A fruit tree guild is an amazing thing. By including other plants under and around a single tree, wonderful things happen. What once was a lonely tree in a field of grass—grass competing with the tree for nutrients — becomes a nurturing ecosystem in itself. That means the apple tree will need fewer inputs from the gardener because most, if not all, of its needs are met by its companion plants.
A guild can be designed around any fruit tree, nut tree, or another useful tree, but one of the most commonly used species is the apple. Apple trees grow well in most temperate climates, the fruit is widely loved, and has an excellent shelf life.
Below I’ll lay out a simple apple tree guild example for you to copy or modify for your own garden. I’ve designed this apple tree guild for my zone 6b/7a garden in the inland Pacific Northwest, although it will work in a wide range of locations.
This Guild Example is Only a Starting Point
The plant list below is a great starting point, but it really is only the beginning. You can add more plants as the guild matures and you find gaps that need filling. Some plants will do better than others, so a little experimenting may be in order.
I started this guild design based on the apple tree guild described in Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. I’ve modified Hemenway’s guild to suit my own preferences and climate. I’ll be planting three apple tree guilds based on this design this spring. After the guilds are established in my own backyard food forest, I’ll revisit them in future posts.
Apple Tree Guild Plant List
Here is the plant list for this apple tree guild. Later in the post, I’ll explain why I chose each plant and possible substitutes for each.
- Goumi berry
- Wild Bergamot
- Scarlet runner beans
Choosing Apple Tree Guild Plants
When selecting plants for your apple tree guild, or any type of fruit or nut tree guild, always keep in mind what the tree needs, and how the other plants in the guild can support it. By choosing plants that help meet the needs of the tree, it will need fewer inputs and support from you, the gardener. The other plants in the guild will be supported by each other as well because a guild is its own little ecosystem. What a beautiful concept!
The functions required to support an apple tree:
- Beneficial insect attractors – plants that attract either pollinators or predatory insects.
- Mulchers – plants that cover the soil surface as living mulch and plants that create a lot of biomass for “chop and drop” mulching.
- Nutrient accumulators – deep tap-rooted plants that mine nutrients from deep in the soil, below the root zones of many other plants.
- Nitrogen fixers – Through symbiotic relationships with certain bacteria, these plants are able to source nitrogen right out of the air to create bioavailable nitrogen nodules on their roots. These nodules can benefit surrounding plants, too.
- Pest repellants – Plants that smell bad to pests, keeping them away from nearby target plants. These are also called aromatic confusers.
- Pest Traps – These plants also protect target crop plants by being more attractive to pests and distracting them away from other plants.
Fruit Tree Guild Plant List with Descriptions
In this example, the central element is an apple tree. Any apple variety is fine, but when you choose your variety, consider your site and local conditions, such as common pests. Choose varieties particularly suited to your environment and resistant to common pests in your area. if there aren’t other apple trees nearby you’ll need to plant at least two guilds with different apple varieties to pollinate each other. Make sure to pick compatible varieties.
Other fruit trees can be substituted into this guild in place of apple trees, but pay attention to any specific requirements for different types of fruit trees.
In this apple guild design, garlic is planted in a ring along the drip line of the mature tree and serves four functions that support the apple tree and other plants in the guild. I’ve selected several varieties to start with and will add more in future seasons.
Not sure which variety to choose? Here’s a detailed guide on how to choose a garlic variety.
Functions of garlic in a fruit tree guild:
- Grass suppressor – The densely planted shallow bulbs act as a barrier around the guild keeping grass out.
- Pest repeller – This ring also repels pests with a strong smell that many pests dislike. It is an aromatic confuser and will mask the smell of other plants in the guild, keeping nibbling bugs away.
- Food crop – garlic is, of course, edible, and it is a food many of us use frequently in cooking.
- Dynamic nutrient accumulator – I was surprised to learn, as I was browsing Gaia’s Garden, that garlic is also a dynamic nutrient accumulator of Sulfur and Manganese.
Alternatives to garlic
- Garlic chives
- Egyptian walking onions
Goumi berry (Elaeagnus multiflora)
Goumi berry is a nitrogen-fixing shrub that produces an edible berry (not to be confused with goji berry which is not a nitrogen-fixing plant). I’ve selected goumi berry over two other nitrogen-fixing species with edible berries (autumn olive, and sea buckthorn) for several reasons. Goumi is smaller at maturity, at only six feet high, which is good for my small yard. It’s non-invasive, whereas both autumn olive and sea buckthorn may be invasive in certain regions. And, it doesn’t seem to have the allelopathic properties that autumn olive may have.
