Fruit Tree Guilds

Polyculture or the growing of many different plants in a given area is a popular permaculture principle. Fruit tree guilds are a specific polyculture technique used to improve fertility, confuse pests, and attract beneficial insects, as well as provide increased yields.

Plum, elderberry, yarrow, chicory, red clover, shasta daisy, parsnip, plantain

I’ve grown my fruit and nut trees in guilds with understory plants that help my trees. When I first started into permaculture, the idea that plants could help each other, thereby eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and outside inputs really captivated me. I have since grown my own guilds with varying degrees of success. For me, it hasn’t been a panacea of perfection, where I no longer have any maintenance to do, because my helper plants are doing all the work. They have certainly helped, but I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect to plant a fruit tree guild with a grafted high value fruit tree, and then not have to do any work to get quality fruit.

I think this can work with mature ungrafted varieties planted in appropriate microclimates, but in my experience, grafted varieties require a little more work. Also, it is not easy to establish good working guilds. In Gaia’s Garden, a book I love by the way, Toby Hemenway has diagrams of perfectly planted guilds in concentric circles. I don’t think it’s practical, nor economically feasible for most of us to plant this precisely, not to mention the constant maintenance to keep the guild in balance. I think it is more practical to mix the seed of the plants that you want to grow under and around your tree and sow the seeds. Mother Nature will determine what grows where.

Plum, comfrey, alfalfa, clover, chicory, milkweed, oregano, yarrow, autumn olive

Having said all that, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to grow my trees with guilds, I certainly do, and I think Gaia’s Garden is a fantastic resource for what plants to put into your guild and why. Below are some of the plants that I’ve put into my guilds:

Mulberry, goumi, comfrey, alfalfa, chicory, milkweed[/caption]

Alfalfa- Nitrogen fixer, attracts beneficial insects with flowers. Easy to seed.

Autumn Olive- Nitrogen fixing small tree. Berries beneficial to wildlife. Invasive.

Chicory- Nutrient accumulator, blooms from June until frost. Grows and seeds itself rampantly. Can get a bit tall, so you have to cut them back around your trees if they’re short.

Chives- Pest deterrent. Can get overtaken by taller guild members.

Clover- Nitrogen fixer, attracts beneficial insects with flowers. One of my favorites, easy to seed.

Garlic- Pest deterrent. Plant in fall from bulbs.

Goumi- Nitrogen fixing shrub. Produces nice berry. Good for wildlife. Not invasive like Autumn Olive.

New Jersey Tea- Nitrogen Fixing shrub. Can grow in shade.

Oregano- Pest deterrent, flowers bring in beneficial insects. One of my absolute favorite guild members.

Plantain- I never sow this, but it comes on its own. I welcome it as it is a nutrient accumulator.

Russian Comfrey (Not True Comfrey)- True comfrey produces seed, which can overtake your guild in time. Russian comfrey grows tall and vigorously from root cuttings. I love comfrey as it is a fantastic nutrient accumulator that produces flowers for a long duration. I plant one comfrey root per fruit tree. Do not plant more than one as it will take up too much space in the guild.

Yarrow- Also one of my favorites. Produces the tiny flower that predator insects like. Is also a nutrient accumulator that looks beautiful.

Pear, goumi, alder, comfrey, oregano, chicory, yarrow, alfalfa[/caption]

~ Phil Williams

Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website  He is also the author of numerous books, most recently, Fire the Landscaper and Farmer Phil's Permaculture. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks, Phil, for another great piece.  It led me to your youtube channel where I enjoyed and learned from some other videos.  One of these days hopefully I'll be able to put more of the approaches you share into practice.  
Until then, here's some plant ID images as I needed a closer look at some of the plants you listed as working well in your guilds.  Most of these are the ones you mentioned, but I added one or two more to balance out some of the slide.

Of course, all of these guild members are doing a lot of different things at once, so the labels only describe one of their many roles in a permaculture system.

P.S. I never knew that that little "weed" was called plantain or that it had so many beneficial effects and was also edible!

P.P.S. Is it too late to plant garlic?  Temps where I am are forecasted to be sunny & in the mid 50's (F) during the day and in the mid 30's at night for the next week or so.  I thought about just sticking some garlic bulbs into a hillside that's been set aside as garden space and just seeing if anything comes up in the spring.  For various reasons, I'm not putting a lot of energy into gardening where I am living now, but I thought I might try that out at least.

Thank you for posting the pictures. They look great. 

I'm actually planting garlic today. I'm probably a week or two later than I should be. It's best to plant garlic after the first light frost you receive, but anytime in Fall is fine.





whats your zone?

According to some of the maps for Europe that I've seen online, we're in 8b, but that sounds too ambitious.  I think we're probably in 7b or 7a Here's an average temp graph for our town, which is at about 4,000 feet, but is also on a fairly steep south facing mountainside, so the whole town's pretty much like a big solar panel.

