Instead of planting an orchard, start your food forest by planting a fruit tree guild! A fruit tree guild is like companion plants for your fruit trees. The different plants work together to feed each other, repel bad bugs and disease, and attract pollinators!
By adding a fruit tree guild around each of your fruit trees or bushes, you can grow more food in a smaller area. This is particularly good for urban homesteaders because we don’t have much space to work with. Every little bit counts!
By creating communities of plants that benefit each other you can reduce disease and increase your harvests, all with less work on your part! The plants in a guild work together to recycle nutrients back into the soil, save water, provide shade, attract beneficial insects and prevent erosion. And they do all this while providing food, flowers, and medicine for us as well.
Many people are familiar with the idea of companion plants in the vegetable garden. Fruit tree guilds are based on the same idea. It’s like tomatoes and basil, or corn, beans, and squash, but for your apples and pears.
Permaculture uses the forest as it’s guide in how to fill different roles with plants. Forests grow in layers, and there are a total of eight. First you have your canopy layer, which is your tallest trees that need the most sun. Then you have your understory trees. These do fine with a bit of shade.
Next is the shrub layer, which is bushes and plants around three to six feet tall. The herbaceous layer is herbs and greens. The groundcover layer includes grass, but also many different groundcover plants. The underground layer is filled with roots. Then mixed in among those layers you also have your climbing plants as well as your fungi.
As you can see, forests have a lot going on! Each of these different layers and plants fill different needs and roles. What’s better, is that you don’t have to stop at just one fruit tree guild. You can combine individual guilds into a larger guild to build a food forest as well as provide wildlife habitat.
Purposes Of Fruit Tree Guilds
The beautiful thing about guilds is that they fill so many different roles. They can attract pollinators, discourage bad bugs, add to the fertility of your land, deter wildlife, provide privacy, and even save water. And that isn’t even including the food you’ll produce for yourself!
By planting species that fulfill each of these roles you can grow fruit trees that will continually improve the soil and your land each year. You can even choose plants that fill more than one role at a time to really increase your land’s productivity.
A common purpose for plants in a fruit tree guild is to attract pollinators. Choose host plants that provide nectar or pollen. Whenever possible, choose plants that are in bloom when your fruit tree will be.
In addition to attracting the “good bugs,” also choose plants that repel or confuses harmful insects. (Marigolds are commonly used for this purpose in vegetable gardens). You can also choose plants that will attract birds as well.
If you’re not sure how to start, observe what types of pests you have in your yard currently. What beneficial insects eat those types of pests? Once you know what insects you need to attract, find out which species will help draw them to your fruit trees and other plants.
Nitrogen fixers are plants that move nitrogen from the air and into the soil. Plants require nitrogen to grow, and the common solution is to feed them fertilizer. However, if you plant nitrogen fixers, you are essentially growing your own fertilizer for free.
Nitrogen fixers host a bacteria called Rhizobium. This bacteria takes the nitrogen gas and converts it to a nodule on the rotos of the plant. When the plant dies and begins to decompose this nitrogen is released into the soil where other plans can use it. Click here to read more about nitrogen fixers.
Dynamic accumulators are also essential. This group of plants most often has long deep roots that can access minerals and nutrients deep within the soil. It accumulates those nutrients in its leaves and stems, and then when it dies and decomposes the minerals are returned to the soil. Click here to read more about dynamic accumulators.
Plants with long tap roots are also good for aerating and breaking up dense soils. When they are pulled up or decompose the oxygen is beneficial and the soil structure is improved.
Both dynamic accumulators and nitrogen fixers make good mulch plants. Cut mulch plants back and let the decompose in place in order to provide nutrients and cover. Just as a forest floor is constantly replenishing itself with fallen leaves, we should provide the same cover for our mini forests. A layer of mulch protects your top soil and retains water, as well as supporting necessary microorganisms.
Guilds can also be useful in attracting or detracting wildlife. Planting many different species can attract birds and butterflies and all manner of interesting creatures. On the other hand, you may wish to discourage some that are less desirable. One enterprising permaculturist used a double sided guild as a hedgerow. One side was thickly planted with plants attractive to deer. The deer would eat along the hedge row until they were directed away from the property. However, the inside of the hedgerow was plants for humans to harvest!
You can also use your guilds to provide plenty of food for your own flock of chickens or herd of rabbits. Just be aware that chickens can be very destructive so don’t let them free range until your plants get well established.
