Pests can sometimes be a problem with fruit trees. Here’s how I planted a permaculture cherry tree guild to reduce pests through ecosystem development.
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When I set out to grow cherry trees using permaculture design, I had no idea how many things I would need to consider. It seems like you’d just buy a fruit tree and plop it in the ground!
However, I soon realized that the more I did to develop a mini ecosystem from the get-go around my fruit trees, the more low maintenance and productive they would be in the long run.
When pests showed up in my fruit trees’ second year, I had to think quickly about why my mini ecosystem wasn’t working. (Hint: This story has a happy ending!)
Selecting The Right Cherry Trees
First, a note about selecting the right type of cherry tree for your climate:
Tart cherries are adaptable to a wider range of climate and soil types than are sweet cherries, according to Lee Reich, garden consultant and author of Landscaping with Fruit.
Additionally, they tend to be self-pollinating, whereas other cherry trees tend to need a companion tree for pollination.
I grow tart cherries because they tend to be hardier, more disease resistant, and tolerant of my Ohio humid summers and clay soil. Humid climates can spell doom for many types of fruit trees. I’m growing the ‘Northstar’ variety in my yard.
Tart cherries grow well in zones 4-8.
Sweet cherries, on the other hand, according to Reich, grow best west of the Rockies, in zones 5-9, where the air is drier and the soil tends to have better drainage.
Note: I planted my dwarf tart cherry trees in the parking strip between the sidewalk and street. It was a useful way to take advantage of that unused strip of grass, especially because it is the sunniest spot in the yard! Read more about my adventures of planting in the parking strip!
Many people worry that tart cherries will be too sour, but I’ve found them to be the perfect amount of sweetness. Still, the flavor mellows through cooking or baking.
Planting a Cherry Tree Guild
A fruit tree guild is a permaculture technique in which a combination of plants enhances production of a primary crop. In this case, our primary crop is the cherry tree, and the under-plantings work together to build a healthier fruit tree that may be more resistant to pests and disease.
This ultimately means a bigger, healthier harvest!
Guild plants are chosen for their ability to fertilize, mulch, attract pollinators, deter pests, and more. Often, a plant is chosen because it is multifunctional, i.e., stacking functions to reduce the number of plants needed underneath the fruit tree.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for planting fruit tree guilds, so it’s important to research what plants will support the growth of the fruit tree at hand.
The plants that work well in one cherry tree guild may be different than another due to variations in climate, sun exposure, and soil type, among other factors. Therefore, research what nutrients the fruit tree requires in your type of soil, and what pests and diseases it might be susceptible to.
For example, to attract more pollinators, select flowers that bloom just before and after your particular fruit tree blooms. (More pollinators = more cherry blossom pollination = more cherries!)
See my article How to Build a Permaculture Fruit Tree Guild for more general information, and catch more tips in 5 Steps to Planting Fruit Trees.
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.
1: Cherry Tree Guild Plants That Fertilize, Mulch, & Attract Pollinators
Many plants are said to be rich in nutrients and make excellent fertilizer or mulch for fruit trees. They dredge up nutrients from the soil and accumulate them in their leaves. When the leaves die back or are chopped and dropped, they fertilize the soil (and thus, the shallow-lying fruit tree roots).
Some plants that I’ve grown in cherry tree guilds to fertilize, mulch, and attract beneficial insects are:
More helpful articles for selecting cherry tree guild plants:
- 4 Berry Bushes that Fertilize, too
- 7 Uses for Comfrey in the Permaculture Garden
- Mulching in the Permaculture Garden
2: Cherry Tree Guild Plants that Prevent Diseases and Pests
Cherry trees are prone to several types of fungal diseases. Seek out anti-fungal herbs to plant around the tree for support. Some of my favorites are:
The Oriental fruit moth, tarnished plant bug, and cherry fruit fly are common pests to cherry trees. They can be controlled by attracting beneficial insects with plantings like:
- sweet alyssum
Surprisingly, I discovered that the birds aren’t much of a bother for my cherry trees. Learn about how I gardened while welcoming birds to my yard.
