A guild is a grouping of plants that supports a central element—such as a fruit tree—for maximum harvest and use of space. Learn more about this permaculture technique for creating a low-maintenance system that also improves biodiversity.
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A Fruit Tree Guild is a Mini-Ecosystem
The use of guilds came about by observing how certain plants would naturally group themselves together in an unmanaged setting. Some scientists have been able to demonstrate that certain plants’ proximity to one another was mutually beneficial (like how birch trees and Douglas firs are interdependent). This was our first look into being able to create ‘guilds’ of plants by design.
The concept of designing human-made guilds is relatively new, however, and many of the early experiments are still in progress.
Still, guilds provide a roadmap for developing interconnected ecosystems, which may reduce our workload and yield more harvests.
The goal of the guild is to underplant a central element, such as a fruit or nut tree, with plants that are highly useful, multifunctional, and that might naturally be found growing together.
For example, underplantings in a guild might include plants that fertilize, repel pests, attract beneficial insects, create mulch, and suppress grass.
The general idea is to take advantage of the benefits of plants to reduce cost, labor, and the need to import materials.
Now, to be certain, planting a tree guild will take more effort than simply planting the tree by itself, and it may also cost a bit more at the outset for the extra plants. However, in the long run, guilds will likely be more resilient and vigorous, even if solely from a biodiversity standpoint.
Create Fruit Tree Guilds That are Appropriately Sized
How you plant a guild will depend on your space—whether you have several acres or less than half an acre, for example. On larger properties there may be space to build a large guild under an expansive, 70-foot tall nut tree, while on smaller properties the central element will likely be something smaller, such as a dwarf fruit tree or berry bush.
If you would like to build a guild, choose a central element that is appropriately sized for your property. Fruit and nut trees can be linked together in a grouping, underplanting them all with guilds. Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, would call this a “superguild.” I can also be called a food forest.
I like to call it an orchard on steroids! Check out the 2-hour film The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic for more inspiration.
This “superguild” could be created in the shape of a long hedgerow, which I discuss in how to plant a hedgerow.
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield using permaculture techniques?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
The Apple Tree Guild Example
The most common example of a guild is that of the apple tree guild. With an apple tree as the central element, you can prevent grass from creeping under the tree, and repel wildlife, by planting a ring of daffodils and garlic chives at the drip line of the tree. Bee balm, dill, and fennel peppered underneath will attract pollinators.
Comfrey, dandelion, yarrow, and white clover will accumulate nutrients and fix nitrogen to fertilize the soil. The comfrey and nasturtiums will provide mulch or green manure. The bee balm, garlic chives, and yarrow will emit strong scents to repel pests. Because apple scab fungus is a common ailment of apple trees, the fennel and garlic chives will provide some anti-fungal properties.
Observe and Experiment
Now, for certain, the above is not a recipe, merely an example of how you can take advantage of nature’s gifts to create a mini-ecosystem that reduces your workload. Even if you were to follow a so-called recipe such as this one, your guild will likely need tweaking to accommodate the unique conditions of your site.
To see how a guild might need to be tweaked for your local conditions, read about my cherry tree guilds and how I dealt with a pest problem. Although I started out planting some often-recommended guild plants, in the end, my cherry tree guilds needed a little something extra that was unique to my situation.
Permaculture guilds are not exact recipes to follow. They are combinations of plants that people have tried and have observed growing together in natural ecosystems. For example, one day I was hiking in a local park and noticed wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) growing densely throughout the forest with wild ginger (Asarum canadense), so I planted the two together in a shaded pollinator garden where they have thrived.
However, just because these combinations were successful in one environment, doesn’t mean they’ll work in another, so a little experimentation is always in order.
The Beginner’s Guide to Building a Fruit Tree Guild
Plant your tree in your selected spot. (For tips on planting fruit trees, see this article.)
Next, measure a circle around the fruit tree using sticks or flags to mark the mature width. This perimeter is called the drip line. The roots of the tree will eventually extend to this point, and perhaps even farther. Because of this, you will increase success by improving the health of the soil inside this circle.
Spread cardboard under the tree, overlapping the ends so the ground inside the drip line is thoroughly covered. Moistening the cardboard with water is beneficial. Cover the cardboard with 3 to 6 inches of compost soil, keeping the soil away from the trunk. Be sure that none of the edges of the cardboard are exposed.
For more tips on planning a fruit tree guild, see this article.
7 Types of Plants to Plant Under the Fruit Tree
Underplant the tree (inside the drip line) with herbaceous plants that:
- attract beneficial insects
- deter wildlife
- produce nectar to attract pollinators
- repel pests
- suppress grass
That seems like a lot of plants to fit under one tree, but actually there are many plants that perform more than one function. I call them “super plants”. (They’re kind of like super heroes!) There are a lot of plants to choose from, but the following are some of my favorites:
a. Choose Daffodils or Garlic — They repel deer and other wildlife, repel fruit tree borers, and stop grass from creeping under the tree.
b. Choose Comfrey or Borage — They are both herbs that produce fertilizer, mulch, and nectar, and are excellent at attracting beneficial insects. Read more about comfrey here.
c. Choose Oregano or Chives — They are both aromatic pest confusers, which means that their strong scents will repel pests. They both can also take a little bit of foot traffic, which will be helpful during harvest time.
d. White Clover — It is an excellent source of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for healthy fruit production, and is also often used in orchards as a walkable ground cover. Here’s my source for white clover seeds.
Remember to try your own experiments. Do you have a favorite plant that attracts pollinators and beneficial insects? Give it a try!
Note: Be sure to only step inside the drip line when it’s absolutely necessary for harvesting or pruning. Otherwise, stay outside the drip line to reduce soil compaction.
Now, go forth and create some mini ecosystems (guilds) on your micro-farm!
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- 6 Maps to Draw for the Permaculture Designed Homestead
- 12 Perennial Crops for Wet Soil
- How to Grow and Use Currants
Have you experimented with fruit tree guilds? What has worked for you?