing if we can attract predator bugs that eat the bad ones.  Any thoughts on beneficial insect attracting plants?
    • Here are a few: Dill, Angelica, Chervil, Celery, Fennel, Parsley, Parsnip, Cilantro, Yarrow, Sunflower, Aster, Calendula, Dahlia, Cosmos, Zinnia, Dandelion, Marigold, Daisy, and clover.
    • How about plants that deter pests? mint, peppermint, marigold, lemongrass, citronella
  • Great bird, bee, and butterfly plants: Borage, Nasturtium, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Spearmint, Sweet Alyssum, Nettles
  • How about ground cover – those Perennial soft leafy plants to keep the ground cool on those sweltering hot summer days and that break down into plant nutrients?
    • sweet potato, red clover, salad vegetables, parsley, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, rhubarb, strawberries
  • Grass-Suppressing Bulbs – keep grasses and weeds at bay with a circle of bulbs
    • Daffodils, Camas (wild hyacinth), Alliums (Garlic, Onions, Chives, Leeks)
  • Deer – Plants that deer do not like or tend to stay away from. These include:
    • Daffodils, chives, onions, and garlic.

Companion Planting Guild Drawing

Today I’m going to draw up a sample fruit tree guild on the board and explain why these companion planting groups were chosen.  There is not a specific guild for a specific plant.  You need to base your guild based on what you like.

For example, if you like to eat Alliums, then you might plant garlic and onions to suppress grass.  But if you don’t like alliums, but do like flowers, you might plant daffodils or camas.  You should plant what you like and what you will use as well as what helps with the plant guild.

Plant to your taste and your personality.  There are a lot of different type of plants that perform the same function.

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Breakdown of the above

Daffodils are planted around the outside edge of the tree right at the drip line as well as right at the trunk.  They are planted at the drip line to act as the first line of defense in the spring to stop the growth of grass into the guild.  The outer ring of daffodils also helps deter deer browsing and has flowers to attract bees.  The inner ring of daffodils helps deter rodents from chewing on the lower bark and has flowers to attract bees.

Comfrey is used as a dynamic accumulator to bring nutrients up to useable levels for the fruit tree.  The comfrey will also grow larger as the summer goes on and shade out any grass that may be trying to move into the guild after the daffodils go dormant.  Summer flowers on the comfrey will attract bees and other pollinating insects.

Goumi is a bush added as a nitrogen fixer.  It flowers in the mid-spring, so it will attract pollinators, and it will fruit in early summer.  The bush will be trimmed from time to time and the trimmings will be dropped to the ground to add additional nutrient and mulch to the soil.

Garlic chives are planted as a pest deterrent as well as an edible.

Chicory is planted as a perennial flowering plant to attract pollinators and beneficial insects.  It also acts as a dynamic accumulator.

Yarrow is another dynamic accumulator.  It is also a plant that flowers for a long period of time and attracts beneficial insects.

Autumn olive is a nitrogen fixer and is planted just outside of the drip line of the mature trees and a little further out for the younger trees.  The bush will be trimmed from time to time and the trimmings will be placed on the ground under the drip line of the fruit tree to provide additional nutrient and add mulch to the soil.

White clover seed will be added in between guild plants as well as outside of the guild to help with fixing nitrogen.  The clover seeds will be inoculated prior to dispersal to increase nitrogen.

These are the plants given away at the Baltimore City Fruit Tree Fair.  I give some sample companion planting options below.

Brown Turkey Fig – Ficus carica

In some cases, a young, healthy fig tree undergoes proper pollination and fruit set, then drops all its fruit suddenly. This phenomenon is usually caused by overfeeding. It may take three to four years for the fig to recover from over-fertilization and produce a crop that ripens and stays on the tree. Avoid using shop bought liquid feeds instead use good compost fed at the base of the plant (20 L in the spring) and you should not experience this.