Functions of goumi berry in a fruit tree guild:
- Edible – Both the fruit and seeds are edible and extremely healthful
- Pollinator attractor
Alternatives to goumi berry
- Autumn olive – only use after confirming this species isn’t invasive in your area
- Sea buckthorn – only use after confirming this species isn’t invasive in your area
- Silverberry – for colder climates, zones 2-6
Calendula is also known as pot marigold but is a completely different species than common marigold. While both species provide benefits in the garden, common marigolds can be toxic to ingest, but calendula is edible, and medicinal, and provides several benefits for this apple tree guild.
- Edible – flowers and leaves
- Beneficial Insect attractor
- Pest trap
- Living mulch
Wild Bergamot’s primary role in this guild is as a pollinator attractor. It’s also called wild bergamot, a name it earned for its smell resembling the citrus bergamot used to flavor Earl Grey tea. Wild bergamot’s fragrant and brightly colored red, pink, or purple flowers add a lovely scent and visual interest to the guild. Below are the functions of wild bergamot in our apple guild.
Functions of wild bergamot in an apple tree guild:
- Pollinator attractor – bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds
- Edible – flowers and leaves
- Medicinal uses – tea or infusions for treating cold and flu symptoms, and as a poultice for treating insect stings ( stings from all those bees it attracts!)
- Adds beauty and fragrance to the guild
Comfrey is the quintessential permaculture plant, having at least five benefits in one plant, and more depending on who you talk to. The main function comfrey is prized for in permaculture is soil building. Once established, comfrey’s very deep taproot can make the plant nearly impossible to remove. So, plan ahead and plant it where you want it to stay. It’s also wise to select a sterile comfrey variety, such as Bocking 14, which won’t spread by seed. This is particularly important if you’re in an urban environment. Even sterile comfrey can spread if the roots are disturbed.
Functions of comfrey in a fruit tree guild:
- Dynamic nutrient accumulator
- High biomass for chop-and-drop mulch
- Pollinator attractor
- Insect habitat
- Medicinal – externally for wound dressing and internally as a tea for respiratory issues.
- Historically a food crop, but studies on rats have shown it may be carcinogenic, so it’s not recommended for consumption
Alternatives to comfrey for soil building:
One of my favorite ground covers is strawberry. For this guild, I’ll try several strawberry plants, including wild strawberry, everbearing, and June-bearing varieties, and see what does best. Make sure to select strawberry varieties that send out runners.
Functions of strawberry in a fruit tree guild:
- Ground cover
- Green mulch
- Food crop
- Pollinator attractor
Alternatives to strawberry plants for a ground cover
- White clover – has the additional function of nitrogen-fixing
- Wood sorrel – has edible leaves
- Creeping thyme – also used in cooking and as an aromatic confuser
- Carpet raspberry – produces edible berries
Scarlet runner beans
These perennial beans have beautiful scarlet flowers and are often grown as ornamentals, though they are also edible. The immature pods can be eaten fresh or cooked and the mature dry beans can be eaten after proper preparation of soaking and cooking to remove a toxin.
In a mature guild with a large apple tree, scarlet runner beans could be allowed to climb up the tree. When the tree is younger, the vine might overwhelm it. Because of this, I recommend training scarlet runner beans up or along a nearby fence or trellis. Alternatively, plant annual bush beans in the guild until the tree is big enough to support scarlet runners.
Here is a great article on scarlet runner beans from Milkwood.
Functions of scarlet runner beans in a fruit tree guild:
- Edible crop
- Pollinator attractor – hummingbirds, bees
Alternatives to scarlet runner beans (for Nitrogen fixing)
- bush beans
- pole beans
- Fava beans
Filling in a simple fruit tree guild
As a cross-check when designing a fruit tree guild, I like to list out which plants fill each function. This helps me see where there are gaps in the guild. In this apple tree guild example, we have:
Apple tree guild functions:
- Attractors: apple, goumi berry, calendula, wild bergamot, strawberry, and scarlet runner beans
- Accumulators: comfrey, garlic
- Mulchers: comfrey, calendula, strawberry
- Nitrogen fixers: goumi berry, scarlet runner beans
- Repellers: garlic
- Traps: calendula
Broken down this way, it’s clear that this guild could use some additional pest repellers and traps. When I plant this out, I’ll probably add some culinary herbs to act as aromatic confusers.
Pay attention to community niches
When adding additional plants to this (or any) guild, try to fill in underpopulated niches without overcrowding any niches.
In this example, I want strawberries to take over as the prominent groundcover. Because of this, I chose not to add clover as an additional groundcover, because the two plants occupy the same shallow root zone and I didn’t want clover to compete with the strawberry plants. If I find in the future that strawberries just don’t grow well in one part of the guild, maybe in shadier areas, then I may decide to fill in that niche with clover or a different groundcover.
There you have a simple apple tree guild example with ideas and strategies for customizing it for your particular site. For more information on designing and planting fruit tree guilds, check out my post, The Ultimate Fruit Tree Guild Design Guide: 7 Steps to a Bountiful Guild.