It won’t harm your lawn to introduce it to some new friends once in a while.
When we say friends, we mean companion plants. If you’re a vegetable gardener, landscaper or fan of permaculture, you’ve probably heard about these advantageous plant pairings. Others, including those who are strictly lawn lovers, might need to be brought up to speed.
Fred Meyers is a master gardener, certified permaculture designer, and certified teacher of permaculture who has also completed master conservationist and master woodland programs. He is also the founder of the Iowa-based urban permaculture nonprofit, Backyard Abundance, which has been around since 2006.
What are companion plants?
How Meyers describes companion plants: “Companion plants typically mean a group of plantings that form a mutualistic benefit between one another. So that means that they in some way help each other — and it can either be subtle or very direct,” he says.
The most famous companion plants are the “three sisters” of the vegetable garden — pole beans, corn and squash. The nature of each complements the other two.
Companion plants achieve mutual benefits through a variety of means. “Typically, there are four categories of plants when talking about companion planting,” says Meyers. The four categories he describes: food plants (fruits, vegetables, and herbs), nectar-bearing (or flowering) plants, ground covers (for retaining moisture and keeping down weeds, a category that includes grasses), and soil builders — plants that help create soil and soil nutrients for themselves and plants nearby.
Attracting beneficial insects, repelling pests
Some plant pairs will attract beneficial insects and pollinators to one another. Others, inversely, repel garden pests to prevent predatory insects from feasting on or damaging plants nearby. In essence (and regardless of the combination), the benefits of companion planting come from one plant assisting another.
Meyers gives a great example. “A comfrey plant and a fruit tree are a classic example of companion plants,” he says.
Comfrey “has a deep tap root that goes down into the subsoil, brings up nutrients into its leaves, and then as the leaves die back, they leave those nutrients on top of the soil … then the fruit tree is able to take up those nutrients because the fruit tree roots are closer to the surface.”
He also mentions good companion plant examples for, say, a pear tree. “The more pollinators we have for a pear tree, the more bees that visit it, the more fruit we’re going to get out of a pear tree,” says Meyers. “So, if we plant bee balm or echinacea around our [pear] tree, that means we’re going to attract more pollinators.”
These relationships certainly make sense for the gardener having tomato plants, aromatic herbs, green beans and pepper plants to care for. Companion planting guides for vegetables are common, touting their benefits in keeping insect pests at bay.
Grassy Companions: Plants That Help Lawns
But what about for the lawn, a precious carpet of green we typically want to keep other plants out of? Well, it turns out that allowing some plants to grow with your lawn brings about very similar benefits and relationships. Those plants include:
Clover – Says Meyers, “One of the greatest things I think we can plant [in our lawns] is Dutch white clover, or mini clover.” He mentions their nitrogen-fixing and ground cover abilities, both of which help grass immensely. White and red clover are common commercial choices that are easy to find and buy. See “We’re Thinking Over Why We Kill Clover” for more on clover’s recent comeback as a ground cover.
Daffodils – A very common companion to grass lawns. Besides its stunning appearance and early blooms, there’s one practical reason to allow this sunny perennial to grow near your turf: They add a touch of golden beauty early in the year while leaving grasses be, allowing them their lushness.
Violets – Seeding violets with your lawn makes for an excellent companion plant relationship, says Meyers—that, or allowing wild violets and your grass to live side-by-side. Not only are these early purple blooms a real treat, but their broadleaf habit also helps crowd out other plants in your lawn, too.
Plants That Lawns Help
Inversely, some companion plant relationships go the other way: lawns can create benefits for other plants in turn.
Blueberries – There’s lots to say about blueberries, which have been found to have interesting relationships with grasses. According to a recent study, grasses — possibly including the very same ones in your lawn — grown alongside blueberries could enhance the berry bush’s uptake of iron, an important mineral for this perennial berry crop.
However, regardless of what the study suggests, experts including Meyers have misgivings about growing blueberries in the average lawn. “Turfgrass is really hungry for nitrogen, nutrients, and water — things that blueberries need,” he says. “Blueberries also require a very acidic soil … I don’t know how well turfgrass likes acidic soil, but if that works, it’s probably only going to work in places where the soil is naturally acidic.”
Still, seasoned gardeners and landscapers could give it a try.
Basil – One very popular annual that may like growing near grass, and which many can relish in the kitchen just as much as the garden? Basil. Though there are no studies on this yet, the University of Massachusetts Amherst lists the culinary herb along with many other plants — including snapdragons, daisies, and certain petunias — that struggle with iron uptake, as blueberries do. It’s an unproven match, but a possibility that gardeners can experiment with, in order to see if basil benefits.
Trees – Though it’s so commonplace to the point of being completely unnoticeable to us nowadays, one of the ultimate companion plant to lawns are trees.
“Trees are fantastic companions in just about any circumstance,” Meyers says. “Some of the benefits that trees provide are shade, but they also provide a lot of good mulch in their leaves … which provides more nutrients for [other] plants.”
So, there you have it, lawn lovers — a pinch of companionship for your lawn might not be recipe for disaster you’d think it could be. In fact, if you do the right kind of matchmaking, companions for your lawn could be a recipe for success. In terms of seeking benefits from the natural world around them, it does get a little lonely out there for lawns.