However, you may need to net your trees to get a harvest. I like the idea of leaving one tree for the birds and netting/harvesting from the others, then rotating the “giving” tree each year.
Want to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your front yard landscape without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
My cherry tree guilds and what happened when I had a pest outbreak
Originally I planted my cherry tree guilds with chives, comfrey, and calendula to perform a number of functions. I didn’t consider my guilds “finished” at this point. Rather, I wanted to observe them over time and add guild plants as I discovered what the trees needed.
I got my chance to discover their true needs in the second year when I had a pest outbreak. In early July, the leaves started yellowing, and it appeared something was eating them.
Upon further inspection, there were little insects on the undersides of the leaves with black dots that appeared to be feces.
I consulted many resources, but this pest wasn’t a typical cherry tree pest. It turned out to be the Hawthorn Lace bug that was also attacking a nearby hawthorn tree.
A good ole’ google search told me that the natural predators for the Hawthorn Lace Bug (bad) are the green lacewing and assassin bug (beneficial good guys).
Here’s where I got to become a detective and figure out how to attract the good guys. I noticed my nearby plum tree wasn’t affected by the pest, and that it was underplanted with daisies. Daisies are said to attract the beneficial insects I mentioned above.
So I dug some daisies up and planted them under my cherry trees.
I also wondered if a nutrient deficiency might explain why my cherry trees were too weak to fight the pest. So I sowed white clover to give my trees a source of nitrogen.
Then I waited. An ecosystem needs time to establish itself and do its job!
Drum roll, please…
In the fourth harvest year, I pulled 27 pounds of cherries from completely pest-free (and chemical-free) trees!
What to do in case of a pest outbreak in your fruit tree guilds
Your unique growing conditions may mean unique problems that can only be solved through unique solutions. Over time, be on the lookout for pests or disease.
If you see a pest, DON’T PANIC! Don’t rush for the nearest pesticide.
When pests took over my cherry trees, I followed the following steps to handle the situation. Not only did I get rid of the pest naturally, I also strengthened the mini-ecosystems to prevent future outbreaks.
1: Identify the pest/disease
Scour the internet, fruit tree growing guides, and contact local fruit tree experts to identify the pest/disease before taking any action. This database of beneficial insects and pests is a good start.
2: Discover the beneficial insects that prey on the pest
Consult your resources above to find the natural predators that prey on the identified pest. For example, you could search for beneficial insect controls for Oriental fruit moth.
There, I learn that ground beetles are an important beneficial insect to attract to my cherry tree guild to control this pest.
In the case of a disease, find the anti-fungal plants or essential oils that you can safely use on your fruit crops.
3: Attract the necessary beneficial insects
After you’ve identified the pest and the pest’s natural predator, research how to attract these beneficial insects to your fruit tree guild.
Searching for how to attract ground beetles turned up some helpful tips.
Provide the food plants and habitat that your beneficial insects require. Feel empowered to be your own detective and discover the nuances that make your unique garden tick!
4: Is your cherry tree guild lacking in a particular nutrient?
Nutrient deficiencies can make plants weak and more susceptible to pests and disease. What are the common nutrient deficiencies for your local soil? Consult your local extension office (free!).
Cherry Tree Guild Shopping List
Getting your cherry tree guild just right will take observation and trial and error since every situation is unique. Become a detective so you can create a mini ecosystem that does all the work for you!
What have you planted in your cherry tree guild? Have you made any adjustments over time?
Here in Colorado we have larger pests, deer. Our neighborhood has been here for about 20 years with a few deer around. They were fun to watch. The last three years their population has exploded. We’ve tried deer resistant plants but they seem to have developed a taste for them. Repellant sprays for the leaves are now the deer’s favorite salad dressing. Our predator is the mountain lion. One has shown up so hopefully in a couple years there will be many lions to bring the deer back to equilibrium. Meanwhile, the fine black plastic nets have been a big help. Almost invisible too.
