Beneficial Plants to Plant Around Fruit Trees

The permaculture practice of 'fruit tree guilds' involves specific plantings to support an optimized food yield.

Peach orchards
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A fruit tree guild is a group of plants carefully selected to work in support of a fruit tree in your garden. The plants in a fruit tree guild serve a range of different functions. They will happily grow alongside the central tree without overly competing with it, and will help a fruit tree by:

  • Improving environmental conditions; for example, by creating groundcover to reduce moisture loss.
  • Adding fertility by fixing nitrogen, or dynamically accumulating nutrients from lower soil levels.
  • Repelling, confusing, or distracting pest species.
  • Attracting pollinators or other beneficial wildlife.

When creating a fruit tree guild, you will consider plant combinations carefully. You will combine plants to maximize the yield from the tree itself as much as possible. But guild plants can also, and usually will, provide additional yields in their own rights. They can be carefully selected to benefit us, as well as the system as a whole.

One of the most important things to understand about fruit tree guilds is that they are location-specific. What works well in one climate zone, and even in one particular garden, will not necessarily work well in another. Scientific research into this form of companion planting is still in its infancy – but experimentation can help you work out which combinations work well in your garden.

To help you begin to work out fruit tree guilds for your own specific garden, here are three different fruit tree guilds for different climate types that could serve as a starting point for your own experimentation.

Temperate Climate Fruit Tree Guild

This is an example of an apple tree guild that I have implemented on my own property.

Around the base of the apple tree, I have placed deep-rooted perennials which draw nutrients up from deeper below the ground. These are comfrey, Chenopodium album, chicory, dandelions, and yarrow. Also edible or medicinal plants, these are chopped and dropped to add fertility to the system. They also attract pollinators and other beneficial insects through the summer months. Close by, Elaeagnus shrubs are important nitrogen fixers in the system. In the shrub layer, I also grow gooseberries, and other Ribes (currants).

Herbaceous layer plants in a wider ring around the tree include hostas (in areas of deeper shade), sorrels, Malva, Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus), perennial brassicas, borage, woodland strawberries, mint, and more. White clover also creates good ground cover and fixes nitrogen.

And around the drip line of the tree, there is a circle of daffodils and perennial alliums. Daffodils help make sure there are pollinators around when fruit trees blossom – and as spring ephemerals, they help keep nutrients and water within the system. Perennial onions help in pest control, and also, along with the daffodils, suppress grass growth.

A scheme similar to the one mentioned above will work (with some alternations) in many temperate climate fruit tree guilds. But it is a good idea to consider including at least some plants which are native to your particular area. (And always be careful not to use plants that may be invasive in your region.)

Dryland Climate Fruit Tree Guild

Many of the plants mentioned above will also be suitable for those living in warmer temperate climate zones. Though there are often options better suited to regions with particularly warm or dry summers.

Here is an example of a fruit tree guild created for a mesquite tree – a useful plant that is also a nitrogen fixer – in an extremely arid, hot dryland climate.

Banana yucca, prickly pear, chuperosa, Turpentine bush, saltbush, western mugwort and wolfberry.

This shows how looking at plants that grow naturally in an area can often yield good plants for inclusion in a guild.

Subtropical Fruit Tree Guild

In subtropical areas, guilds will typically be more densely planted than in temperate climate areas. The canopy cover will typically be thicker, with fewer open glades.

One example is a citrus, peach, or persimmon tree with Mimosa, guava, natal plum, thornless blackberries and blueberries, chaya, cranberry hibiscus, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, oregano, thyme, milkweeds, and other perennial flowers and herbs. With sweet potatoes, and cucurbits vining around the edges of the guild.

These are just a few examples of what might work in different areas. It is always important to look closely at the climate and conditions in your garden before making choices for a fruit tree guild – but hopefully, these scenarios might spark some inspiration for ways to create effective, food-producing fruit tree guilds wherever you live.