Shade and Privacy
Fruit trees also offer ambient benefits by providing shade, beauty, and privacy. They improve the aesthetics of your land and can be quite attractive to look at. The mix of plants in your guilds should certainly include ornamentals!
You can use guilds to provide a screen between you and your neighbors, or plant a thick hedge to slow down cold winds. Planting lots of trees on the north side of your house can cool down the ambient temperatures of your property without shading south facing summer vegetables.
Guilds are great for all types of plants, natives, perennials, and annuals. If you have a bare spot that you want to be more attractive, throw some annual flowers into it while the other plants grow!
Food and Medicine
And of course our fruit tree guilds provide food for us as well. Not only do we want the delicious fruits from our main tree, but we can choose plants for around it that provide other crops. We can grow berries, greens, even mushrooms!
Many pollinator friendly plants also have herbal benefits. You can grow your own medicines and herbal remedies while at the same time supporting the health of your backyard orchard.
How To Start A Fruit Tree Guild
WIth all these benefits, how exactly do you go about planting a fruit tree guild? First, decide what you want your central tree to be. Popular choices are apples, pears, plums, nuts, et cetera. Any large tree or bush can be the center of your guild.
Pick fruit trees that do well in your climate. One strategy for finding out what grows well is checking out farmers markets and seeing which produce is available. Your county extension office also should be able to recommend good varieties.
Maps of hardiness zones should be able to get you pointed in the right direction as well. SOme trees require chill hours. This means that it needs a certain number of hours under 45 degrees before it bears fruit. Most apples don’t grow well in warm places (like Texas!) for this reason.
Next you can consider the micro-climate of your property. Consider where power lines and sewer lines run. Chat with the neighbors before you plant something that will hang over your property line or interfere with a fence.
Observe how the sun moves across your property and what parts need more shade, or already have shade. Planting a tree can change that microclimate, so make sure you consider the effect on shade and wind the full grown tree will have.
Also examine your soil. Do you have parts of your yard that are very dry? How about some that tend to have standing water after a storm? If you have any sloped land then the tops of your slopes will stay warmer than the bottoms. This may be very useful in choosing where to plant a heat loving citrus versus an apple who needs those chilly winters.
Don’t forget to consider space for paths. Planning ahead for paths is probably the most common mistake that people make when planting their food forests. It’s hard to imagine these tiny trees fully grown and they often are planted too close together.
Next it’s time to pick what plants to include in your fruit guild! This is probably the most fun, but also the most complicated part of starting a fruit tree guild. You’ll want to include each of the different layers. Pick one tree for your overstory layer. If you have space add smaller trees for the understory layer. Next add your small fruits, shrubs, or bushes. Finally fill in with herbs, greens, vines, ground covers, and fungi.
You’ll want to consider the different rooting habits of each of the plants. If you have a fruit tree that is shallow-rooted keep other surface feeders away from its root zone. You’ll also want to suppress grass from growing around the tree.
While grass can be nice to walk on if you have kids, it is not a good companion for fruit trees. It competes for nutrients. Also, grass requires frequent waterings, while your fruit trees should have less frequent watering for longer periods of time. You can plant bulbs that provide a physical barrier or groundcover that will keep the grass from getting established.
To plant your fruit tree guild, plant your center tree, and mark its adult size. The edge of this measurement is called the drip line. Start about 6 to 12 inches from the trunk and place cardboard out to the drip line all around the tree. Cover the cardboard with soil or compost. If you can let this break down for a bit before planting it can help your other plants get established.
Now it’s time to add in your other plants! Make sure to include your ring of bulbs to keep the grass out of your newly prepared bed. Many of the plants commonly used also discourage rabbits and deer. When you plant vining plants, give them a support other than the tree trunk as well.
Exactly how you group your plants is up to you. Keep in mind you want to create a mini ecosystem. You’ll want to include plants that grow well together and have multiple uses. You can observe which plants naturally grow together in wild situations. Pick pollinator plants that bloom when your tree will be in bloom or that fill a specific nutrient need your tree may have.
There are very few wrong choices when it comes to tree guilds. If a plant isn’t doing well, you can always try adding other plants to see if you get a better match. Even if you don’t get your guild perfect the first time around, this is a great way to increase the health of your fruit trees and increase the beauty and production level of your property.
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