Here's a picture of the site in the late afternoon sunlight right around 20 of September, give or take:

I might just go stick a few bulbs in, mark them with stakes, and see what happens. There won't be any problem with drainage, that's for sure!  The slope is maybe 20%, and pretty much due south-facing. This summer was dry for around here and these slopes dry out really well  - sometimes too well in July and August - even though we live in a pretty wet and green area.

and when they poke their little heads out, mulch the soil not the green shoot just the soil right up to the shoot.  robie
ps there heads should pop out in 2 wks or a bit more, not much

I'll pop 'em in on the way home from work tomorrow.  I appreicate it, Robie!

Thanks for the inspiration, Phil. I'm a bit heavy on the comfrey in my guilds and some of mine seems to be the seed producing variety, but I've been able to keep in under control by cutting.  I'm thinking of moving the chicken yard to the orchard to give them more forage (their current area is heavily shaded and about half the size, so they beat it down to dirt). That should help control the comfrey too.
I also have goumi, like you, and a few types of mint (mountain mint and lemon balm in particular).  I find that violets and dandelion come on their own and I leave them as they are nutrient accumulators and good eating.  Eating them keeps them in control.

I'm curious about garlic mustard.  I notice that it isn't as aggressive as it was when my landscape was young.  I've also developed a taste for it.  Harvesting some leaves for salad every day seems to keep it in line too, almost too much where I can't find sufficient greens for my salads.  It's short lived, but has a rather long taproot.  From what I know, the mineral content of the leaves is very high and it's nutritional analysis is excellent (both vitamins and minerals).  I bet it's a nutrient accumulator too.

My plantings are about 5 years old, all grafted varieties of apples, pears and plums.  This year, I got a decent yield of plums with only minor insect damage.  They were delicious!  My only maintenance is pruning every winter, adding compost heavily the first few years and lightly recently (very lightly this past year).  Not much in the way of apples and pears yet.

It sounds like you have a nice food forest! I forgot to mention mint, but I also like to use mint and lemon balm as well. It makes a good groundcover, the bees love it, and we make a lot of iced tea in the summer.




I appreciate your comment.
I live in a neighborhood where perhaps 75% of the people don't treat their lawn with fertilizer or pesticides, but they still keep them closely mowed, have manicured flower and shrub beds, an occasional well kept veggie garden and perhaps a fruit tree or two.

On the other hand, I mow my lawn less often, leave occasional sections un-mowed when some desirable "weed" is in an active growth phase, let the flower beds get a little "overgrown" and have lots of areas where I've planted various guild plants around fruit trees, etc. 

The whole neighborhood is surrounded by woods and swamp.

The cool thing is the insect diversity this has created:  a swarm of pollinators from at least a dozen species on the mountain mint in late summer, an intense firefly show in July that is equal to the display in the un-mowed meadow near the power lines down the road.  Birds are part of this picture too as are mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The firefly display is the most obvious as there is not a single other area of maintained ground around a home in the neighborhood that has even 20% the number I have in my yard.

The relatively good quality, but untreated plums is one more data point on the value of of those insects.

I agree 100% with your sentiment on the wildlife activity when a property is more naturally maintained. Unfortunately, that is not the norm. Most of the urban, suburban, and even rural landscapes are mowed constantly, with many being doused in pesticides. 

If you maintain your property like you do and I do, some will think of you as lazy and that your property is overgrown and "weedy." I personally don't care one bit if someone thinks my property is weedy or unkempt, but most people do care, and those cultural norms are generally abided by. And for those that do step out of line we have local government ordinances, and HOAs to force people to conform.

So, it is accepted, easier, and legally mandated to destroy the environment and waste fuel, but someone who is doing the opposite is a lazy criminal. It is really sad.

I recently fought against a weed ordinance in my township, where I was facing fines and possible jail time, all because one person called the police and told the code enforcement officer that he should check out my property. He said, "It's all weeds."

If anyone wants to read about what happened at my township hearing, I posted a detailed account at the link below. Also, if anyone read my book, Fire the Landscaper, this brings a little closure to one of the chapters, and it will be included if there is a second edition.



I read your book, and I just read the outcome of your run in with the court system.  I am really glad that you get to keep up with what your are doing.  I also understand your emptiness; the power of government over a single family or person is grossly high when you are on the wrong end.
I am breaking a few city rules myself right now and no one has cried fowl yet.  We will see what comes.

Anyway I am quite glad to see you can keep moving forward. 

