Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Fruit Trees – Part 2


“Different” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – Cherry trees are a tough plant in companion planting, the sticky sap commonly seen seeping from the trunk is a magnet for pests. Flowering plants that will attract predatory wasps can often be the only organic technique available. Alliums can also be effective as a general pest repellant.

This post and plant list is an extension of a past post that can be found right here – Planting Under Fruit Trees with more information and another list of companion plants… This post is meant to accompany it…

One of the most common mistakes made when making plant selections for under a fruit tree is thinking of the planting as the center of attention when in fact it is the tree. Permaculture plant guilds created under a fruit tree, though possibly created with selfish intentions, are actually incorporated to benefit the tree.. Not you…

The plants used underneath a fruit tree can serve a multitude of functions, it is not unfair to consider yourself as a beneficiary of your plants, but as far as permaculture is concerned, it is not the responsible primary function. We create a fruit tree guild for the purposes of pest prevention, beneficial attraction, scent masking, soil remediation and general beautification, but the common goal is generally the health and fruit production of the primary tree.

The dream of having a vegetable garden under a production fruit tree is more or less a pipe dream in all but the warmest climates. That’s not to say that some vegetables can’t be grown, but it is a very safe assumption on my part to say that a tomato or pepper plant will never reach the same production level as one growing in full sun. This is just one of the reasons I suggest putting your focus on the trees needs. Tending vegetables takes valuable time (and unnecessary nutrients) away from the tree, when in fact your efforts should be focused on the tree.

Perennial plants are typically the most beneficial as far as a tree is concerned, again I want to stress that the primary focus of these types of efforts needs to be on the tree, if you are stuck planting annuals every spring it will only take time away from your primary focus. A fruit tree can live for a hundred years, a properly planted guild under the canopy can last for a good chunk of this trees life. Armed with this knowledge the question now becomes what will not only grow under a fruit tree, but benefit it for the foreseeable future…

Dwarf fruit trees require a lot more maintenance than most people realize, I think many are led to believe that there tree will stay tiny forever. Dwarf fruit trees are very confused trees and therefore can take on a mind of their own, aggressive pruning is often required to keep them producing. Many dwarf trees will be nothing more than a single stem a few feet tall when planted, the tree will grow quickly if not pruned.

Dwarf trees will stay small for a few years, it is completely acceptable to plant annuals around them. It will be several years before this tree develops a canopy, therefore the space surrounding the tree will be considered full-sun for the foreseeable future. In sustainable agriculture “alley cropping” is a method where rows of fruit or nut trees are planted, and the spaces between are used for annual crops. This is done until the trees reach production size and shade out the alley, providing short-term income while the more valuable trees mature.


“Blue Borage” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Growing under a Kousa Dogwood… Perfectly happy in the shade and will come back for years to come through self seeding.

– Herbaceous Plants – For my Herb specific post check out – Planting Herbs Under Fruit Trees

Lavender – A flowering plant in the mint family, many cultivars of which are extensively cultivated in temperate climates. The plant is technically a perennial, though it is a short-lived one often losing vigor as time passes by. Lavender is extremely useful around fruit trees due to its repellant qualities, many insects and animals find it repulsive and will therefore avoid it all costs. Besides benefiting the fruit tree, lavender will benefit many other types of plants and should therefore be incorporated into any garden plan.

Tansy – Is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant of the Aster family. Tansy is commonly cultivated and used for its insect repellent properties, it is used as a biological pest control in organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. In England, Tansy is placed on window sills to repel flies, sprigs are placed in bed linens to drive away pests, and it has been used as an ant repellent.

Southernwood – A flowering plant native to Europe in the genus Artemisia, named for the goddess Artemis. The growing plant tends to repel fruit tree moths when grown in an orchard, the fresh plant can also be rubbed on the skin to deter other insects. This plant is commonly dries and used in the house to repel ants and other indoor pests, when burned the scent can remove many foul odors from the house.

Horseradish – Believe it or not, Horseradish is in the Brassica family. Although this plant is typically harvested and used, when left in the ground it will spread via underground shoots and therefore can become mildly invasive in many permaculture gardens. Horseradish is a broad-leafed plant allowing it to harvest sunlight even when planted in shade, this makes it a perfect companion for trees. Horseradish is said to generally be good for the overall health of a tree, it is not uncommon for old timers to tell stories of trees that were never productive until horseradish was planted below… Though others will claim it affects the taste of the fruit afterwards…

Borage – Also known as Starflower, is an annual herb that tends to self seed allowing it to come back year after year. Although this plant is edible, the leaves often being described as cucumber-like, its primary purpose in permaculture is as a companion plant. Borage accumulates and adds trace minerals to the soil and is a key ingredient in a complete compost heap. Borage also is one of the best bee and wasp attracting plants available, therefore it will benefit everything planted around it… Given the stunning blue flowers… It will even benefit you…

Nasturtium – Tropaeolum, commonly known as Nasturtium literally means “nose twister” or “nose-tweaker”, a reference to the peppery scent and taste of the flowers. Nasturtium is used in herbal medicine for their antiseptic and expectorant qualities. When planted under apple trees it is a powerful deterrent of the notorious codling moth, not to mention a whole host of other insect species not only damaging to the tree, but to other plants surrounding.

