Are you familiar with the concept of a permaculture fruit tree guild? If you’re not, prepare to be astonished. It’s an ancient technique that combines symbiotic species to create a well-balanced mini ecosystem. Furthermore, it doesn’t just keep all plants healthy: it ensures pollination, and maximizes yield. Ready to learn more? Read on!
The first time I planted fruit trees it was a complete failure. Two cherry trees and two dwarf pears were tucked into the earth, at the sunny end of a small field. I planted them in early autumn and protected their base with straw in the winter. Apart from that, I let them be. I’d assumed that trees would grow best all by themselves, with no help from me.
I was wrong.
I lost two in the first year. My two remaining trees threw out a few blossoms over the next two years, only to be devoured by escaping goats in their third year. Fruit trees need more care than I’d imagined, and not just protection from hungry goats. My fruit trees needed nutrients and a healthy guild system to support flowering and fruiting. When I decided to try building an orchard again, I knew that I had to begin with a plan.
The Guild System
Don’t worry, this isn’t a medieval history lecture! I’m not talking about that guild system. In permaculture, guilds are comprised of companion plants that exist to support a primary crop. In fruit tree guilds, these companion plants work to create a supportive ecosystem.
Just as medieval journeymen and apprentices worked to support the master craftsmen, your companion plants work to support the master crop. In this case, fruit trees.
A fruit tree guild’s end goal is, of course, the production of healthy, harvestable fruit. The tree is working hard to grow fruit, so let’s give it some helpers.
In a fruit tree guild, these helpers work in a few different ways. They may attract, repel, suppress, mulch, build, or fix. Many plants perform more than one function at a time, that’s definitely the ideal. The guild of plants working with your fruit trees helps them grow and thrive, instead of merely surviving, in the environment you’ve provided.
Functions of The Guild
Let’s take a closer look at each of these functions. As we look at each function, you’ll see a few plants mentioned again and again. These are a few of the multi-purpose plants I mentioned above. In fact, it’s ideal to pair two or three multi-function plants with your trees to form an uncluttered tree guild.
The goal of these guilds is to build a forest-like, naturally sustaining environment in which your fruit trees can thrive. If you have too many supportive plants, the system my become unbalanced and cluttered. As such, choose self-sufficient companion plants with a variety of benefits.
You’ve probably already guessed that attractors draw the attention of pollinators and other beneficial insects to the area. Planting flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your fruit trees will help the trees pollinate. This in turn will increase the amount of fruit each tree produces.
Many people like to use dill and fennel to attract pollinators to apple trees. I also encourage poppies close to my trees. Poppies are early blooming, brightly colored flowers, and our honeybees are addicted to them. Because their flowers overlap with the flowers of our apple and pear trees, the bees have plenty of excuses to spend all their time among the fruit trees.
As their name suggests, these plants repel unwanted intruders. Nasturtiums are one of the best repellents for fruit trees, as their spicy scent turns away problematic insects, while helping to attract bees to the guild. Repelling plants aren’t just repelling insects either.
If you have a problem with fruit-loving deer in the orchard, try including scented herbs like lavender in your guild. Yarrow’s textured leaves also deter deer, and their flowers attract braconid wasps, which kill destructive caterpillar larvae.
I can’t promise these plants with do anything to deter goats, however, so try to keep the herd foraging somewhere else.
They sound bad, don’t they. But actually, suppressors do a great job eliminating competition around your fruit trees. These plants suppress weed and grass growth around the roots of your fruit tree, and bulb plants often make the best suppressors.
Plants like tulips and daffodils take soil space from grasses, but don’t compete with the tree for water and nutrients during the dry season. Additionally, garlic, onions, and daffodils are ideal in the suppressor role because they also work as repellents.
Invasive animals like deer and rabbits are turned away by alliums and daffodils, as are many destructive insects. Plant these around your guild’s drip line (the circumference where rain drips off outermost leaves) for greatest deterrent effect.
Adding a few plants that provide a natural mulch for the fruit trees is helpful, especially in areas with low rainfall. After all, mulch helps the soil retain moisture. It also renews that topsoil and keeps it from washing or blowing away in extreme conditions.
