Fruit Tree Guilds: Permaculture Style!


The word permaculture has always seems very descriptive to me when applied to the garden. It was first coined in the 70s by Bill Mollison from the two words 'permanent-agriculture'.

Twenty years ago when we discovered gardening, my husband and I bought a copy of Bill Mollison's Permaculture One book. At the time it was a big expediture for us and we poured over it time and time again. Then, as today, my main take aways are: to garden with nature vs. against it and view our gardens as ecosystems to be tended.

Fruit tree guilds are modeled from the forest. In a healthy forest there is canopy, undergrowth and ground cover. Each species interacts and provides nutrient, protection or habitat for the others.

Here are the basics:

Fruit trees are planted as the canopy. We have various varieties of apples, peaches,, apricots, pears and more. Our trees are all spaced by about 10-15 ft and watered by permanent drip hose spiraled around them. The water system irrigates the trees and the understory plantings as well. We find that in the summer months our trees only need irrigation about once every 2 weeks.

At 2500 ft in the foothills we find the most reliable producers are the pears, apples and peaches, though this year sadly, the trees are all bare due to hard frost at the wrong moment this spring!

Circling the fruit tree is essentially an herb bed full of perennial plants and beneficial annuals. These provide the fruit tree with both an understory and ground cover. There are so many options when it comes to plant selection. Here are some condsiderations.

1. Nitrogen fixers: One goal of permaculture is to close the loop, meaning creating ecosystems that are not dependant upon continuous outside inputs. Many plants will fix nitrogen to the soil to feed your fruit trees, the most well known are those in the legume family like beans, peas, lupin and clover.

In our original orchard we planted two varieties of nitrogen fixing shrubs, Sea Buckthorn and Autumn Olive, both which also produce an edible berry. These are still thriving 15 years later and have proven to be very drought tolerant.

2. Pest deterants: Highly aromatic plants can repell some harmful insects. Many of our guilds contain lavender, catnip, thyme and rosemary. These also suit our climate as they are all very drought tolerant. At the same time these all bloom and attract beneficial pollinators and fill different verticle niches around the trees.

3. Compost plants: No guild is complete in our orchard without comfry around its base. Comfry is wonderful because it grows quickly and is easy to propagate. Simply dig some root, cut it in pieces and replant elsewhere. The plant produces a bounty of green leaves that can be cut back and left on the ground as much or added to a compost pile. Other good choices include borage and yarrow both which can be cut down to add to compost heaps or left for ground cover.

4. Climate preferance: It is essential to plant for your own climate. For example, I know that nasturtium is a fantastic guild plant but our summer heat will fry them and the winter frost kill them off. So instead we stick with varieties that can tolerate the extreme heat we live in. Here is a list of my favorite perennial herbs and native plants that can be found planted again and again throughout our gardens.

Lavender, rosemary, hyssop, licorice mint, echinacea, yarrow, milkweed, comfry, currant, shasta daisy, feverfew, wild bergamot, nettle, calendula, California poppy, clary sage, lemon balm, iris, white sage, black sage, garden sage, mint, strawberries, lacy phacelia, buckwheat

I hope this has given you some ideas for your own fruit tree guilds. Let me know what you think!