I see a lot of these invading the local landscape and have a few on my own site.  I understand they are nitrogen fixers, put out early spring flowers for the bees, and put out berries for wildlife.  On the other hand, I can tell how invasive they are, have read that their berries are low in lipids compared to native species, and have a growth structure that allow snakes easy access to nesting bird eggs.  I struggle with the decision each year to keep them or take them out.  My state (MA) does not mandate they be taken out, but any efforts to propagate them are illegal.  What is everyone's take on autumn olives and other invasives?  Do you leave/utilize/encourage them if they have potential benefits despite their invasive nature?  I struggle with this decision every year…

Deer LOVE autumn olive terminal buds. It's a nutritious browse. I've seen an entire landscape of new-growth autumn berry with every terminal bud missing.
My hope was to make an autumn berry mead this year, but I've missed my window of opportunity. The berry makes a nice fruit leather, but I would not recommend making a jam out of it.

The reality is that autumn berry is not going anywhere. It's as part of the landscape now as we are. I have sprayed hundreds of gallons of herbicide on Autumn berry for work, and still feel awful about it. It's so pointless. Nobody will care if you grow it and use it. It's a great food resource for both humans and wildlife, and we need as many of those as possible here in MA

Here is what I've seen over the years near Albany New York and Brattleboro, Vermont:

  • Garlic mustard can come in strong in disturbed landscapes, but fades as the shade comes in and the soil improves.
  • Autumn olive, multiflora rose, privet, and burning bush can be aggressive when the landscape is young,and remain a minor component of the landscape as it matures.
  • Flood plains seem to be vulnerable to being overtaken by honeysuckle, japanese knotweed and buckthorn. These seem like they may be a long term issue.
  • Honeysuckle can also take over the understory of moist forests like those surrounding swamps.
  • Phragmites can aggressively displace cattails and other marsh plants.
  • Norway maple is creeping into many hardwood forests and may be able to take over a large part of the canopy in the long term.
  • Black locust, red maple, quaking aspen and eventually various oaks and other hardwoods are "invasive" in pine barrens, but only due to human fire suppression relative to the historical norm.


Thank you for the kind words. I would like to try to remove some of the restrictions we have in our township regarding homesteading activities. The scary part is that makes me more visible.

I'm glad you're breaking the rules. The more people ignore nonsensical rules, the harder it becomes to enforce. The problem of course is the rules, being all-encompassing, opens people up to be targeted as the local government sees fit. 

By the way, if you have a chance, I would be grateful if you would write a review on Amazon. I'm sitting at 4 reviews, and I need quite a few more, just to be able to advertise in certain publications.

Thanks Again,


Nice Quercus. Where did you learn your plants as a meteorologist?
Black locust is technically an invasive because we introduced it across the great plains. It's great for honey bees and humans as the nectar makes a delicious an abundant honey.It's also apparently an alternative to cedar as fence posts. I find that it gets some heart rot, but the structure of the tree lasts forever which is why it has been used as such. Also a great burning wood.

I find that most of the plants outside in this area are actually non-natives when I do some mental sampling, but you know… it is what it is.

I don't know if it is common knowledge for you folks, but I love the story how the European starling arrived in North America

On March 6, 1890, a New York pharmaceutical manufacturer name Eugene Schieffelin brought natural disaster into the heart of completely without meaning to. Through the morning snow, which congealed at times to sleet, sixty starlings, imported at great expense from Europe, accompanied Schieffelin on the ride from his country house into Central Park—the noisy, dirty fulfillment of his plan to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into North America. Schieffelin loved Shakespeare and he loved birds….The American Acclimatization Society, to which he belonged, had released other avian species found in Shakespeare—the nightingales and skylarks more commonly mentioned in his plays and poems—but none had survived. There was no reason to believe that starlings would fare any better. Schieffelin opened the cages and released the birds into the new world, without the smallest notion of what he was unleashing.

I'm an amateur naturalist and semiprofessional nature educator.  I work with kids on the side at a couple of local camps and programs.

Back in the late 1990s,  I completed the Kamana Naturalist Training Program  I've kept up since then.  I do permaculture at my home and gather wild foods as well.

That starling story is a cool one.  One naive mistake, hmmm.  I remember huge flocks passing over my home in Maryland as a kid.  They would take 30 minutes to pass by.


I find that many plants that are not commonly thought of as invasive can become so, this includes plants that are native to the US but transplanted to areas outside of their range. A good example is the "Oregon grape" Mahonia aquifolium in the east, and "saltmeadow cordgrass" Spartina alterniflora in the west.
In the US southeast, autumn olives were introduced as wildlife and cattle feed to 'improve' landscapes and as ornamental plants (silver berry). They have become a serious invasive threat, thickets forming in the understory and berries spread far and wide by birds among disturbed areas. When I first started farming, I was warned by a neighbor to remove the autumn olives as I found them- that a mature plant could produce thorns that could puncture a tractor tire.

I try to avoid unruly alien/introduced plants in general, as they displace the natives that sustain the local ecosystem - from insect pollinators to mammalian game species. We all benefit from a highly functioning ecosystem.