Plants like rhubarb and comfrey are ideal for providing a natural mulch. When you cut your rhubarb to harvest the stalks, just leave the leaves on the ground around your fruit trees. They’ll mulch the area naturally as they compost. Furthermore, adding mulchers to your fruit tree guild is a simple, time-saving way to build healthy soil.
Similar to mulchers, accumulators help to improve the soil. Comfrey is a great companion that provides mulch and actually improves the soil as it grows. This plant has a long, deep taproot that can reach the nutrients deep in the soil and draw them up to a more accessible level.
The taproot also works to aerate the soil around your fruit trees, and you can chop back your comfrey and leave it mulch the surrounding earth. Since it’s a multi-purpose plant, comfrey also acts as an attractor. Bees, butterflies, and insect-devouring chickens adore comfrey’s pretty, purple flowers and huge leaves.
Your accumulators draw up nutrients from deep within the soil to build up the topsoil, while fixing plants balance the soil and replenish easily depleted nutrients like nitrogen. Rye and vetch are two of the best cover crops to use as soil fixers because they work together to balance the soil.
Vetch is a legume that fixes nitrogen levels. Legumes work with healthy soil bacteria to replenish the nitrogen in the soil. Rye acts as both a mulcher and it protects the vetch throughout the seasons. A rye and vetch cover crop sown in the open areas of your orchard will provide mulch and nitrogen, fixing the soil in a lasting, sustainable way.
Building a Guild
Now that you know what types of supportive plants you need for a fruit tree guild, let’s look at a few examples of how these plants come together.
Some of the best plants for a fruit tree guild are multi-purpose companions. They perform a few roles for the fruit tree: Plants like comfrey, which can work as an attractor, an accumulator, and a mulch, are ideal. Similarly, plants like garlic and daffodils work as both suppressors and repellents.
Multi-purpose plants make building a fruit tree guild easy and low maintenance. When you plant your fruit tree, give it plenty of good soil and manure. Clear the area around your trees of blackberry brambles, vines, ferns, and other invasive plants.
Then, add your companions. Plant daffodil bulbs close to the trees to suppress weeds and deter deer. Sow in rye and vetch in the open spaces to balance the soil, add a consistent source of mulch, and suppress other, less helpful plants. Then, add a few comfrey plants among the trees and vetch.
Comfrey spreads quickly and enthusiastically, it will grow happily among your trees with absolutely no upkeep. If you mow your rye to add mulch, just cut back the comfrey as well. It will come back.
Finally, plant garlic chives, onions, leeks, and/or ramps around the drip line.
Amazing Extras in the Orchard
Here in the northeast, we have a lot rocks in the soil. It’s good to dig out rocks when you’re planting your fruit trees, so the roots have room to grow. But incorporate those rocks into the orchard in a different way. Cluster groups of rocks together or build a small rock wall, for example.
Rocky crevices and niches are idea places for helpful wildlife to hide. They’re also a great place to plant climbing, beneficial plants like nasturtiums, chamomile, and roses. Rock walls and carelessly tumbled together stones will also add beauty to your fruit tree guild.
Along with gathered stones and companion plants, adding a small pond is a great way to balance this small ecosystem. Along with providing easy access to water, a pond offers frogs, fish, and birds a place to settle.
These animals are essential to a healthy, balanced ecosystem. While it’s sad to lose a few fruits to birds in the fall, it’s even worse to lose your entire crop to tent caterpillars or other invasive insects. Birds, frogs, and fish prey on these insects, keeping your trees safer all season long.
A pond will also make your orchard more than just a place to harvest fruit. With blooming vetch under your feet, fruit-laden branches above, trickling water, and birdsong all around, your orchard will be a haven in all seasons.
The joy of building a fruit guild is in creating a natural, curated forest space. In just a few years, even before your young fruit trees start producing, the guild starts to feel like a natural space. Each of the plants belong there, and they all work together to make a space that nourishes and maintains itself easily.