Amy Stross says
Oh, those deer. They are ruthless in the garden! Sounds like you have a decent protection system, and a better one moving in via mountain lion.
We are lucky to not have deer trouble at our house, but our community garden surrounded by protected forest is another story. The fence is 12 feet high and they still get in. And we spray deterrent, too! Yet still, there’s damage. Our garden must be delicious enough for them to go through a lot of trouble to eat it!
We have a solar automated deer feeder in our back yard. Garden fence is 4 ft tall…it was here when we bought the place so we left it. We have grown squash,, green beans and tomatoes in raised beds and the deer never bothered them either and now we have Raised beds in back yard with herbs and a yard full of flowers and shrubs and wildflowers. Deer and wild hogs have never touched anything. So I honestly believe its because the deer are happy with the corn…there are deer tracks about 10 ft from the garden also, but they go to the corn. btw wildlife management area is a few feet from the deer feeder. If you don’t want to go this route, try putting two fences around your garden, with one just 2 to 3 feet from the other one. Deer see them that close and don’t jump…also grow pots of peppermint and plant rosemary near garden…and try growing gourds around the fence…deer don’t like the fuzzy texture or the smell…deer are in my back yard every morning and at night, sometimes 20 or more. We live in GA with red clay so there aren’t many crops around here…we are going to try planting clover in our new orchard as well as Daikin radish…wild plants grow freely here, unless creeping Charly gets in my garden then its pulled up.
Another good deer repellent is a piece of irish spring soap hanging from a branch by a string. Its a New England swamp Yankee remedy that works perfectly.
Ben Stallings says
Thanks for the article! I believe you are mistaken about comfrey and chives being nitrogen fixers, however. They are nutrient accumulators, but they only accumulate what is already in the soil (and subsoil, in comfrey’s case). There is a misprint in the 2nd edition of Gaia’s Garden which you may have repeated. If you check an additional source I think you will find that they are not nitrogen fixers but nutrient accumulators. Thanks again!
Looking back at my article, I realize that I did declare comfrey and chives as nitrogen fixers rather than just regular, good sources of green nitrogen. Thanks for catching the error.
Alexis Watters says
We planted our first peach tree this month! We used chives, bluebonnets, chicory, daikon radish and dill. Seeded them all around the freshly turned soil and hopefully they’ll grow and keep the weeds out 🙂
What a wonderful combination! I can’t wait to hear how it fares!
Perfect timing. Our Nanking cherries are in and we’ve got Shasta daisies nearby. Perhaps I should move them under our sweet cherry seedlings!
I don’t know if Nankings would suffer the same pests as regular cherry trees, but it certainly couldn’t hurt! A good experiment – you’ll have to let me know if it works 🙂
Amy, having recently moved to North-Central Florida, I too want to plant fruit trees. Not Oranges or Grapefruits. Those are readily prolific here. Will Cherries and apples do well here? Below freezing temps are rare and I heard these types of fruit require freezes. I had pretty good luck in Central Texas, but it did have cooler Winters. I’m of the belief if I have to water and feed a tree, it has to give me something in return besides leaves to rake. Love your articles!
Hi there! I am completely out of my element as far as recommending the best fruit for you to grow in Florida, but here are a few ideas:
1. Contact someone at your county extension office – http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/map/index.shtml. Extension offices usually have either PDFs or printed-and-bound documents to benefit the home gardener, complete with lists of varieties of fruits and vegetables that do well in your region.
2. Even if you purchase your plants elsewhere, browse the selection of fruits at http://ediblelandscaping.com/ for plants that do well in your zone (I’m guessing you’re in zone 8 or 9?).
