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3 simple steps to start a fruit tree guild

 
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Coming up with a guild for your fruit trees is a core part of permaculture and can really help your fruit trees thrive. Really, a food forest is just a collection of fruit tree guilds that together mimic the connections that happen naturally in a forest.

But coming up with a complete guild for your fruit trees can be challenging. Especially, if you’re fairly new to planting in this way. Plus, if you don’t have your own propagation setup it can also be a bit expensive—even if you’re growing most of the plants by direct seeding.

Luckily, you don’t have to start with a complete guild—you can’t start with a few simple steps that you can then build on as you make more observations and learn about more plants.

This week’s blog post — 3 Steps to Start a Fruit Tree Guild – covers 3 steps that will get your fruit trees off to a great start.

The 3 steps recommend (and covered in detail) in the blog post are:

1. Mulch the ground around your fruit tree.
2. Plant nitrogen fixing plants.
3. Control pests by planting flowering plants and adding rock/log piles.

You might notice that starting a fruit tree guild does not just mean planting more plants. Let’s dive into why I think you shouldn’t focus only on plants when coming up with a fruit tree guild.

Moving the Fruit Tree Guild Beyond Just Plants



In Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden, he states that plant guilds:

form healthy, interacting networks that reduce the gardener’s labor, yield abundant gifts for people and wildlife, and help the environment by restoring nature’s cycles.



But this doesn’t need to be limited to only plants. Most trees and shrubs form connections with fungi in the soil—these fungi can help your fruit tree get access to nutrients and water.

This is why mulching the entire area around your fruit tree is the first thing I recommend for starting a fruit tree guild. The result is that right from the beginning your fruit tree guild will include all sorts of beneficial fungi.

I also recommend adding rock and log piles in addition to flowers around your fruit trees. The reason is that these habitat features provide places for predators that will eat the pests that try to go after your fruit trees.

By adding these habitat features plus the flowers you’re essentially adding a wide range of predators to your guild—critters such as ground beetles, frogs, salamanders, and centipedes.

Of course you can also help your fruit tree grow quicker by planting nitrogen fixing plants around it. Combined with the other 2 steps that wraps up the 3 simple steps you can take to start a fruit tree guild.

Creating a Foundation to Build on



When you start with mulch, nitrogen fixing plants, flowers, and rock/log piles you create a foundation that you can easily build on.

It’s easy to add to this starting fruit tree guild by planting some edible shrubs—gooseberries are a great option but I’m also a fan of hazelnuts—perhaps some ground covers like strawberries, and some perennial vegetables like Good-King Henry or kosmic kale. Bulbs like daffodils are always a good option to add!

But you don’t have to start with all those plants. Just start with the 3 steps covered in the blog post and you will be off to a great start.

So what is your favorite plant to have as part of your fruit tree guilds? Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to check out the blog post which covers these 3 steps in much more detail.

While you are over on the blog most make sure to leave a comment! If you are the first to do so you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.

Thank you!
 
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Just posted on the blog. I love the synopsis. Really in-depth. I don't think there's a part you left out, or even skimmed much.

Thanks, Daron!

-CK
Staff note (Daron Williams) :

Thanks for the comment on the blog! You were the first--pie for you!

 
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Daron Williams wrote:
Coming up with a guild for your fruit trees is a core part of permaculture and can really help your fruit trees thrive. Really, a food forest is just a collection of fruit tree guilds that together mimic the connections that happen naturally in a forest.
The 3 steps recommend (and covered in detail) in the blog post are:

1. Mulch the ground around your fruit tree.
2. Plant nitrogen fixing plants.
3. Control pests by planting flowering plants and adding rock/log piles.



So far, I've got the mulch part in an orchard with lots of apple trees, a couple of cherry trees and mulberry bushes/ trees, aronias and blueberries. I'm planning to uproot a few comfrey plants [because that is what I have] out of the garden and make cuttings  and place them around each tree. I'd like to add hazelnuts: The wild ones grow like crazy here but they end up wormy and they are not big. The apple trees are planted in rows  about 20 ft apart. I may be able to pant them closer, or perhaps put rows of bushes. and I will have to fence the whole thing because the deer, who are notoriously absent during the deer season still manage to nip a lot of the new growth in the spring. And I don't need to tell you what they will do to the comfrey!
So, I've got the mulch covered (ha ha-could not resist). Rocks? Well, not unless I import: We are in sands, so, no go on rocks. For logs, I sure have: Lots and lots of oak trees dying of the wilt. Would my fruit trees be safe surrounded by logs like that?
I can get the chickens loose in the orchards once they are fenced at least for a few hours in the afternoon, after they have laid their eggs. I'm worried about what they too will do to the comfrey: So far. I've clipped it for them and it disappears in minutes. They love scattering the mulch too. The apple trees are mostly semi-dwarf, every 20 ft or thereabout, which limits what I can put under  them, but I would love to have more of a *forest* that I would not have to mow, so I'm very interested in this thread.
I will be avidly looking at the plants you suggest for apple guilds in zone 4.
 
