A fruit tree guild is a permaculture technique for disease-resistant, high-yield gardens. Learn more about this style of growing fruit trees that thrive.
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A guild is a grouping of plants that supports a central element—such as a fruit tree—for maximum harvest and use of space.
After I learned about this technique in my permaculture design certification course many years ago, I was excited to experiment with it in my own yard. I created a fruit tree guild around my plum tree as well as cherry tree guilds, and watched as the biodiversity helped me get rid of a pest problem.
I’ve been hooked ever since!
So let’s dive into this permaculture technique and see how it works to create a low-maintenance system that also improves biodiversity.
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. However, the concept of designing human-made guilds is relatively new, and many early experiments are still in progress.
Still, guilds provide a roadmap for developing interconnected ecosystems, which may reduce our workload and increase yield over time.
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, under-plantings in a guild might include plants that fertilize, repel pests, attract beneficial insects, create mulch, and suppress grass, and more.
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 takes 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.
Would you like to grow food in your front yard without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
Size Fruit Tree Guilds Appropriately
How you plant a fruit tree guild depends on your space—whether you have several acres or less than half an acre, for example. In larger spaces, you could develop a large guild under an expansive, 70-foot tall nut tree.
On the other hand, a dwarf fruit tree or berry bush might be the central element in a smaller space.
To start, choose a central element that is appropriately sized for your space. Consider linking together fruit and nut tree guilds. Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, calls this a “superguild.” It could also be called a food forest.
I sometimes refer to a grouping of fruit tree guilds as an orchard on steroids! Check out the 2-hour film The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic for more inspiration.
A ‘superguild’ might take the shape of a linear hedgerow, which I discuss in my article how to plant a hedgerow.
The Apple Tree Guild Example
The most common example of fruit tree guild is that of the apple tree guild. 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 can attract pollinators.
Comfrey, dandelion, yarrow, and white clover may accumulate nutrients and fix nitrogen to fertilize the soil. Comfrey and nasturtiums provide mulch or green manure. Bee balm, garlic chives, and yarrow emit strong scents that may repel pests.
Because apple scab fungus is a common ailment of apple trees, fennel and garlic chives provide some anti-fungal properties.
See the following articles to learn more about the “superpowers” of these plants:
- 5 Weeds You Want in Your Garden (Hint: Dandelion and White Clover are among them!)
- 5 Reasons to Grow Yarrow in Your Garden
- 8 Herbs for the Medicine Garden
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 fruit tree guild that works like a mini ecosystem to reduce your workload.
Even if you followed a so-called recipe such as this one, you’ll need to tweak your guild over time to accommodate the unique conditions of your site.
For example, your soil may need nutrients other than the ones provided by the under-plantings you’ve chosen. Or you may have pests that need a different combination of plants to repel them or attract the right beneficial allies.
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. I originally underplanted my cherry trees with popular fruit tree guild plants, but ultimately, the trees needed a little something extra that was unique to my situation.
To clarify, permaculture guilds are not exact recipes to follow. Indeed, they are combinations of plants that people have tried growing together or have observed growing together in natural ecosystems.
For example, while hiking in a local park, I noticed wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) growing densely throughout the forest with wild ginger (Asarum canadense), so I planted the two together in a shady pollinator garden where they are thriving.
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 Guild
Before building a guild, it’s important to make some observations about your landscape to be sure what you plant will be in line with both your goals and the ecology of your land. In permaculture design, we ask a specific set of questions while we’re observing the landscape. You can download my free, 13-page worksheet, Making Observations, at the end of my article on how to use the power of observation in permaculture design.
Once you’ve selected the right spot, plant your tree. (Here are 5 steps to planting fruit trees.)
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 can increase success by improving the health of the soil inside this circle.
Start by spreading cardboard under the tree, overlapping the ends so the ground inside the drip line is thoroughly covered. Moisten the cardboard with water, and cover it with 3-6 inches of compost soil, keeping the soil away from the trunk.
Be sure that none of the edges of the cardboard are exposed.
Tired of generic permaculture design advice that you can’t apply to your specific goals? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and get the tools and support needed to create and implement your own permaculture design.
7 Types of Plants to Plant in a Fruit Tree Guild
Establish plants underneath the fruit tree 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!
However, many plants actually perform more than one function. I call these multifunctional plants “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
These cousins are both herbs that produce fertilizer, mulch, and nectar, and are excellent at attracting beneficial insects.
c. Choose Oregano or Chives
Their strong scents repel pests. They both can also take a little bit of foot traffic, which is helpful during harvest time.
d. Add White Clover
It is an excellent source of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for healthy fruit production, and is often used in orchards as a walkable ground cover.
Remember to try your own experiments. Do you have a favorite plant that can be chopped back often to create mulch or that attracts pollinators and beneficial insects? Give it a try!
Note: Only step inside the drip line for harvesting or pruning. Otherwise, stay outside the drip line to reduce soil compaction under the tree.
Now, go forth and create some fruit tree guilds (mini ecosystems) on your micro-farm!
Have you experimented with fruit tree guilds? What has worked for you?