3. Let me know what you find out 🙂
Sonya Enslow Caudle says
As always, good info! Thanks! I was already going to add comfrey under some of my front trees next year but will now include chives and maybe a shasta daisy or two!
Let me know how it goes 🙂
Gene Wolbert says
Amy, I have been following you off and on for a year or so. I love the info and also you are a GREAT writer always trying not to miss something. Thank you and continue the good work. It’s appreciated by all , I am sure.
That is a very nice compliment. Thanks for reading–I’m glad you’re finding the information useful 🙂
Loved this post, Amy. And it’s exactly what I needed to know right now. I just got 2 Cupid Cherry trees (Saskatchewan bred sour cherry with high sugar count) and I was wondering how to plant them and what to expect. My garden is full of daisies so I’ll have to tell my husband not to weed them out when he plants the cherry trees in the orchard. I was thinking of planting lupines for a nitrogen fixer. They grow wild where I am so should do well.
Those daisies have no trouble proliferating, so I’m glad I could find another useful place for them 🙂 I’m glad you mentioned lupines–I am hoping to use more of them in the future. They are so pretty and the pollinators love them!
My cherrys always have a little black spot on them and there’s a worm in them. What can I do to keep this from happening.
As I’ve mentioned in the article, increasing the biodiversity underneath the cherry trees with beneficial herbs will go a long way toward reducing disease and pests. There are organic products and homemade sprays that can help, but I would start with improving biodiversity. I go into more detail about fruit tree guilds in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm. 🙂
Danielle Diakoff-King says
I just got my order in of a Rainer and a bing sweet cherry (I didn’t know there were sour cherries!- from the west coast! Lol. They are good pollinators for each other and I planted comfrey around them. I have tons of chives so will be putting those as well… I was going to use roman chamomile as a ground cover in the orchard instead of grass and I can also make tea out of that. Alyssum is always welcome as it takes care of itself. I read somewhere to plant garlic or onions under fruit trees so I’m may try some garlic as I can never grow enough. That’s about it. Didn’t know about the Shasta daisy- my grandma had them growing everywhere – I think she was an amazingly smart gardener. Thanks for your advice and well written article!
Great article. Just the information I was looking for to make informed, Earth-friendly decisions when planting my first cherry trees. Much appreciated the tips and natural solutions.
Wonderful article and very informative. I will definitely plan a guild for each fruit tree we are going to plant in our yard from now on. However, I was wondering whether I can plant one for already established trees. We have a few cherry, apply, pear and plum trees that would benefit from the help of a guild, but I am concerned about damaging their roots. What to you suggest?
You can add guilds to already established fruit trees, just be gentle, as you said, to avoid damaging the roots. But fruit trees will also likely be more resilient than we might think. The best time to dig around their roots would be in the fall, but any plants added by seed could be distributed at any time without disturbing the roots.
Connie McCurdy says
I am here in southeast Alaska. I have two cherry trees that are growing very well. They are two different types of cherry trees. We do not know the variety of the trees. The soil here is acidic, one tree is four years old the other is two years old. The trees bloom and set fruit, but they never get bigger than a small pea, and are bitter. The main thing about this there is the leaves start out green then turn a purple color like a plum. WOULD YOU HAPPEN TO KNOW WHAT TYPES THESE TREES ARE? Are the in need of a nutrient?
Thank you for a reply.
It sounds like your trees might be schubert cherries. Is this your tree? Schubert cherry
Schubert cherries grow in zones 3-5, so you’re probably on the upper limit of their range. Because you have a short growing season, the color change may be the natural changing of the leaves before they fall in autumn.
If this isn’t your tree, you may simply have some native or ornamental varieties of trees, which naturally produce smaller cherries. Alternatively, you may have cultivated varieties that are simply struggling with a shorter season and harsher growing conditions than they’d like. Typical sweet or sour cherries grow in zones 4-6.