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Hooray for this idea!  I want to get started but I first have to find the right species:  Does anyone from a desert environment have successful recommendations for fruit and nut trees?  (West Texas, mile high, Chihuahuan desert: Very low precipitation, high summer heat, late summer intense rains, variable inconsistent freezes in winter...... AND getting hotter, more susceptible to polar-vortex deep freezes but again not dependable, and fewer but faster more flashy rainstorms with ongoing & worsening climate change.)  Traditional nut farming around here is pecans but they are flood irrigated which is very water-wasteful and unsustainable for our shrinking aquifers.  Also I don't love pecans.

Related question:  I could site my guild near my septic field OR my greywater leach field (all subsurface... no ponds).  My land has a slope to it... how far from these leach fields and in what direction would be best for the fruit trees?
 
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Author Message
Jessie Kelsch

Hooray for this idea!  I want to get started but I first have to find the right species:  Does anyone from a desert environment have successful recommendations for fruit and nut trees?  (West Texas, mile high, Chihuahuan desert: Very low precipitation, high summer heat, late summer intense rains, variable inconsistent freezes in winter...... AND getting hotter, more susceptible to polar-vortex deep freezes but again not dependable, and fewer but faster more flashy rainstorms with ongoing & worsening climate change.)  Traditional nut farming around here is pecans but they are flood irrigated which is very water-wasteful and unsustainable for our shrinking aquifers.  Also I don't love pecans.  



I am not American so I'm not sure about the exact geographical relevance to your area, but Brad Lancaster has some success in Tucson, and I'm linking a YouTube video for you.




 
Daron Williams
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Chris – Thank you! Really appreciate it!

Cécile – I think logs are a great option. They shouldn’t cause any problems—the things that eat/decompose dead wood tend to be different than the pests/disease that bother living wood. Potentially, rodents could be an issue but I find creating habitat features like log piles also encourages the predators that eat the rodents. Thanks for the comment and good luck!

Jessie – Desert environment… I’m afraid I’m not a good source of info for your environment. I have never lived in that sort of climate. Hopefully others can help!

You should check out the permies forum for people living in Oklahoma and Texas: https://permies.com/f/215/oklahoma-texas

You might be able to get some more specific help there and there might be some good existing threads with the information you’re looking for.

Guida – Thanks for sharing! Brad Lancaster does have a lot of great ideas and information. I highly recommend people living in a dry area look up his books and online information.
 
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I am starting very small I have .69 acres and we had to remove some pine trees last year because they were too close to the house so far I have 3 Apple trees some blueberry bushes, bayberry,  Aronia. I can't call it a guild,  but I'm just trying to grow some fruit. I have a good sized elderberry with a smaller one nearby.  I  was wondering,  you said nitrogen producing plants. Would it help to use white clover around the area?
Thanks
 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
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Janet Desmarais wrote:I am starting very small I have .69 acres and we had to remove some pine trees last year because they were too close to the house so far I have 3 Apple trees some blueberry bushes, bayberry,  Aronia. I can't call it a guild,  but I'm just trying to grow some fruit. I have a good sized elderberry with a smaller one nearby.  I  was wondering,  you said nitrogen producing plants. Would it help to use white clover around the area?
Thanks



It is wonderful that on a handkerchief sized yard you are growing apple trees, elderberries, aronias... [Bayberry I don't know. You must live in a warmer zone]
Aronias, blueberries will stay put  mostly [they will enlarge and grow taller but will not attempt to take over]. My elderberries roam a bit, so I'd keep them separate. Besides, they are a bit tall to manage *under* an apple tree. If the pines sprung up wild, the soil may be acid enough for blueberries but in my 6.5ph soil, I had to contain them where I could add an acidifier once in a while. They will not do well under apple trees as the ph required is so different. [4.5-5.5 range is where they do best]
As far as what enhances the soil under apple trees, here is a site that might help you. [If you have sandy soil, I would recommend against chives as they do overtake the orchard]
https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/apples/apple-tree-companions.htm
Comfrey will greatly enrich your soil and I have a bias towards it. If you have not decided what you want on your lawn, yes, clovers that will grow where you live are a great choice. You might even get berseem clover, which blossoms bright red. But most clovers are not long lived: they exhaust themselves making your soil richer. Once the soil is richer, they lose their raison d'etre and die back.
Your choice also depends on your overall goal in planting companions:
If you want to keep the deer away, strong aromatic plants are not their fave. Comfrey may *attract* deer. I solved the problem by fencing my orchards.
If you want to enrich the soil, I'd recommend legumes and pulses.
If, perchance you feel the need to spray, you would have to be very careful so you do not poison the blossoms under your apple trees! [One more argument to add to "do not spray!"]
You might want to indicate your growing zone so that permies could give you more "tailored" tips.
 
