Design a fruit tree guild

Let’s Design a Fruit Tree Guild

In this episode, we’re going to dive into how to design a fruit tree guild. Fruit tree guilds are a topic that often gets over-complicated with people worrying about specific plants. Instead, you can focus on functions that a fruit tree needs which makes it much easier to design a fruit tree guild. Let’s dive into it.


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So what does it mean to design a fruit tree guild based on functions? What this means is that you don’t need to worry so much about specific plants. Instead, this design looks at the functions plants and other elements of a guild bring. Because of this your fruit tree guild will likely be very different than mine.

The functions we will focus on are: 

  1. Supporting soil life
  2. Feeding your tree
  3. Controlling pests
  4. And providing more food

Show Notes:

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And this guild won’t only include plants. A healthy fruit tree guild also needs non-living elements. Elements like logs, rocks, mulch, and snags. These elements all provide critical functions to any healthy living system.

By focusing on these 4 functions you won’t have to worry about a specific plant—lots of plants can fill the role of each of these functions. And some can even support multiple functions at once.

So let's look dive into what a function-based fruit tree guild can look like by designing a fruit tree guild together.

But before we dive into the design I want to take a moment to say thank you to one of our newest Patrons Jennifer Lopez.

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Okay, let’s get started.

Design a Fruit Tree Guild to Support Soil Life

Grow waterleafs in the shade

Mulching the soil creates an environment that supports fungi and other beneficial soil life.

Have you ever explored the forest floor? In a healthy forest, the ground is covered by a layer of duff. This duff layer is filled with life feeding on the fallen leaves, branches, dead animals, and other organic material that has fallen to the forest floor.

And it’s filled with beneficial fungi and bacteria.

Many of these fungi connect directly to the roots of trees and other plants creating a complex network sometimes called the wood wide web.

This web allows for the transfer of nutrients and even water between the fungi and the trees and other plants that are all connected.

This gives the trees access to nutrients that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.

But often fruit trees are planted in the middle of a field of orchard grass. Instead, let’s create an environment that is closer to the forest floor.

If there is grass around your fruit tree or in the area you want to plant it the first step is to sheet-mulch the grass. There is a link in the resources section of the show notes to a blog post all about how to get started with sheet-mulching.

Not only will this eliminate the grass it will also start the process of creating a duff layer filled with fungi and other beneficial soil life.

If the grass is already gone then you will want to make sure to still cover the soil with mulch or plants.

Plants can function as living mulch which will keep the soil covered, help keep leaves that fall in place, and they will also feed soil life through the release of root exudates.

A few weeks ago we had a podcast episode all about the soil food web and why it matters. So make sure to check that out to learn more about soil life, how it interacts with plants, and why it’s important. There is a link in the resources section of the show notes.

Mulch, like fall leaves and wood chips, is a great way of starting your fruit tree guild. But as we continue to design a fruit tree guild we will add more plants. As these plants grow and fill in they will take over the role of mulch with fall leaves, branches, and other organic material naturally building a duff layer.

Just like a healthy forest.

Design a Fruit Tree Guild to Feed Your Fruit Tree

Let's design a fruit tree guild with goumi berries

Goumi berries and lupines are some of my favorite nitrogen fixers and are a great addition to any fruit tree guild.

The next step to design a fruit tree guild is to make sure your fruit tree and other plants will have plenty of nitrogen to grow quickly.

While the soil food web will provide the nutrients your plants need you can give it a boost without relying on fertilizers.

This can be done by planting nitrogen fixers.

These are plants that fix nitrogen into the soil through a partnership with microbes that live on their roots. It’s those microbes that fix the nitrogen—the nitrogen-fixing plants provide a home for those microbes.

Clovers are a common example of a nitrogen-fixing plant. Beans and peas are some other common examples.

One of my favorites is lupines.

Here in western Washington, there are multiple native lupines and I often plant them in new growing areas.

While most lupines aren’t edible they support pollinators, they’re beautiful, and they get large taproots that can help break up compacted soil naturally. Plus, you can chop and drop many types of lupines to quickly build up a soil duff layer.

Goumi berries are another great nitrogen fixer. These shrubs not only fix nitrogen but also produce an abundance of tasty red berries. My daughter just loves eating these berries.

Regardless of what type of nitrogen fixer you plant, you will want to include at least a few nitrogen fixers in any fruit tree guild.

As your guild gets established you can replace some of these with other plants but always make sure there is at least 1 nitrogen-fixing shrub nearby or a mix of smaller ones like clovers and lupines.

Design a Fruit Tree Guild to Control Pests

Control garden pests with predators like garter snakes

Log piles provide shelter for all sorts of beneficial insects that can help keep pests in balance.

