Characteristics of a Tree Guild
Like any other forest, a food forest is a multi-storied affair, with plants from underground, surface, undergrowth, shrubs, understory trees, and the canopy. The basic food forest building block is a Tree Guild. A tree guild might consist of smaller trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants etc.
A Useful Fruit Tree Guild consists of:
- the tree at the centre, either nut or fruit, and perhaps smaller trees or shrubs
- at least one insect attractor
- at least one nutrient accumulator
- a mulch maker
- at least one nitrogen fixer
Design Requirements and Components
Grass competition is bad for most fruit trees especially young ones. Growing spring flowering bulbs in a close ring around the trunk can reduce grass growth. Try daffodils and tulips. Their flowering also attracts beneficial pollinators like bees. River stone mulches can also be used to also retain water, provide habitat for small animals and reduce grass competition around young fruit trees.
The insect attractor has to attract beneficial insects, both predators and especially pollinators. For this purpose it needs to bloom at the same time as the main tree. These dont need to be choking the tree, should be at the outer drip line or even under a nearby tree. Try parsley, fennel, dill, lavender, bee balm, flowers generally. Some flowers repel sap sucking insects, like Tansy. The family Umbelliferae or Apiaceae are generally hollow-stemmed with umbels or inflorescences rather than flowers, and they are superb insect attractors.
Nutrient accumulators have deep roots to bring up nutrients from the subsoil. Generally, these are tap-rooted plants, such as burdock, comfrey, yarrow, dandelions. Mulch makers, like comfrey, cardoon, rhubarb, nasturtium or hostas, help with water retention and build up the humus in the soil by returning carbon in their dropped leaves.
Nitrogen fixers are part of the actinorhyzal family and include casuarinas, acacias, legumes and also several shrubs, bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), sweet fern, and alder. They have bacterial symbiotes on roots that help fix airborne nitrogen into a form that plants can use. They should be closer to the trunk, say inside the drip line. Slashing these plants causes root death which releases the nitrogen. Robert Hart (invented the food forest concept) used to suggest that 35-40 per cent of plantings should be nitrogen fixers. Favourites in permaculture include tagasaste, beans, peas and acacia cognata (or mini cog). Azolla is a water fern high in Nitrogen, can be harvested and added as mulch or to compost heaps. Be careful, azolla is opportunistic in ponds and will take over if not harvested.
The members of the fruit tree guild support the fruit tree in numerous ways; by luring beneficial insects for pollination, boosting soil tilth and fertility, reducing root competition, conserving water, balancing fungal population to counter disease, diversifying the yield of food, creating habitat, and fixing nitrogen. Natives such as convolvulus species, prostrate grevilleas, native spreading daisies, pigface and creeping boobialla can be used in hot dry areas, most of them having companion plant values for bringing in beneficial birds and insects. Diversity is the key; many plants and small animals working together in symbiotic relationships with the canopy tree.
Some Potential Fruit Tree Guilds
|Tree||Useful Guild Selections|
|Apple||Comfrey, Currants, Fennel, Mint, Salvia, Dill, Alyssum, Nasturtium, Chives|
|Apricot||Comfrey, Basil, Calendula, Flowering Chives, Tansy, Rue, Borage, Asparagus|
|Pear||Borage, Columbine, Dandelion, Lucern, Calendula, Flowering Chives|
|Plum||Daffodil, Yarrow, Comfrey, Nasturtium, Daisies, Valerian, Chamomile, Borage|
|Peach/Nectarine||Comfrey, Dock, Lavender, Chives, Horseradish, Tansy, Marigold, Borage|
|Citrus||Comfrey, Lavender, Yarrow, Creeping Rosemary, Geranium, Lemon Verbena|
|Cherry||Comfrey, Horseradish, Calendula, Nicotiana, Sunflower, Chamomile, Rue|
Now you can design your own, mark them out and plant away!