3 steps to start a fruit tree guild

3 Steps to Start a Fruit Tree Guild

Feeling overwhelmed about starting a fruit tree guild? Unsure what to do first? A fruit tree guild is a powerful way to cultivate a healthy, abundant system centered around a tree. But it can seem like a daunting feat, trying to pick out not just your fruit tree, but also 12+ plants to keep it company. Where do you start? Luckily, starting a fruit tree guild doesn’t have to be complex. Let’s dive into 3 key steps you can take to start a fruit tree guild today.


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Before looking at the 3 key steps to start a fruit tree guild, let’s look into what a fruit tree guild even is, and why you would want one in the first place.

According to Toby Hemenway’s great book Gaia’s Garden, 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.”

Basically, a fruit tree guild—or any plant guild—is a community (or network) of plants that produces a more abundant system together than if each plant were grown separately.

Plant guilds are more abundant because the plants all provide a number of benefits to the community, through:

  • Fixing nitrogen
  • Building soil
  • Providing mulch
  • Attracting beneficial insects and supporting other beneficial critters, and
  • Controlling pests

In a fruit tree guild, the community of plants are chosen to support the fruit tree, which is normally planted in the center.

Many online guides break fruit tree guilds into 6-7 categories, based on the functions they serve, with multiple plants serving each function. The result is often a guild consisting of dozens of individual plants.

This will result in great abundance—(and it should be your ultimate goal)—but you don’t have to start there.

If you’re just learning about plants, or if you have a limited budget, it can be challenging to achieve this for even 1 fruit tree, let alone a whole food forest filled with a dozen different fruit trees!

In other words… That’s an end-point, not a starting point.

But there are 3 simple steps you can take to start a fruit tree guild. Let’s dive into them!

Before you scroll down, make sure to grab your cheat-sheet all about starting a food forest, which also includes 2 sample apple tree guilds.

Step 1 – Mulch the Ground Around Your Fruit Tree

When you go to start a fruit tree guild, the first step you should take is to mulch the surrounding area with wood chips, straw, fall leaves or other organic material. You could also add compost and spread seeds to grow a living mulch.

One of the most important things you can do to grow healthy fruit trees is to encourage fungi in your soil. Trees rely on fungi to protect them from pests, and to get access to nutrients and water.

A good mulch layer will create the conditions that will encourage fungi. (Having more fungi growing in your soil will help boost your entire property!)

Fungi may not be plants, but they’re a critical part of a healthy fruit tree guild. Plus, if you mulch around your trees and use sheet-mulching to eliminate grass, then you won’t have to plant plants that suppress grass.

This will save you time and energy in the long run. Unless you’re trying to create a savanna based food forest or a silvopasture, you don’t want grass growing around your trees. Keeping grass around your trees will just make more work for you in the long run, unless you manage it with animals or grow grass for regular harvesting.

Most of your trees will want to live in a plant community that is rich in fungi, without grass.

Mulching your trees will also help keep the soil nice and moist, which is critical for helping your new fruit tree get established. Mulch is fantastic at reducing the loss of water from your soil, and it could even eliminate the need for watering altogether, depending on your climate.

Step 2 – Start a Fruit Tree Guild with Nitrogen-Fixing Plants

Start a fruit tree guild with nitrogen fixing plants

I love growing lupines around my trees. These plants get deep taproots, fix nitrogen, and support beneficial insects.

The next step to start a fruit tree guild is to add nitrogen fixing-plants around your fruit tree. These are plants that work with bacteria found in the soil to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil in a form that your plants can use.

Basically, this is a free and natural source of fertilizer for your fruit trees.

On my property, I’ve had good luck growing lupines around my trees and shrubs. But you could also grow clover and many other types of nitrogen-fixing plants. I’m planning on spreading red clover seeds around many of my trees and shrubs early this spring.

Wild Tip:

Clovers and lupines fix nitrogen, but they also produce great flowers that attract beneficial insects. When you can, it’s a great idea to grow nitrogen-fixing plants that serve other functions in addition to fixing nitrogen. There are even nitrogen-fixing berries!

One reason I like growing lupines and clovers is that both can be chop-and-dropped. By cutting these plants back, you not only mulch the soil surface, but you also trigger a die-back in the roots, causing them to release a burst of nitrogen to the soil.

And you can do the same with woody nitrogen-fixing shrubs. This woody material will also help support fungi, which love all that woody debris.

If you start a fruit tree guild with a bunch of nitrogen-fixers your fruit trees will love you. Just don’t forget to chop-and-drop the nitrogen-fixing plants!

Step 3 – Start a Fruit Tree Guild by Controlling Pests

Start a fruit tree guild with rock piles

When I get a new area ready for planting, I always add features like logs, rocks, and snags to provide habitat for beneficial critters that will help me keep pests under control. This pile of rocks and logs is right next to a new vegetable garden area that I’m currently building.

Through the first 2 steps to start a food forest, you’ve created a rich fungal environment that stays moist through mulching, and you’ve planted plants that will help provide nitrogen for your fruit tree.

But what about pests? This is a big problem for a lot of people growing fruit trees.

Supporting a healthy community of fungi and reducing drought stress will make your fruit trees more resistant to pests. Luckily, these goals were already accomplished through step 1.

You also want to attract beneficial insects such as micro-wasps, hover flies, and lady bugs. A diverse mix of flowers is a great way to attract these beneficial insects.

Sweet alyssum is a great example of a flower that can attract beneficial insects. It’s also edible, low growing, and beautiful. Plus, you can easily grow it from seed, making it a good low cost option.

You can also buy a mix of flower seeds. West Coast Seeds has a number of great options if you live in an area with a temperate climate.

