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How To Overcome The Most Common Challenges To Starting A Fruit Tree Guild

There are many great reasons to plant a fruit tree guild. What is the biggest thing stopping you from planting a fruit guild? Or if you’ve planted a guild before, what was the hardest part?

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How To Overcome The Most Common Challenges To Starting A Fruit Tree Guild (2)

Common Challenges For Fruit Tree Guilds

Several readers were very helpful in sharing what has held them back from starting their food forests.  These are common problems that many of us have run into.  If you have more solutions or things that have worked for you, feel free to share in the comments below!

What IS a fruit tree guild? 

“I have planted fruit trees (pear, apple, plum, apricot, pomegranate, olive, Meyer lemon, tangerines) but am uninformed about what a fruit tree guild is…” -Jennifer

First off is lack of common knowledge!  While fruit tree guilds are very popular in permaculture literature, they have yet to permeate into colloquial knowledge.  If more people were introduced to the idea we could have higher producing backyard orchards, and take advantage of already established fruit trees. 

If you haven’t heard of a fruit tree guild or food forest before, think of it as companion plants for perennial plants!  Instead of having a fruit tree standing alone in the grass, plant other species around it to benefit it.  Pollinator plants, fertilizer plants, and plants that won’t compete for nutrients are all great choices. 

For more details about what fruit tree guilds are, check out How To Start A Fruit Tree Guild.

Not Enough Time

“The biggest thing stopping me would be time! So much to do, so little time….. And having a back injury doesn’t help either. I’d really like to get a few fruit tree guilds going, and I think I’ve picked a great place for them too – nice slope, about ½ way up….” -Sandra

Like most hobbies, we try to squish our gardening into the nooks and crannies of our busy lives.  Between jobs, family, and home it seems like we’re running non-stop!  It does take time to start out with fruit tree guilds.  It takes time to plan what you want to put in.  It takes time to find the best spots for planting.  And of course it takes time to get plants established. 

However, the super awesome thing about food forests is that once you put in the time to get them established they take less and less time!  A maturing fruit tree guild should require less time treating disease or needing fertilized.   It will need less weeding.  It will certainly take less time than starting seeds and planting an annual vegetable garden.

If you’ve set it up properly, you should be able to spend very little time besides some annual pruning and harvesting!

To read more about how to do more with the time you have, check out our articles on time management.

Not Enough Space (Or Too Much!)

“The biggest thing that is stopping me from planting a fruit tree guild is lack of space.” -Hawwah

The trickiest part of planning a fruit tree guild is knowing where to put everything and planning it all out.  You can actually make some very tiny guilds.  Some people have used columnar apple trees or dwarf fruit trees to put a fruit tree guild in areas as small as side yards.  If you really have no space, plant a potted tree and include some herbs in the pot with it. 

But on the flip side, the most common mistake people make is planting trees too close together. 

If you have a small property stick to dwarf or semi dwarf trees.  You may even only have room for one!  If you have more space I think that makes it trickier because there’s so much planning that needs done. 

“Right now it’s land. Although we are going to have about a dozen really tall pines removed from the back yard soon. From there I will probably be overwhelmed by what to put where. Not to mention the soil is going to be acidic. ” -Janet

I believe the best place to start is one step at a time.  Either get all your trees into the ground right away so they can start maturing or take it one fruit tree at a time and get the entire guild established.  Just don’t try to do everything all at once!

I recommend starting closest to your home and working out from there.  It will be easiest to maintain if it’s closer to you.  You’ll be able to to notice what’s growing well and what’s not without a lot of effort. 

I also recommend starting with plans for a specific guild to start with instead of trying to create your own.  Creating your own is great fun, but it can be a bit overwhelming.  Midwest Permaculture offers a free guide with sample guilds; click here to view it. 

“I planted one last summer. It is more of a mix between fruit tree guild and food forest. The hardest part is choosing the plants and try to not overcrowd it. My trees and shrub are still small so, I will have to trim them in the future so everyone have enough space. And next year will be the more vine, bulbs, plants layers. I also put a big amount of saw dust on top of everything. Will it kill everything? I hope not! Will it help with soil, I hope yes!” -Marilene 

Too Much Digging!

“We bought a place last year. I love the place except the ground is rock! I can not have an in-ground garden so I have gone to raised beds and container gardens. I bought an elder a couple months ago because I want to be able to have elderberries for syrup, but I’ve put it in a container also. I think if I soak the ground I might be able to dig up a hole to eventually plant it in, but I really don’t want to have to do this with every tree or bush that I want to plant. I’m getting too old for that. Any ideas?” -Rose

Digging holes is seriously a downside of planting fruit trees.  Depending on what the soil is like in your area and your own strength it could be downright impossible!

