In Carmen Lamoureux, Food, Food Forests, Homsteading, Land Design, Permaculture, Plant Guilds, Plants & Living Systems

If you listen to conventional wisdom, you might begin to think that planting fruit trees on your property is a terrible idea – they’re prone to diseases and pests, and demand endless spraying and coddling just to produce a tiny harvest! 

But there’s one thing that conventional wisdom doesn’t mention: the trees most prone to these problems are growing without a naturally supportive, diverse ecosystem around them. 

What does that mean? Think of how trees grow naturally: in a forest, with interdependent plants above, below, and around them, and with insects, birds, and animals helping them to grow, bloom, and set fruit. When you plant a tree alone or in a monoculture orchard, it loses resilience without those ecosystem services.

How can you change that? By using a fruit tree guild – a selection of companion plants that provide the benefits you would find in a healthy ecosystem.  When you replicate that supportive environment around your fruit tree, it reaps the nourishment, protection, and other services it would receive in the wild, and it can thrive, with little effort on your part. 

See how Carmen Lamoureux created a guild around the mature apple trees on her property:

Plant Roles in a Permaculture Guild

Each plant in a guild serves one or more roles in supporting the good of the whole: some by their interactions with the soil ecology, others by their relationship to the aboveground environment.  Here are some of the roles and plants you’ll find in a fruit tree guild:

Grass-suppressing bulbs 

These multiply thickly to crowd out sod grass, repel pests and wildlife, and protect against disease. Examples include leeks, onions, shallots, chives, and garlic chives, as well as iris and canna lilies.

Dynamic accumulators 

With their deep taproots, these plants absorb minerals from different soil levels and draw them up into their leaves. While they’re alive, they help to break up compacted soil; when they die and decompose or are chopped up as green mulch, they add mineral content to the topsoil. Some examples are rhubarb, comfrey, dandelions, horseradish, and Daikon radish.

horseradish root
Insectaries 

These are the plants that attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects – both pollinators and beneficial predators such as wasps, ladybugs, or assassin bugs. Sometimes showy and sweet-scented, these plants may have an interdependent relationship with particular insects, providing foliage for egg-laying or shelter and food for larvae. Examples include dill, fennel, parsley, chamomile, mint, oregano, rue, lemon balm, bee balm, goldenrod, echinacea, milkweed, tansy, and yarrow, and many more.

Note: when you are choosing insectary plants, look for natives to your bioregion. They have co-evolved with native insects and can provide them with habitat and food from egg to maturity, where non-native plants cannot. 

bee landing on a blossom
Nitrogen fixers 

Because these plants show up quickly when the soil is disturbed or damaged, they are often considered weeds, but they’re actually nature’s emergency responders. Absorbing nitrogen from the air through their leaves, they store it in their tissues and nodules on their roots. When they die, or when you chop back their leaves as green mulch, they release that nitrogen back to the soil. Examples include bushes like Siberian pea, winterberry, and California lilac, and legumes such as groundnut, scarlet runner beans, lupines, and clover.

nitrogen nodules on fava bean roots
Pest repellents 

These plants use taste and/or smell to discourage hungry pests such as insects, groundhogs and moles, and deer. Examples include marigolds, nasturtiums, daffodils, mints, and alliums. 

 

Before You Begin Planning Your Guild – Observe!

Always, the first step in any permaculture project is observation. Take a careful look at the area you have in mind for your fruit tree guild, and consider how it matches the needs of the tree you want to plant there:

  • Over time, how much water does the space receive, and how does this match the needs of the tree? Large-leaf plants such as comfrey and groundcovers such as clover can help to cool the soil and retain its moisture, but for trees that require a great deal of water, you may need to install earthworks such as rain gardens and swales.

See how Rob and Michelle Avis have captured water on their Calgary property to irrigate their food forest here:

  • Watch your chosen space through the day and through the seasons: how many hours of sun does it receive? When you’re selecting plants for your guild, watch their relative heights; some “shrubs” can loom over a small fruit tree. Always place your tallest plants at the northernmost point of your space to prevent them from shading out the shorter plants.

Carmen Lamoureux offers tips on selecting an appropriately-sized tree for your space here:

  • What kind of soil will your fruit tree need? Does it match the soil in your selected spot? Dynamic accumulators or nitrogen fixers can provide necessary nutrients over time, but for depleted or eroded soil, additional amendments or sheet-mulching may be needed before you plant. It’s a good idea to test your soil for pH, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and trace minerals: are all the necessary nutrients present? Your local Department of Agriculture, cooperative extension service, or garden store may provide soil testing.

Many of your fruit tree’s needs can be met by a plant guild; some cannot. Be sure you are setting your tree up for success!

 

Tailor the Guild to the Tree

Two of the most important questions to ask in designing a fruit tree guild are: How vulnerable or resistant is your chosen fruit tree to specific pests and diseases? Are there plants that attract beneficial predators or prevent diseases that affect the tree? This is where you can begin to research and select guild plants specifically to support your fruit tree. 

For example:

For apple trees: daffodils, tansy, marigold, and hyssop repel apple pests, while chives and fennel help prevent apple scab fungus. 

apple tree with guild

For walnut trees: daffodils, daylilies, and iris suppress grass with their bulbs. Astilbe, beebalm, Shasta daisy, hollyhocks, and bergamot attract pollinators and beneficial predators against pests. Lima beans, snap beans, and white clover help provide the necessary nitrogen for walnut trees to resist disease. All of these are resistant to juglone, a toxic compound produced in the leaves and roots of both black walnut and (to a lesser degree) English walnut trees.

 

Make It a Trio!

Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms has enhanced the guild concept with trios – two different fruit and/or nut trees supported by a nitrogen-fixing tree. So, for example, he might have an apple and a pear tree, or a pear and pecan, or a walnut and hickory, alongside a nitrogen-fixing tree such as honey locust, sea buckthorn, or redbud.

See Stefan explaining the concept of trios on his Miracle Farms orchard here:

This way, the two fruit and/or nut trees receive the nitrogen they need, while any damage from pests or disease is confined to one tree and cannot spread, as it would in a single-species monoculture. 

The result? Stefan has not applied any fertilizer to his 5-acre orchard since 2007, and his yield equals that of any conventional orchard.

 

Improving Your Fruit Tree Guild Over Time

Planting your guild is just the beginning. As your fruit tree matures, you may notice the appearance of a pest or disease. 

Is this a sign that your guild has failed, or that you should run for chemical treatments? Not at all!  Instead, it’s an opportunity to experiment with the relationships between the plants, insects, birds, and soil ecology in your mini-ecosystem. 

It all begins with research.

  • Take some photos and identify the problem.  You can find a wealth of information in books and on apps, in online special-interest groups, and in master gardening programs and cooperative extension services. 
  • Research beneficial predators that prey on the pest. The National Center for Appropriate Technology offers a series of data sheets on insect pests and their predators HERE
  • Research plants that attract the beneficial predators you want.
  • Research plants that help to combat the disease. You can also use their essential oils: for example, a Chinese study found tea tree essential oil to be an effective treatment against brown rot in peaches. 

Once you have found the plants to solve your tree’s problems, add them to your guild, and monitor the results. This is not an overnight process, but over time you will notice changes. Record what you’ve done and the results, and if necessary, repeat the process.  

See Stefan explaining how trios support integrative pest management here:

The Goal of a Guild:  Effortless Abundance!

Over time, as your guild grows, you’ll find you need to spend less and less time managing it, while your enjoyment of its harvest increases. And as for the dire warnings of conventional wisdom about oh-so-fragile and finicky fruit trees? You can smile – you know better!

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