Hyssop – A herbaceous plant of the genus Hyssopus. Due to its properties as an antiseptic, cough reliever, and expectorant, it is commonly used as an aromatic herb. Drought tolerance makes this an ideal plant for underneath the canopy of a fruit tree, flowers make it a beneficial insect attractor. Hyssop shares many of the same benefits as mint since they are from the same family, though it is not as invasive so it is typically more suited to inter planting than mint.

Wormwood – Artemesia absinthium is a herbaceous, perennial plant with a fibrous root system. A powerful animal repellant suitable for plantings at the edge of properties. Wormwood is also a powerful insect repellant, it can be made into a tea or applied as a sporadic mulch throughout the garden. Wormwood produces a powerful poison and therefore should never be used directly on food crops, applications should be indirect.

Dandelion – Are tap-rooted biennial or perennial herbaceous plants, native to temperate areas of the world. Dandelions are thought to have evolved about thirty million years ago in Eurasia, they have been used by humans as food and herb for much of recorded history. Dandelions are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and therefore are a very important source of nectar and pollen early in the season. Its tap-root will bring up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants, and add minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Dandelions are even said to emit ethylene gas which helps fruit ripen.

– Food Producing Shrubs – Will never produce the same as when field grown, but will still produce.

Currant – The genus Ribes includes black currants, red currants, white currents, and gooseberries and several other hybrid varieties. Currants do very well in shade, though an interesting trait I have observed is if even part of the plant grows into full sunlight only the part in full sun will produce fruit… The rest of the plant seems to go into a vegetative state.

Nanking Cherry – Is a deciduous shrub native to Asia, an understory shrub that has evolved to survive under the canopy of a tree. Will produce more fruit if planted on the outskirts of the tree, can even be used as a windscreen for more tender plants. This tree-like shrub can grow to eight feet tall, vigorous pruning can be required to keep it under control.

Serviceberry – Native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, growing primarily in early succession habitats. Varieties differ so care must be paid during selection for under planting a fruit tree, the short multi-stemmed varieties are typically best. I personally prefer to plant the serviceberry in close quarters with fruit trees, the serviceberry attracts birds that after finishing your tasty berries will immediately turn their attention to the insects.

Raspberry – Named varieties are in the thousands, most are thorny… All are delicious.. The thorny varieties not only repel larger animals, they tend to repel thievery as well. After all, what’s a few lost raspberries when the apples are spared from the deer. Raspberries are very vigorous and when not kept in check can become a massive, and invasive headache. They will do a great job of keeping the neighborhood children from stealing the fruits of your labor. Likewise, they can also keep you away from your trees. I recommend the raspberries be planted outside of the drip line, being able to get a lawn mower between your patch and tree is paramount in keeping the patch in bounds.

– Vegetables – Though I stress, they typically do not thrive like they would in full sun, growing these vegetables is possible

Carrots – typically grown in full sun tolerate some shade. In order to avoid deformed carrots they are typically grown in loose soil, but for our purposes the uncultivated soil under a tree will work just fine. A carrot is like a stake in the ground, as it expands it will loosen the soil. Carrots left in the ground will eventually break down, adding nutrients it has harvested to the top layer of soil.

Chard – Typically grown in full sun, it is important to remember that broad-leaved plants are equipped with enough surface area to tolerate some shade. Bright lights chard will not grow as brightly as if it were planted in full sun, but it will grow.

Kale – Another leaf crop commonly grown in full sun, most food plants that do not produce a fruit or vegetable can tolerate some shade, kale happens to be one of those plants. I actually like to grow some Brassicas under a tree as a trap crop, bugs tend to be more attracted to the weaker plants as opposed to the stronger more vigorous plants grown in full sun.

Asparagus – Opposite the fact that broad-leaved plants ability to absorb more light makes them more shade tolerant, thin leafed plants do not require as much light making them also tolerant of some shade. Asparagus is an ideal food plant for under fruit trees, the primary harvest season happens at a time when many fruit trees have yet to leaf out. Because of this asparagus is one of the few vegetables that are not affected negatively when grown under a tree.

Beets – Beets in general can handle some shade, in really hot weather they actually benefit from it. Beets in full shade will grow beautiful foliage, but the energy is rarely ever there to produce a sizeable root. Beets are nutrient accumulators and therefore there is absolutely no harm in leaving the plants in the ground to rot. The benefit of the beet is for the tree, not the gardener.

Beans – Beans are another vegetable that does not seem to be affected by some shade, in the hottest months the shade provided by a tree is actually preferred. Beans accumulate nitrogen, when the beans have been harvested the remaining plant should be left in place to decompose.

Peas – Another tasty biddle that is perfectly at home when grown in the shade of a tree, typically only grown in the cooler months, a tree can often provide a third late summer harvest. Peas are in the Legume family and therefore accumulate Nitrogen, after harvest the plant should be left in place.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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4 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Fruit Trees – Part 2

  1. ottage says:

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  2. “Beets in full shade will grow beautiful foliage, but the energy is rarely ever there to produce a sizeable root” … interesting, i actually love eating the beetroot greens, i’ll need to play with that! thanks


  3. emilycrofton says:

    Great post Chris thanks


  4. Thanks for posting this information. There is so much to learn about sustainable agriculture. I’ve never seen plants grown alongside fruit trees though. I like that you focus on how to benefit the tree. This is new information to me. I must learn more. Great pictures as well! Thanks again for a great and informative post.


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