Create A Permaculture Fruit Tree Guild | what to plant next to fruit trees & why

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What is a fruit tree guild?

A fruit tree guild is an ancient technique where mutually beneficial species are planted around a fruit tree to create a thriving, supportive mini-ecosystem.

Fruit tree guilds consist of several layers that can be made up of edible plants, shrubs and climbing plants that co-exist under and around the fruit tree.

The benefits of creating fruit tree guild?

There are many benefits to planting a fruit tree guild:

  • Maximise space in your garden to grow edibles.
  • Attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  • Suppress weeds and reduce root competition.
  • Improve condition of soil.
  • Deter “bad bugs for garden“.
  • Deter animals that may cause a problem to your trees.
  • Help to retain moisture in the soil.
  • Create habitat.
  • Balance fungal populations.
  • Increase nutrient levels in soil.
Fruit Tree guild plan
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How to plant a fruit tree guild?

If you’re new to permaculture then a fruit tree guild is a great place to start. You can have stand alone fruit guilds or link them together with fruit bushes and other trees to form a food forest.

What can I plant under a fruit tree?

There is no precise recipe for a successful fruit tree guild. It’s about finding the right combination of plants for your space.

There is however a basic fruit tree guild design that works well in home gardens…

Fruit Tree guild example design

You’ll want to avoid overplanting and causing an imbalance so it’s helpful to choose plants that serve multiple functions.

We have a newly planted food forest that includes cobnuts, plums, apples and cherry trees. Under each tree we have planted a combination of Comfrey, Lemongrass, Fennel, Borage, Canadian Meadow Garlic, Wild Strawberries, Tandy, Chives and Walking Onions. Honey Berries, Blueberries and other small fruit bushes are scattered between the trees.

How to plant a fruit tree guild?

Choose a central element for your guild…

How you plant a fruit tree guild will depend on the space you have available.

Firstly, you’ll want to choose a tree that works both in terms of size but also climate.

If you have a small garden then choose a dwarf fruit tree or small berry bush as the central element to your guild.

A combination of trees works well as it will prevent a single disease spreading easily between trees. For example you could choose a combination of apple, plum, cherry, peach, hazelnuts (cobnuts), sweet chestnuts, walnuts.

2. Build the base of your fruit tree guild…

  1. Lay cardboard in a circle around the base of your tree. It needs to be as large as the ‘drip line‘ which means where the outer-most leaves will come to when your tree reaches maturity.
  2. Add a layer of compost and soil (around 5 inches deep) but keep it away from the tree trunk.
  3. Add a thick layer of mulch like wood chip.
Creating Fruit Tree guild

3. Choosing plants for your fruit tree guild…

Your guild will consist of a group of companion plants that work together to support your fruit tree. The aim is to try and recreate a forest-like, naturally sustaining environment where the plants thrive.

Try and choose plants that serve more than one purpose, like garlic chives which will repel pests, prevent grass creeping into your guild and they’re edible.

Fruit Tree Guild Outer Edge – Grass Suppressing Bulbs

Along the ‘drip-line’ you can plant grass-suppressing bulbs which will help to stop grass moving inside your guild and competing with your trees roots.

Daffodils are a good option if you have issues with deer as they dislike them. If you prefer to plant an edible then plant garlic chives or Egyption Onions. Avoid mixing edibles with daffodils which are poisonous.

Inside the drip line – attractors, pest repellents, nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators and mulch.

Inside the drip line scatter a mix of plants that will soon be buzzing with bees and drawing nutrients from deep in the ground.

Experiment with different mixes until you find something that works in your space.

Choose plants that perform the following roles:

1. Nitrogen Fixers for A Fruit Tree Guild

Nitrogen-fixing plants have a crucial role to play in your fruit tree guild. Using plants to keep nutrients cycling within your guild will mean that you won’t need to buy fertilizers.

Nitrogen fixers have a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with bacteria or fungi found in the soil that take nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrogen that other plants can use.

Types of nitrogen fixers:

1. Actinorhizal plants partner with a group of antinobacteria called Frankia. These include:

  • Rosaceae, the rose family e.g. hawthorns, raspberry, strawberry, apple, pear, bramble etc
  • Elaeagnaceae e.g. Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata
  • Betulaceae (the birch family) e.g. Alder, Italian Alder.

2. Legumes partner with rhizobium bacteria which form nodules on the plant’s roots. They turn nitrogen gas in to nitrates to feed the plant, which then makes the nutrients available to other plants via its leaves and annual root replenishing cycle.

Nitrogen Fixing Legumes include:

  • Trefoil
  • Vetch
  • Dutch Clover
  • Lupines
  • Fava beans
  • Phacelia

2. Dynamic Accumulators For A Fruit Tree Guild

Dynamic accumulators use a deep tap-root to access nutrients that other plants can’t access. Their long roots mean that they aren’t in competition with other plants and they are able to harvest otherwise inaccessible nutrients.

Take Comfrey for example, although the plant only reaches around 2 foot it’s roots can actually reach 5 foot below ground in search of nutrients. The nutrient packed leaves can be chopped down and used as a mulch around your tree guild.

The leaves also make brilliant organic natural fertilizers for your crops.

Every Dynamic Accumulator will draw specific nutrients from the soil and concentrate them in their leaves.

Experiment with plants to see what works best with your tree and what nutrients it needs.

For example, apple trees are moderate users of most nutrients but they do use a lot of potassium and calcium. For this reason, we’ve chosen to plant Comfrey (accumulates Calcium and other nutrients) and Lemonbalm (accumulates Potassium).

Dynamic Accumulators: borage, comfrey, chickweed, yarrow, stinging nettle, strawberry, sorrel, vetch, supine, tansy.

3. Suppressor Plants

Ground covering plants will suppress grasses and weeds that compete with trees for nutrients and water. They will also help to retain moisture and build soil structure.

Suppressors are especially important in young tree guilds as they will be more susceptible to drying out and competition from weeds.

Suppressor Plants: red clover, squash, pumpkins, rhubarb, strawberries, nasturtiums.

4. Attractors

Manu plants will attract beneficial insects to your garden. The Insects are beneficial either because they hel to pollinate your plants (often needed to make them fruit) or because they eat pests that damage crops.

Attractor Plants: You can plant edible herbs like Fennel, Dill, Lavender and Coriander or flowers like Salvia, Sunflowers and Yarrow.

5. Repellents

Some plants can be used to repel certain pests because they dislike their scent.

Choose repellents carefully as they tend to repel beneficial insects as well as bad bugs for the garden.

Pest Repellents like daffodils can work well around the edge of your fruit guild if you have a problem with deer.

Pest Repelling Plants: onions, garlic, daffodils, marigold, nursturtium.

Comfrey is a useful plant to have in the garden. Choose Bocking 14 as it won’t self seed everywhere!

As your fruit tree grows you can adapt your guild to meet the changing needs.

Now it’s your turn to get creative with your fruit tree guild!

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