Fruit trees are an integral part of edible landscaping. They offer shade, fruit, seasonal interest, structure to your garden design, and so much more. One simple way we can support the fruit trees in your edible garden is through planting fruit tree guilds. Fruit tree guilds are one of the countless permaculture design techniques that can be applied to your home garden.
What are fruit tree guilds? They are human-made communities of plants that are located beneath and surrounding fruit trees. These plants have specific qualities that will support your fruit tree: nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, compost makers, and insect / pollinator attractors. Some plants serve more than one purpose in the guild (and may also be food or medicine for you, too).
Nitrogen fixing plants host a nitrogen-fixing bacteria, called Rhizobium, that pulls nitrogen from the air and stores it in nodules (or lumps) on their roots. Once there, some nitrogen is available to surrounding plants. When the nitrogen fixing plant dies, the nitrogen becomes available during the decomposition process. Therefore, it’s best to use the plant material as mulch in your fruit tree guild.
Since nitrogen is most commonly found as a gas, it isn't easily available to plants naturally and that's why nitrogen fertilizer is often added to gardens. Planting nitrogen fixing plants in your fruit tree guild may eliminate the need for added nitrogen fertilizer.
Some nitrogen fixers are: chamomile, chives, collard greens, columbine, licorice, lupine, milk vetch, peas, scarlet runner beans, sweet vetch
Dynamic accumulator plants have deep roots that draw nutrients up from the soil and concentrate them in the above ground portions of the plants. Comfrey is an amazing plant that both pulls up nutrients from the soil then can be chopped back for composting in place, thus bringing the nutrients from deep within the soil back to the soil surface.
Some dynamic accumulators are: chives, comfrey, dandelion, Egyptian onion, fennel, garlic, garlic chives, good king henry, hickory, lemon balm, marigold, mullein, mustard, parsley, peppermint, stinging nettle, strawberries, valerian, yarrow
Compost maker plants create a significant amount of organic matter and help improve the soil structure. The “chop and drop” method is a great way to quickly mulch your garden without much effort. Simply cut back some leaves from your compost plants and leave them right on the ground in your fruit tree guild. The leaves can be left whole or cut into smaller pieces to speed up the decomposition process. The chopped down organic matter will cover the soil to help keep moisture in and weeds out. It will also provide food and habitat for soil critters. The leaf matter will naturally be broken down into compost, without having to haul the plant material to the compost pile then back as finished compost.
Some compost makers are: artichoke, comfrey, Jerusalem artichoke, nasturtiums, potato, rhubarb, stinging nettle
Insect / Pollinator Plants
Insect and pollinator plants support beneficial insects. These plants will attract the critters that help keep your garden healthy and strong, while pollinating your fruit trees.
Some insect / pollinator plants: anise hyssop, borage, cardoon, chamomile, chicory, chives, columbine, comfrey, dandelion, echinacea, fennel, globe artichoke, Greek oregano, Jerusalem artichoke, lavender, lemon balm, lupine, milkweed, miner’s lettuce, monad, nasturtiums, peppermint, purslane, rose, spearmint, strawberry, thyme, violet, winter savory, yarrow
Fruit Tree Guild Designs
I've created three separate fruit tree guild design examples. They are not only supportive communities for your fruit trees, they also provide a harvest for you! Feel free to try them out or use them as inspiration as you design your own fruit tree guilds.
As your fruit tree matures, your guild will transform. Embrace the change! Some plants will be unhappy because of the increased shade produced by the fruit tree. These plants may be transplanted to new fruit tree guild locations, shared with friends, or simply left to become compost material under your fruit tree.
Now it's time for you to get creative! Select a couple plants from each category to design your own fruit tree guild.
I'd love to hear from you! Please post your questions or share your experience designing, planting, or growing a fruit tree guild.