Designing a fruit tree guild

Planting a fruit tree guild

We ourselves are part of a guild of species that lie within and without our bodies. Aboriginal peoples and the Ayurvedic practitioners of ancient India have names for such guilds, or beings made up (as we are) of two or more species forming one organism. Most of nature is composed of groups of species working interdependently.

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
Fruit tree guilds are the basic building blocks of permaculture orchards and edible forests. Every yard can fit at least one fruit tree guild!

A fruit tree guild is an interconnected ecosystem

Martin Crawford in Creating a Forest Garden defines guilds as “groups of species that support each other in beneficial ways, aiding self-maintenance, and reducing the work required to maintain the system.”
Image: Midwest Permaculture.

Guilding is a permaculture technique that learns from and works with the relationships in nature, especially in a forest system.

Unlike monocultures – a field of corn, a traditional apple orchard or a grass lawn – guilds are polycultures of diverse plants, insects and animals that support each other in a mini ecosystem. They’re designed around a primary food producing species (such as an apple tree) along with diverse, multi-functional support species to maximize the health and productivity of the guild. They produce a wide variety of useful products such as food, medicine, fibre, wood and dye.

How guilds work

Trees in a whole system, Permaculture Designer’s Manual

By considering the whole plant community, – placing plants carefully in relation to each other in a way that facilitates interconnection and support rather than competition (for example, plants with different root systems such as shallow vs tap roots)

  • Nitrogen fixing plants, along with species that supply phosphorus, potassium, calcium and other minerals, fertilize food producing plants
  • Soil food web recycles plant debris to build healthy, moisture retentive soil
  • Insectary plants attract beneficial predatory insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and predatory wasps as well as pollinators such as native bees that increase fruit and vegetable yield
  • Strongly aromatic plants such as oregano, garlic, thyme and yarrow confuse pests, preventing them from discovering the plants they like to eat
  • Diversity attracts a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, insects and birds to increase system health
  • Dense layer of herbaceous and groundcover plants suppress unwanted species and protect the soil

Designing fruit tree guilds

Arranging plants by height, from south to north, maximizes sunlight for each plant
Illustration: Maia Massion, Edible Landscaping

There are many possibilities for fruit tree guilds. Your choice comes down to the tree that you’d like to plant and the site conditions of your location. Two great resources to inspire you with the possibilities are these examples of edible forestscape plant communities or guilds (black walnut, hackberry, hickory, pecan, apple, peach, plum, fruit tree, white oak, hazelnut) and  fruit, wet meadow, bee, oak, service tree and walnut tree guilds by Midwest Permaculture.

You can also design guilds around existing trees. Here are a couple of examples to inspire you.

Mature fruit apple and pear trees in Victoria were converted into guilds, All Points Land Design
If you already have trees such as oak, sugar maple (not Norway maple) or hickory you can guild them, Midwest Permaculture

Choose a disease resistant variety

One of your most important decisions is choosing your tree. Ideally, choose:

  • Heirloom, disease resistant or genetically diverse plants that are resistant pests and disease
  • Varieties not commonly found in markets or grocery stores such as heirloom apples, rare nuts such as chestnut, or unusual fruits such as pawpaw, persimmon, jujube, mulberry, Saskatoon berry or medlar
  • Source from a reputable grower in a similar hardiness zone (fruit trees in the big box stores may come from as far away as Oregon and as a result will be less hardy). Sources include: Whiffletree Farm & Nursery, V. Kraus Nurseries, Corn Hill Nursery, Grimo Nut Nursery, Hardy Fruit Tree Nursery

Observe your site conditions

linear guild along the downhill side of a hugelkultur swale, Midwest Permaculture

Observe the sun: When does the sun hit the location? How long does it last? Is it full sun (6+ hours), partial sun (3-6 hours or full shade (<3 hours)? Most fruit trees require full sun. However species such as pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and hazelnut tolerate partial shade.

Observe the soil: Is it clay and poorly drained? Is it sandy and well drained?
Is it rich with organic matter?
Does it have healthy soil life? Most of these you can determine with a simple soil test.

Observe the wind: Are there cold winter winds? Hot summer winds?

Observe the water: Is rainfall consistent throughout the season? Is there an opportunity to capture, divert and store rainwater? Do you have supplementary irrigation available?

Observe aesthetics: Is there an unwanted view to screen out? A desired views you’d like to experience from a window? A location you’d like to convert into an outdoor room?

Prepare the site and plant the primary plant species

Mulch basins capture and store rainwater or greywater in the soil, reducing Create an Oasis with Greywater, Art Ludwig

Construct a berm to improve the soil: If you’re preparing the site well in advance (which is the ideal case), kill the grass by building a circular terrace or mound at least 3×3 metres in diameter. Mounds help tremendously if you have heavy clay as most fruit trees dislike heavy clay. A lasagna bed is a great method for both improving the soil and creating the mound. Shape the mound, once it settles, into a gentle slope before planting.

Dig a mulch basin to store water: If you want to reduce the need for watering or capture and store storm or greywater, dig a moat 25-45 cm deep at the perimeter of the circle and use this soil to help build the gently sloping mound and to construct a berm around the outer circle to hold water in the mulch basin. Fill the moat with branches, small logs and cover with woodchips.

Shift soil to fungal dominance: Fruit trees prefer a fungally dominant soil. Trees roots partner with fungal mycorrhizae to share nutrients. To shift to fungal dominance, remove grass, add woodchips and ideally introduce some native soil collected from around a mature apple tree or a forest.

Plant the fruit tree: Robert Kourik has an excellent article on planting fruit trees. With his technique, you build the mound as you plant, offsetting the need to dig a hole. Stake the tree only if needed, on the side of the worst summer winds. Position graft knob facing north (to protect the graft with the tree’s shade).

Planting a fruit tree, Robert Kourik, Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally

Plant supporting species

Species and functions in a fruit tree guild, Midwest Permaculture

Choose at least 8-9 support species: Geoff Lawton suggests one large, one medium and one small nitrogen fixing tree, one small shrub, 4-5 herbaceous perennials and 1-2 groundcovers. Think of these support species as sacrificial, you may cut down some of the nitrogen fixing species as they grow too big. Smaller species may end up being shaded out. This is part of the cycle. They’re there to support the guild as it develops through natural succession. And you’ll be surprised that – once you start thinking in layers – how many plants fix in a small space.

When planting your support species, include a shrub (a berry bush or nitrogen fixing shrub are great choices) to the southwest to protect again winter sunscald.

Thirty most valuable plants for urban and suburban edible forest gardens, The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience, Toby Hemenway

We’re in the early stages of compiling a species list specific for Eastern Ontario. but in the meantime check out Midwest Permaculture’s 80 favourite plants. Most of the species they list will also do well here.

From a guild to a food forest

Fruit and nut trees can be linked together in a grouping, underplanting them all with guilds. As you link together guilds, you create a food forest.