Wild Tip:

Don’t forget about native plants when picking your flowers! Adding native plants will support more insects than a non-native plant mix will. Here are some resources to help you get started with native plants:

Beyond planting flowers to attract beneficial insects, there is one more key element to controlling pests when you start a fruit tree guild. That is adding rock and log piles, and even installing snags just outside the edge of the fruit tree when it’s fully grown.

Rocks and log piles provide homes for all sorts of beneficial critters like frogs, toads, lizards, centipedes, and many others. This is a core part of rewilding your property, which will help keep your place in balance with nature.

It takes time to attract predators and other beneficial insects, and that’s why it’s so important to include these habitat features when you first start a fruit tree guild.

By attracting these predators and providing homes for them, you will see a lot less pest issues in the future as your fruit tree grows and matures.

Putting it All Together and the Next Steps

Start a fruit tree guild a step at a time

You don’t have to complete the entire guild at once. I started this food forest by first planting a hedgerow around the edge of it. Then I added fruit and nut trees in the middle with mulch, logs, and nitrogen fixing plants. I still have a lot of plants to add to this food forest, but it’s well on its way, and the trees are growing great.

So are you ready to start a fruit tree guild? Let’s summarize the 3 steps covered here so you can see it all put together.

3 Steps to Start a Fruit Tree Guild

  • 1
    Mulch the area around your fruit tree—use sheet-mulching to remove grass.
  • 2
    Plant nitrogen fixing plants—clover, and lupines are great examples.
  • 3
    Control pests by planting flowering plants and adding rock/log piles—sweet alyssum is an easy flower to start with.

If you do these 3 things around each of your fruit trees, you will be off to a great start, and you will have created a system that is well on its way to abundance.

But don’t stop there! Observe your fruit trees. See which plants are growing great and which are struggling.

Start adding new plants to the mix. Perhaps some edible shrubs like gooseberries, which don’t mind some shade. Bulbs like daffodils can be a beautiful addition and help repel pests. Another great option is to plant strawberries as a groundcover.

Add more edible plants, plants for chop-and-drop, and more flowers. If you add 1-3 more plants each year for a few years, you will soon have a lush and full fruit tree guild.

Wild Tip:

It’s okay for your fruit tree guild to change over time—in fact, it should! As your tree grows, it will start to shade out some of the plants you first planted. But other plants will do great in these new shady areas. Adjust your guild over time as your tree grows.

If you implement these 3 steps, your fruit trees will be off to a great start, and you can easily add to your guild over time.

Eventually, you can even merge your individual fruit tree guilds into a food forest!

So what are you going to plant first in your fruit tree guild? Leave a comment to let us know!

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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.

  • Christopher Kott says:

    Great synopsis, and excellent, concrete steps to developing a fruit tree guild. Thanks for this, Daron!

  • Diane says:

    This blog entry is a real keeper. I’m going to send it to my Kindle so I’ll have it handy in the middle of the night when I’m reading, unable to sleep, to keep me encouraged and thinking about what I’m doing. Thank you for including the links to all of the other information! Awesome job, Daron!

  • I love the “think small” reminder in this post. Thank you!

  • Ally Marks says:

    thank you, this was helpful! A quick question, with semi established trees is it ok to be digging and planting around it? My apple trees have very shallow roots…perhaps I’m thinking too close to the base?

    • Daron says:

      Thank you! I would try to limit the digging but some is fine–just try to avoid the roots. But if you can, what would be best is to grow plants from seed since you won’t need to disturb the soil as much. If you have mulch down you can just move it aside add some soil or compost and sow your seeds like you would in the garden. This is great for non-woody plants but can also work for shrubs. Otherwise, I would just do a bit at a time (spread out the planting over a couple years) so you don’t disturb too many of the roots at once. Hope that helps!

  • Susan says:

    Two of my favorite plants around a fruit tree are Mache or corn salad and alpine strawberries.They are not nitrogen fixers but they keep the grass away and give back gourmet snacking half the year.

    • Daron says:

      Those are great options! I have a type of wild strawberry growing around a lot of my trees and shrubs and I’m planning on adding Mache to several of my growing areas this year. Both are great options! If you want to add a nitrogen fixer red clover could be a good option–has a nice taproot and does not spread as much as white clover so it should play nicer with other plants.

  • Richard Cane says:

    Great article Daron. I laid down my sheet mulch in the fall and this article will help tremendously when I get planting in the spring

  • Brian says:

    Concise, helpful post, thank you
    (But as an aside, your social media links, as large, static icons right next to the text are a little distracting).

  • Sorin says:

    Thank you Daron! I just put my lupine seeds to germinate 😀

  • Anne Pratt says:

    And the other advantages of lupines are their prolific self-seeding, and their glorious beauty!

    • Daron says:

      Fully agree! I’m really enjoying all the lupine blooms right now at my place. And yeah they’re great at self-seeding. I also collect seeds and spread them to new areas. Thanks for the comment!

  • Marion says:

    It just so happens that this is my very first Permaculture step; my damson tree arrives tomorrow! Thanks for the great advice!

  • Marsha Brower says:

    You say: and even installing snags just outside the edge of the fruit tree when it’s fully grown. What is a snag?

    • Daron says:

      A snag is a dead tree but you can install a snag by taking a log and put it in the ground like you would a post. My property had no natural snags when my wife and I moved here. But since then I’ve added a good dozen or so small snags–just logs that I stuck in the ground. I’ve seen mason bees and other wildlife using them. Sometimes even wood peckers come and visit them!

  • Bob Sawyer says:

    Hi Daron,

    Can the three steps above be applied to replacing an existing lawn with edible landscaping? It’s not very wild in my front yard.

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