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Permaculture Planting: Fruit Tree Guild

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Hannah Maloney places insect attractors and mulch makers around a worm farm at the base of a fruit tree. By Hannah Maloney

Create a thriving and productive mini ecosystem that supports your fruit tree by designing a guild – a permaculture technique in which a group of plants are chosen to complement and support a central plant.

Guilds are a great way to make the most of under-utilised space in the garden and to obtain a diverse yield. Whether your garden is small or your property vast and rambling, the space under and around your fruit trees is valuable real estate. Being mindful with what you plant there can bring many benefits to the fruit trees, to your other garden inhabitants and to yourself. A guild can bring higher yields as it adds nutrients, attracts pollinators, stabilises temperatures and controls pests and diseases. By creating a little food forest of mutually beneficial plants below your fruit trees you can obtain a bountiful mixed yield, while at the same time, reducing the amount of work you need to put into it. Win win!

More Than Companions

More sophisticated than conventional companion planting, a guild is a whole ecosystem on its own, a veritable food forest dedicated to mutual growth but with particular focus on making sure the individual parts work together to ensure that the central plant thrives. If done well, they can provide so very much, for very little input.

Higher Yields

Who doesn’t want more delicious abundance from their fruit trees? As well as playing their important individual roles, each planting within the guild works to ensure the best possible outcome for the tree it’s supporting. A successful guild will attract beneficial insects that will pollinate your fruit tree’s flowers and lead to a more productive crop. By reducing the risks of disease and pest attack, as well as adding nutrients to the soil and reducing competition from other roots, a guild will naturally lead to a higher yield.

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Guilds can benefit communities too if underplanted in public spaces; Photo by Nola Ryan

Attract And Deter

Very simply, more flowers in the area will attract more potential pollinators, which generally leads to the production of more fruit. Provide an irresistible banquet for the local bees by adding a variety of small flowering plants beneath. You could try plants with medicinal properties like lavender, flowering herbs like thyme or oregano, edible flowers such as nasturtiums or violas. Any small flowering plant will achieve a similar result, just make sure they’ll be flowering at the same time as your fruit tree.

By including attractive colourful flowering plants within your guild you can do more than just attract pollinators. Particular flowering plants can also encourage beneficial predatory insects – try adding calendula or marigold to attract that humble garden hero, the ladybird. Once in your guild, ladybirds will assist in keeping aphids at bay, protecting your fruit tree’s soft new growth from their sapping menace.

Many gardeners also like to strategically plant bulbing edibles at the drip line edge of their guild to repel both weeds and pests, This will depend on your location and the pests you’d like to deter, but things like onions, garlic and even leeks are shallow-rooted feeders that should trump weeds and grasses that will try to invade. As well as deterring some pests with their garlicky odour, the other benefit of bulbing alliums, of course, is when they’re slowing and heading into dormancy in summer, the fruit tree is requiring more water and nutrients from the soil so they’re not having to compete.

Nitrogen Fixing

Most fruit trees absolutely love high-nitrogen fertiliser. By planting nitrogen-fixing plants within your guild you can keep nutrients cycling through your mini ecosystem, allowing you to forgo store-bought fertilisers. Legumes such as beans and peas are excellent for this (of course they also attract pollinators and provide delicious and nutritious food for us at the end of their cycle). The legumes host a common beneficial bacteria which uses the plant to draw nitrogen from the air. That nitrogen is converted to gas and stored in nodules on the plant’s roots, and when the plant dies a natural death and decomposes, the nitrogen is then absorbed into the soil, giving your fruit tree a delicious and much-loved boost. Chopping and dropping the leafy green part of the plant will add more nitrogen to the patch, too.

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fruit-tree-guild
fruit-tree-guild

Clockwise from left Underplantings should have multiple uses; Start where you are and use what you have; Melbourne’s Flemington Food Forest has a lush understory. Photos by Nola Ryan

Gather And Distribute

Nutrient accumulators are plants with deep roots which reach down into the subsoil to bring nutrients back up. Tap-rooted plants such as comfrey, dandelion and yarrow all work well. These accumulators will dig down further than surrounding plants to reach vital vitamins and nutrients. By planting them strategically within your guild, they’re not competing with their neighbours and they’re helping to gather and recirculate that otherwise-inaccessible goodness from below. Once these are chopped and mulched, those nutrients are returned to a more accessible patch of earth.

Living Mulch And Suppressors

An understory of mixed, lush plants can act as a living mulch below your fruit trees, significantly reducing the temperature on the ground and retaining moisture that would otherwise evaporate. Leafy comfrey is excellent for this. The worms will be thrilled to have a space that isn’t bare earth, and grasses and other weeds will be outcompeted, once again reducing your workload.

When your fruit tree is young, you might also want to carpet your guild with some suppressor plants to out-compete any weeds that might otherwise take hold. Strawberries can be excellent suppressors, as can pumpkins and nasturtiums. As mentioned, bulbs planted around the drip line can help with this too. Suppressors are especially important in guilds around young fruit trees, as these are more susceptible to drying out and competition from weeds.

By thoughtfully designing your mixed plant guild below your fruit trees you will naturally reduce root competition that could otherwise detract from your fruit trees’ success. Making sure you have a range of plants of different sizes, including suppressor plants and living mulch, you’ll leave little space for invaders and your fruit trees will have an ongoing source of nutrients.

An ideal guild

THE BASIC PARTS OF A SUCCESSFUL GUILD

  1. Insect attractors (such as borage or flowering herbs)
  2. Nutrient accumulators (such as dandelions or nasturtiums)
  3. Mulch makers (such as comfrey)
  4. Nitrogen fixers (such as beans or peas)
  5. Suppressors (such as strawberries or pumpkins)
illustration

Plan Before You Plant

It’s important to match the size of the guild to the tree you’re trying to benefit. As tempting as it might be, planting an enormous guild under your young dwarf cherry tree will be counterproductive, taking much needed water and nutrients from your main plant. But if you have an established fruit orchard featuring large, mature and productive trees you can consider creating a much larger guild beneath.

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