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I have my forest started from spring 2020. So far I have a main fruit tree with 4 "corners" surrounding it about 2 feet away. Each North East corner has different day Lilly. Each south east corner has garlic chives, chives or asparagus.  Each North East corner has a perennial edible like thyme, rhubarb,  strawberry, wild carrots, walking onions.  The south west corners are supposed to have the function of offering shelter from our harsh Canadian winter in the form of stopping the tree from getting sunburn from the sun reflecting off the snow. I have been able to move a few saskatoon, Buffalo berry, and spruce to some of the trees. But I don't have enough to finish the job.
2 ideas to bounce off you all. I found Junipers, about 5, could I move those? Secondly, I have huge pile of cut down bushes from another area. Can I just put piles in that corner for now and just move the piles over as I slowly find enough bushes to fill the spot? If so, how high would I want the piles to meet the sunburn goal and offer critter habitat?
 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
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Lora-Leah Andersen wrote:I have my forest started from spring 2020. So far I have a main fruit tree with 4 "corners" surrounding it about 2 feet away. Each North East corner has different day Lilly. Each south east corner has garlic chives, chives or asparagus.  Each North East corner has a perennial edible like thyme, rhubarb,  strawberry, wild carrots, walking onions.  The south west corners are supposed to have the function of offering shelter from our harsh Canadian winter in the form of stopping the tree from getting sunburn from the sun reflecting off the snow. I have been able to move a few saskatoon, Buffalo berry, and spruce to some of the trees. But I don't have enough to finish the job.
2 ideas to bounce off you all. I found Junipers, about 5, could I move those? Secondly, I have huge pile of cut down bushes from another area. Can I just put piles in that corner for now and just move the piles over as I slowly find enough bushes to fill the spot? If so, how high would I want the piles to meet the sunburn goal and offer critter habitat?



You have a good idea about creating a guild. A main "fruit tree" is indeed the way to start. What kind of tree is it? Apple or...? and is it a dwarf tree, medium, standard size? If you go with a smaller tree, beware of moving a spruce, which may give too much shade to your asparagus. Asparagus are fond of sunshine and they are not afraid of getting sun scalded during the winters, of course. My first bed of asparagus was on the east of a line of spruce.. As the trees grew, the asparagus faltered. Even junipers can grow to be 20 ft, so that might not fit the bill either. [Although the berries can help you make gin]. Perhaps the brush pile could be your salvation: It would definitely cut the wind and you may chose to build a berm and pile weeds and dirt on it. This could then become a snow trap as well, depending on how much snow you need and get. I'm in sand, so I'm a bit biased: I try to hang on to moisture! Snow traps are definitely in my plans. In the great Midwest Plains, we get pretty windswept too, so windbreaks are a must. for a year or two, how about a snow fence, planted like 6 ft away? It would stop the sunscald and the wind... Here is a site that might help you too:
"Tree guilds are typically made up of six categories: suppressors, attractors, repellers, mulchers, accumulators, and fixers though there are variations and there’s no rule that you have to plant all of these or can’t plant more than one species from each category. "
https://blog.southernexposure.com/2018/01/planning-a-fruit-tree-guild/
You don't tell us your growing zone, but if you can grow comfrey, like 3- 4 ft from the trunk Your tree will be in heaven. in winter, the decomposing comfrey prepares nutrients for the next season.
 
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Hallo Jessie,
Waauw, that must be a very special place where you are living.
Gary Paul Nabhab also has a farm in a similar desert with an orchard. He has written many books. Here it says which trees he grows in his orchard:
https://www.garynabhan.com/about/visits-to-our-orchard/. You can also visit him there.