So we’ve now designed a fruit tree guild to have healthy soil filled with beneficial soil life and nutrients that your plants will need to thrive.

While having healthy soil will help your fruit tree and other plants resist pests there are some additional steps you can take to deal with pests directly.

What you need to do is create an environment that will support the predators that eat pests.

Planting native flowers is a great first step.

This is one reason why I plant native lupines around my fruit trees. They fix nitrogen but they also support many of the predators that keep pests in balance.

The stems of lupines are hollow and by leaving the dead stems standing or on the ground they can serve as homes for all sorts of beneficial insects.

But any native flowers will support a wide range of beneficial insects. So try planting a mix of them so your fruit tree guild can be as diverse as possible.

Another one I like to include is checkermallows since they’re also a native vegetable providing great year-round harvests in addition to supporting beneficial insects.

Beyond planting flowers you will also want to leave the fall leaves that fall each autumn. Also, make sure to leave any downed branches and other organic material.

Remember how the forest floor is covered with that duff layer? You want your fruit tree guild to have this too.

Not only does this support soil life it also provides shelter for all sorts of beneficial critters like frogs, toads, centipedes, ladybugs, and many more. Insects like ladybugs will take shelter in the duff layer to survive the winter.

If you clear the fall leaves not only do you hurt the soil life but you also take away the shelter these beneficial critters need to survive.

And finally, you can add some logs and rock piles around your fruit tree. These will provide even more protection for beneficial critters.

Plus if placed on the south side of your fruit tree they can help keep the soil cool and moist which can help your tree get established through the summer heat.

Add More Food Plants

Miners lettuce

Plants like miner’s lettuce can be added to your fruit tree guild to provide additional harvests.

The last step to design a fruit tree guild is to add more food plants. There is no reason why you can’t grow more food around your fruit tree.

In the first years while the fruit tree is growing the ground around it will still be very sunny.

You can easily plant traditional vegetables around it—greens like lettuce and chard are great options.

But you can also plant perennial vegetables and native vegetables as a permanent part of your fruit tree guild.

Some like checkermallows can even provide more benefits such as supporting beneficial insects. And others like goumi berries can also fix nitrogen.

I’ve put a couple of links in the resources section of the show notes all about perennial vegetables and native vegetables to help you get started with these great plants.

If you plant larger plants like goumi berries, gooseberries, or other shrubs make sure to plant them at least 6-feet away from your fruit tree so they can grow together. Though you may need to prune the shrubs back a bit until the fruit tree is above the shrubs.

I also really like planting strawberries as a nice groundcover around my fruit trees. In addition to providing yummy berries, they also serve as a living mulch.

And as your fruit tree and any shrubs grow there will be more shady areas. Once this starts to happen try adding shade-loving plants to the guild.

Miner’s lettuce is one of my favorites since it grows great in the shade and provides abundant great-tasting greens.

Wood sorrels are another great option for shady areas.

The key here is to just add more food plants so you can get an abundance of harvests right away from your fruit tree guild.

Moving Beyond the Fruit Tree Guild

Explore a food forest so you can start your own

A food forest is just multiple fruit tree guilds put together.

So what do you think? If you follow this general design process your fruit tree guild will provide all the basic functions your fruit tree needs to thrive. Those functions are: 

  1. Supporting soil life
  2. Feeding your tree
  3. Controlling pests
  4. And providing more food

But you can take it a step further by combing multiple fruit tree guilds together to create a food forest.

A couple of weeks ago I took you on a virtual tour of my front food forest. In that episode, we explored the various layers of a food forest and how it results in abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

The fruit tree guild we just designed is essentially just a zoomed-in version of a food forest. Instead of looking at the forest we instead looked at a single tree and the plants and other elements that help it thrive.

But if you want to zoom out to the forest then all you need to do is add additional fruit trees with their guilds around the first. Just keep the fruit trees spaced out—roughly 12 to 20-feet depending on the size of the fruit trees.

This will give room for shrubs and other sun-loving plants to be planted between them.

Once you get a few fruit trees and their guilds planted you will have a food forest. While it will still be small it will be a great start. And you can easily expand it just by adding more fruit or nut trees to it.

If you feel overwhelmed with the idea of planting a food forest starting with a single fruit tree guild is a great option.

Even if you never move beyond a couple of fruit trees you will still have a dynamic and abundant food system that will support your family and community and help heal the living world around you.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at why your garden needs logs and rock piles. Just like your fruit tree guild should have these non-living elements in them so should your garden. Next week’s episode will look at these in more detail and how they can help your garden.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.