Comfrey is actually a very good source of nitrogen. It is a dynamic accumulator which draws nutrients up from the subsoil to the top soil, as well as adding nitrogen back into the soil as it’s leave mulch down. Because comfrey grows so quickly you can regular chop and drop the tops to mulch around your trees.
Mary Fahnestock-Thomas says
You don’t mention garlic. We have two small sour cherry trees (not sure what, exactly, because they came out of a friend’s wilderness) which have yet to fruit. Last year I planted garlic around one and bulbs around the other, and in the course of the summer (in western Montana) aphids infested the one without the garlic. No big deal — there’s room for them on the earth too — but now I routinely plant garlic around all my fruit trees.
I love this idea! But I would be apprehensive to plant any crop that I intend to dig up for fear of damaging the fruit tree roots in the process. That’s why I like planting chives or garlic chives; they are perennials related to garlic in which the leaves are the primary harvest. They give off a similar strong scent that repels insects.
Patient Gardener says
I also had an aphid problem with my sour and sweet (Montmorency) cherry trees. I read that some organic (expensive) insect controls contained peppermint oil, I planted peppermint at the base of the trees. Eureka – last year no aphids. The trees actually produced a few cherries, for the first time in 4 years. Gardeners must be patient.
Found this article very interesting regarding cherry tree guilds. Would you consider any cherry similar for “guilding” given the different binomial names for these: Prunus avium (Sweet), Prunus cerasus (Sour), Prunus besseyi (Bush)? I have a number of P. besseyi in my yard, mostly the Romeo’s from Gurney. While I find them tart to the taste, a number of other individuals eat them from the hand without sugar!
Too, I saw you had an article on black raspberries, while I’ve concentrated on the yellow (albino reds) ever-bearing raspberries so I trellis less. My cultivars of choice are Double Gold and Kiwi Gold. 😉
Yes, any plant can be a part of a plant guild — a grouping of plants that works together synergistically — even non-edibles. In permaculture, one of the aims is to vertically layer plants like you might see in a forest, albeit spread out more advantageously for sun exposure. Tall trees with small trees growing under them, with bushes and shrubs growing under those, and still herbaceous plants growing under shrubs…this increases the opportunity for a micro-ecosystem to develop.
So your bush cherries could be planted with taller trees nearby. Or your P. besseyi could have herbs growing around it that bloom at the same time to attract pollinators and increase pollination/fruit set. The possibilities are only limited by imagination! 🙂
Thank you Amy. I found this article really useful to get me started on planning a guild for my cherry tree in the UK. I haven’t planted a guild before although I have read about them so I am hoping for good things with the cherries. Your crop looks perfect!
lorraine green says
I am grateful for the pdf on insect pests, thank you
Ted Wickenhauser says
Hello. I’m looking for a Lutowka Rose cherry tree. All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from Poland, so in honor of my Polish heritage, I was hoping to grow this variety. I live in Nebraska in the United States, and I am having a difficult time finding a source for this tree. Someone that I was talking to that lives in Canada told me the permaculture community might know of a source.
Would you happen to have any idea where I might find one in the United States? As I said, I am having a very difficult time locating a source for this tree, so I am hoping you can help me. Thanks!
You might check with Honeyberry USA.
steven bossie says
hi Ted. i grow a lutowka rose cherry here in northern Maine. its 3 years old and has about 30 blooms on it. i got it from honeyberryUSA but unfortunitly they dont carry it anymore. ive had luck rooting cuttings of s. cherry in ground over winter. contact me in late oct. and i can send you some cuttings to root. i just scrape the cambium and stick in the nursery bed. my emails firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi Amy I am growing fruit trees in a pot. Can I grow
the herbs in another pot and put them around the fruit trees will I get the same results as if the was in the ground
The herbs can certainly help to attract pollinators and beneficial insects, but of course, if they aren’t sharing the same soil as the fruit tree, they won’t have an impact on soil ecology. Try it and see. At the very least, it will look pretty. 🙂