Agave should grow very well at your place. This comes from an article about agave as a carbon stocking plant that also regenerates the soil and gives a cash crop:
Agave plants (the best known of which are blue agave, used to produce tequila), along with nitrogen-fixing, companion trees such as mesquite, huizache, desert ironwood, wattle and varieties of acacia that readily grow alongside agave, are among the most common and prolific, yet routinely denigrated or ignored plants in the world.
This is another article about agave: https://www.organicconsumers.org/blog/agave-power-greening-desert

I live in the south of France, not as hot and dry as your place but still we have pretty dry summers. I got here just a few years ago. I am trying to grow pistachios, almonds, peach trees, pear trees and others. Jujube and pomme grenade. I have to water all the trees because they are just establishing themselves, later they should be able to support themselves. I made some swales so the water sinks in the soil instead of creating erosion. There was already a quince tree on the property and it has given quince.We made pie of it mixed with apple and apple/quince sauce. Mulberry trees grow well here too.

There is an amazing thread on permies about a guy in Greece who is planting trees from seed. Very dry summers in Greece. IF you read the thread, that is very long, you get quite a bit of info about different trees in dry climates.  I can not find the thread now. Maybe somebody else can?

All the best, Jesse, with your tree planting project. Soo exciting and so much fun!
Sat Atma
 
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Cécile Stelzer Johnson wrote:

Lora-Leah Andersen wrote:I have my forest started from spring 2020. So far I have a main fruit tree with 4 "corners" surrounding it about 2 feet away. Each North East corner has different day Lilly. Each south east corner has garlic chives, chives or asparagus.  Each North East corner has a perennial edible like thyme, rhubarb,  strawberry, wild carrots, walking onions.  The south west corners are supposed to have the function of offering shelter from our harsh Canadian winter in the form of stopping the tree from getting sunburn from the sun reflecting off the snow. I have been able to move a few saskatoon, Buffalo berry, and spruce to some of the trees. But I don't have enough to finish the job.
2 ideas to bounce off you all. I found Junipers, about 5, could I move those? Secondly, I have huge pile of cut down bushes from another area. Can I just put piles in that corner for now and just move the piles over as I slowly find enough bushes to fill the spot? If so, how high would I want the piles to meet the sunburn goal and offer critter habitat?



You have a good idea about creating a guild. A main "fruit tree" is indeed the way to start. What kind of tree is it? Apple or...? and is it a dwarf tree, medium, standard size? If you go with a smaller tree, beware of moving a spruce, which may give too much shade to your asparagus. Asparagus are fond of sunshine and they are not afraid of getting sun scalded during the winters, of course. My first bed of asparagus was on the east of a line of spruce.. As the trees grew, the asparagus faltered. Even junipers can grow to be 20 ft, so that might not fit the bill either. [Although the berries can help you make gin]. Perhaps the brush pile could be your salvation: It would definitely cut the wind and you may chose to build a berm and pile weeds and dirt on it. This could then become a snow trap as well, depending on how much snow you need and get. I'm in sand, so I'm a bit biased: I try to hang on to moisture! Snow traps are definitely in my plans. In the great Midwest Plains, we get pretty windswept too, so windbreaks are a must. for a year or two, how about a snow fence, planted like 6 ft away? It would stop the sunscald and the wind... Here is a site that might help you too:
"Tree guilds are typically made up of six categories: suppressors, attractors, repellers, mulchers, accumulators, and fixers though there are variations and there’s no rule that you have to plant all of these or can’t plant more than one species from each category. "
https://blog.southernexposure.com/2018/01/planning-a-fruit-tree-guild/
You don't tell us your growing zone, but if you can grow comfrey, like 3- 4 ft from the trunk Your tree will be in heaven. in winter, the decomposing comfrey prepares nutrients for the next season.



Thanks for all the pointers!
I was considering doing mini swales and berms on the "corner" when it could work and I could cover it with sticks so littles do not fall in.
I think it is juniper that I found. They are evergreens, with no tall trunk, they look like an elephant stepped on the middle, lol.
My zone is 3a, I'm in central Alberta Canada.  I do have comfrey in the food forest, but only in a couple guilds. I have 11 kids and find that I do not have time to chop and drop, I don't want the comfrey to take over.
I have a full size pear, and two semi dwarf apple trees as well as 20 saskatoons which my grandfather planted over 30 years ago.
The rest is pear, plum, apple, apricot, beaked hazelnut, many cherry types. I have a main tree about every 25 feet, with two bushes halfway to the next main tree. For the next few years I will be planting anuals in between to fill it all in. And I found wild strawberries and wild blackberry today as well, can't wait to move some in.
Oh and I get about 300 bags of leaves from my neighbor every year with I try to spread heavily as I have time.
 
Sat Atma Khalsa
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I found the thread about planting trees from seed in very dry areas. Here it is.  https://permies.com/t/14353/Reforestation-Growing-trees-arid-barren
Almond and apricot, he does. PEAches and nectarines are suggested too. In my area cherry trees propagate themselves.
 