If you are a decently strong individual, I recommend a post hole digger.  These take quite a bit of effort, but go much more quickly than a shovel.  If you have quite a bit of rock, you may want to look into a digging bar. 

Another option is to rent a jackhammer.  Most cities have tool rental places nearby where you can rent equipment by the hour.  We have done this in the past and it’s very handy and much cheaper than trying to buy something we’ll only need for a weekend!

If you just can’t get the tools you need, consider planting dwarf varieties in pots.  You can add many other beneficial plants in raised beds on your property as well. 

We once had an older neighbor with a gorgeous yard.  For years she was out there working on it herself, but near the end of her life she just wasn’t physically able to do all the work it required.  She hired someone to come out periodically and do the heavy digging and other large projects for her. 

There is not shame in hiring help to get your fruit tree guilds established. 

Getting Your Partner on Board

“The biggest thing stopping me is my husband. He has memories of crunching apples under his feet while mowing a neighbor’s yard and doesn’t want that to happen in our yard. With berries, he doesn’t want birds eating them and then pooping berry stains on our cars. I recently told him now that I’m staying at home, I’d keep the yard picked up (plus I do most of the mowing anyway). And as for berries, even without us having any, birds still poop berries onto our cars. We’ll see if he softens up to the idea in time.” -Jennifer

Like any homesteading endeavor (or life endeavor, really!) it’s super duper important that your partner is willing to give it a try.  Jennifer sounds like she’s on the right track, with finding ways to make things work for the both of them.  Compromises are a great way to start. 

Another option is to try something on a very small scale and share the benefits with those you care about.  Perhaps a garden bed can be transformed into a mini guild, before applying those principles on a larger scale.  Citrus in a container is a very non-messy fruit option for warmer climates.  The fruit will stay on the tree until harvested. 

What Do I Plant?

“I haven’t. I guess having to research suitable local varieties — things are not as readily available here in South Africa as they seem to be in the US. The other big thing is All That Digging. Lame excuses, but there you are. -Heath

While Heath has the added difficulty of being in a different climate than many of us, knowing what to plant is a big problem for many of us!  There are SO MANY options!  If you haven’t already, check out the free guide with sample guilds from Midwest Permaculture

The good news is, there are no hard and fast rules.  You can experiment if you’d like.  If you plant something and it doesn’t do well, learn from it and try something new.  And if your plants thrive, GREAT! 

When deciding where to purchase plants, keep in mind your climate.  Local varieties from local nurseries will most likely do better than those mail ordered from a completely different zone, or plants that are shipped to the entire country.

Here are some more resources on figuring out what to plant: 

Keeping It All Straight

1. I always plant trees toooo close together. 
2. I can’t seem to come up with a way to keep track of what trees need what kind of fertilizer. 
3. Seems like I always find trees that need their “other half”; I get the male and need a female
4. Ditto with number 2 above, what the “pests” are that I need to be watching for or treat.

Like Mary, sometimes we just feel like there are too many balls in the air at one time.  We have the best of intentions, but not the skills or knowledge we need.  This is when having great resources available makes a huge difference. 

One of my favorite tree care books is Pruning Made Easy by Lewis Hill.One of my favorite tree care books is Pruning Made Easy by Lewis Hill.  I can’t keep all those nitty gritty details straight in my head, so great reference materials are an absolute must. 

This is also a great reason to take things slowly and put in one guild at a time instead of trying to plant everything all at once.  This way you get to learn what each individual tree needs before adding in others.  

Here are a few plant profiles available on Farming My Backyard that may be helpful in learning about how to care for the trees and plants in your food forests: 

There is so much to learn that if we waited until we had everything perfect before we started, we’d never get going at all!  Even if you’ve run into some roadblocks with your food forests, keep trying!  Even slow progress is worth taking the time, so don’t let yourself get discouraged if you run into challenges!

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Tuesday 1st of February 2022

I am researching apple tree guilds and would love to start implementing one under my 3 semi dwarf apple trees. My trees have been in the ground for about 6 years and we have clay soil. Do I just plant on top of the soil adding a lot of compost or do I dig amongst the apple roots? Thank you! T


Wednesday 2nd of February 2022

Do both! Add a layer of compost and mulch to help improve your soil, but when planting your guild companions you will probably need to dig a bit into the soil. Just dig very carefully and avoid cutting the apple roots as much as possible.

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