  • Companion planting options for under a fig tree: Jerusalem artichoke, elderberry, comfrey, stinging nettle, horsemint, hogweed, lemon balm, snowdrop and wild daffodil.
  • Companion planting options found around fig trees: European crab apple, tamarisk, blackberry, clematis, damson, quince, elderberry, Szechuan pepper.

Beach Plum Prunus maritima

Although indigenous to the mid-Atlantic coastal region, beach plum has been planted successfully on more inland sites. It is well adapted to drought sites with moderately fertile, slightly acidic, loamy and sandy soils. Beach plum does not perform well on heavy clay soils, but will tolerate moderately well drained conditions.

Companion planting options for beach plum:
  • Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) This is a beautiful groundcover that attracts beneficial insects and can grown in partial shade.
  • Dwarf Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata nana) This is another beautiful groundcover that attracts beneficial insects.
  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) a.k.a. Wild Leeks, are early Spring vegetables and grows well in the shade
  • Camas (Camassia quamash) has edible bulbs and has flowers that attract beneficial insects. (Native to west US)

Paw Paws Asimina triloba

Companion planting options for paw paw:

  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) a.k.a. Wild Leeks, are early Spring vegetables and grows well in the shade
  • Hog Peanuts (Amphicarpaea bracteata) have edible seeds and “roots” which are really seeds that develop underground, are shade-loving, climb up and sprawl out (smothering weeds), and fix nitrogen
  • Notes: Ramps will grow well under Pawpaws, and will die back just when Hog Peanuts are getting large. If you do want to go through the trouble of harvesting the Hog Peanuts, there are no other actively growing plants in that layer during harvest time. The fruiting Pawpaw will benefit from the nitrogen produced by the Hog Peanut.

As for companion planting, I think of the usual suspects for fruit trees: daffodils, mints, garlics, annual legumes, bee balm, etc.


Paw paws have fetid flowers – Pollinated by flies and beetles looking for the stink. Companion planting for pollination will find under the pawpaws I’ve planted wild mint, mayapples, wild ginger and will add aralia racemosa and ramps soon. There are also currants and barberries close to them. Both mayapples and wild ginger have fetid flowers that attract the same sort of pollinators that pawpaws use, and they bloom around the same time, so that it part of my pollinating strategy.

Another option in companion planting is skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) which both have fetid flowers and are native to the west coast.

North American Persimmons – Diospyros virginiana

American Persimmons are one of the few plants that tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can poison other plants, so American Persimmons can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.

As for companion planting, they are extremely tough trees with very few diseases or pests that bother them, so plant what you want around them.  They need no help!

Serviceberries Amelanchier

Because of its ability to thrive in both full sun and semi shade, the serviceberry can grow beneath semi dwarf and standard fruit trees. The fruit draws robins, cedar waxwings, and chipmunks

As for companion planting, consider the following:
  • Use runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) or ground nut (Apios Americana). Ground nut is a vine varying in length from 5 to 30 feet. It produces an edible root and also fixes nitrogen, benefiting neighboring plants.
  • In the understory, comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) can be used as deep rooted pumps to bring subsoil nutrients to the upper root zones of the other species.
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a semi woody short shrub with both culinary and medicinal antiviral uses and can grow along sunny edges.
  • Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) are a native spring ephemeral, leafing out early, then as summer approaches they shed leaves and go dormant, like many other of our common spring bulbs. The trout lily bioaccumulates phosphorous in its leaves at a time of the year when heavy rain and snow melt can wash nutrients off the site, it then releases it back to the soil when the plant goes dormant in June.
  • White Clover (Trifolium repens) acts as a ground cover to hold soil on slopes from eroding. It accumulates nitrogen through beneficial bacteria relationships. It attracts both honeybees and other pollinators.
  • Mints (Mentha spp.), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and comfrey are all useful to provide bee nectar and can form the foundation for a nearby apiary guild.

Thanks for viewing the Companion Planting and Fruit Tree Fair Workshop Notes post.

Some of the plants listed above are for sale at Great Escape Nursery.

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