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Hi, we are reclaiming an orchard with trees planted decades ago and are interested in the idea of nitrogen fixing plants and guilds. We are located in zone 3 and currently have grass and weeds growing under all the trees (apple, sour cherry, plum and pear. Do you have suggestions of how to start ?  What type of mulch would you recommend?  I am wondering if white clover is a good option but worry about it being invasive and taking over where we don’t want it.
 
Cécile Stelzer Johnson
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Stephanie Hildebrand wrote:Hi, we are reclaiming an orchard with trees planted decades ago and are interested in the idea of nitrogen fixing plants and guilds. We are located in zone 3 and currently have grass and weeds growing under all the trees (apple, sour cherry, plum and pear. Do you have suggestions of how to start ?  What type of mulch would you recommend?  I am wondering if white clover is a good option but worry about it being invasive and taking over where we don’t want it.




White clover is not really "Invasive". Yes, it is not a "native" plant and in time [like 2 yrs max in my sand box], it will exhaust itself and be overtaken by regular weeds. It is not the kind of plant that you install once and done: Other plants: grasses, weeds will take over.
You may have heard that "Nature abhors emptiness". It is true:  you can take that to the bank! Something, anything will still attempt to grow under our fruit trees. Once we penetrate ourselves of that fact, we can make the decision: Do I want grass or do I want flowers to help pollinators. Do I want weeds or do I want another crop. Will Comfrey bring up nutrients from deep down for my apples to grow better?
Those "trees planted decades ago", what kind of shape are they in? Are some of them on the end of their life and not producing? or are they still going like gangbusters. That should be your first question.
Let's assume you will cull the trees that are not productive and plant new ones. For every tree you would like, google "growing guild for apples, pear, cherries etc. in zone 3 sandy, heavy, loamy soil", whichever you have.  It will give you a lot of ideas for nitrogen fixers as a lot of good people have done a lot of work on this aspect of horticulture. I even placed rhubarb under some of my trees: Rhubarb is a heavy feeder, and since I'm going to give some chicken manure to my trees, why not add a rhubarb plant there: on the shadier side, since they like it cooler. It will share the bounty with the tree. False indigo is another one I'd like: they are nitrogen fixers and close enough to the trunk, they will prevent quackgrass as they will have a lot of stems that will shade the ground and the trunk. In the fall, you can cut the stems... or leave them there, pod and all, for protection.
Or please yourself and get pretty flowers, why not? I really like nasturtiums, and they make a heavy vine that will choke weeds past installation. [but it is an annual].
As far as "mulch" you'd have to look at sources you might have near you: In the garden, leaves in the fall are my favorite because they will decompose and be good the following year. In the alleys and under the trees, I place chicken litter after my chickens are done with the bedding [Do keep it a few inches from the trunk, though...] I also get chips from the county after a storm or also after  some of my trees are brought down. I rent the chipper or pay for someone to come and chip them [expensive service but it is not that often, plus it creates a lot of chips that I don't have to buy]. Win win.
Another favorite is comfrey: It goes deep in search of nutrients, which it brings to the surface to be mined by the roots of my fruit tree. As the top dies in winter, its leaves are put to good use as a natural mulch that will feed the tree too.
Protect it from chicken though: chickens with throw themselves on comfrey like poverty on the World!
You do not indicate if you have animals in your orchard or if it is fenced against deer? If you don't have animals you might want to add chickens or ducks to fertilize the soil and sheep or goats as lawnmowers. If you want to practice only the chop and drop, [meaning without animals], it will take a very long time to enrich the soil.
I was even thinking of having black currants under some trees. Gooseberries have thorns, so that would not be my favorite. If you would like another *crop* under your trees, you have to look at the needs of both and how they might interfere: chickens will make sort work of a crop of gooseberries when they are ripe! If you spray [I hope you don't] you would have to make sure that one is not in bloom while you are spraying the other, for example. Or if they are likely to have the same kind of pest, maybe you don't want to put 2 species that attract the same bugs...
If you do mow with a conventional lawn mower, set the blade at the highest and throw towards the tree: Even if you mow rarely you will have additional biomass after each mowing. I mow about 3 times per season 4 times at most. Each time, I cuss that if I could, I would bale it... but I don't have the equipment. bummer!
Tell us how you are doing, Stephanie, and good luck!
 
It's a tiny ad. At least, that's what she said.
Solar Station Construction Plans - now FREE for a while
https://permies.com/t/138039/Solar-Station-Construction-Plans-FREE
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