If you’re looking for a way to get the maximum yield out of a small permaculture garden space, a tree guild permaculture design is a great way to start. 

What is a Tree Guild?

A tree guild is a group of plants placed around a primary food producing species, such as an apple tree, with all of the plants working together to help each other thrive. Each plant has its own niche and its own function.

Just as there are seven layers of plants in a healthy forest, there are seven possible layers in a permaculture tree guild. Remember, in a Permaculture design, we seek to mimic nature as much as possible.

Permaculture garden bed full of flowers, food, and possibilities.

landscape suggesting mystery and adventure

A garden full of hiding places and magic.

How to choose your guild plants

The first layer of the tree guild is the canopy tree; in the case of a suburban food forest, that would be a fruit or nut tree, say, an apple, plum, cherry, almond or pear. I’m leaving out the walnut tree here, because it’s allelopathic, meaning its roots emit substances that hinder the growth of many other species nearby. 

The second layer is the understory, or dwarf tree, such as an elderberry. Think of using a large shrub here. A pineapple guava or goumi would be good choices too. Smaller shrubs like blueberry, haskap, or jostaberry comprise the third layer. The fourth layer is non-woody herbaceous, like some flowers (cosmos, hellebore, daylily, penstemon, or lavender. Ground cover plants like strawberries make up the fifth layer, followed by the rhizosphere (sixth layer). The rhizosphere would consist of onions, beets, parsnips, or other root vegetables.

 Mycelium is an important component, but that’s a topic for a book! Paul Stamets writes about it beautifully in his book, Mycelium Running (get it here: https://fungi.com/search?q=Mycelium+Running&options%5Bprefix%5D=last)

You can also buy mycorrhizal powder to sprinkle onto your soil. Some of it will thrive in the soil and contribute to the health of your plants. It is miraculous stuff. Here’s one place where you can buy it: https://www.groworganic.com/collections/mycorrhizal-inoculants?tw_source=google&tw_adid=&tw_campaign=17248370802&gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjw6uWyBhD1ARIsAIMcADpjsD2sbK7C9NtoFeOrJNEdPu02xkukrh3FJwueN6R75uFi-pyd4R8aAjPcEALw_wcB

The seventh layer is the vine. You can plant a kiwi, grape, or passion fruit vine near your tree, which in turn will support the vine.

Daffodils and Dandelions live happily together. Many plants can coexist well with dandelions.

Wild violets in the garden. The more wilderness one has in the permaculture garden, the better.

Violets make an excellent and useful ground cover, but be aware that they will spread.

Permaculture Design for a Tree Guild

Identifying the layers of tree guild plants is the first step in designing a tree guild. The second step, identifying the role that each plant plays, is just as important. Let’s examine the various functions that each plant can fulfill. 

First, the fruit tree: besides the obvious provision of fruit for humans, the tree provides food and habitat for many other creatures. Birds can roost or nest in it, bees get nutrition from the flowers, and many animals consume those fruits that humans leave behind. At the end of each summer, I find both honey bees and wasps feasting upon all the plums that have fallen and split open. I don’t clear these fruits away, nor do I take all the fruit from the tree when I harvest. There are plenty of hungry birds and mammals out there who need food.

The tree also gives us shade in the summer. If it’s a deciduous tree, it makes sense to plant it on the south side of the house (in the northern hemisphere), where it will cool the house in summer and let light in during the winter. When the leaves fall, they return nutrients to the soil, also providing nesting places for bumble bees and small mammals. The tree can also stabilize soil on a hill, and some trees, such as locusts, fix nitrogen. Finally, the tree will provide wood, either through coppicing/pollarding, or when it falls.

Plants provide shelter for animals

Plants in your garden can shelter wildlife, in this case a (spayed) feral cat.

illustration of artichoke in a tree guild

An artichoke plant can thrive in the sunny part of a tree guild.

Like the tree, the rest of the plants in your tree guild should fulfill at least one of six functions, preferably more than one each. These functions are weed suppression, attraction of pollinators and other beneficial bugs, repelling of pests, Nitrogen fixing, mulching, and nutrient accumulation. 

The first function, weed suppression, applies mostly to the ground cover and herbaceous layers. Strawberries, violets, and oregano, for example, will choke out many weeds. A word to the wise: NEVER plant peppermint or spearmint in your guild, as it will completely dominate!

Keep Pollinator Friendly Plants in Mind

When choosing your guild plants, try to opt for a lot of pollinator friendly plants. These can be shrubs, herbs, dwarf trees, or ground covers. Think of bee balm, which is good for tea making as well as  bees, as well as rosemary, lavender, zinnias, penstemons, oregano, elderberries, and blueberries, to name a few. When you plant these, you’re not only feeding pollinators, but also attracting them. Your tree will bear more fruit.

Finding Pest Repelling Plants for your Permaculture Design

Now that you’ve chosen your tree, your weed suppressors, and your pollinator plants, it’s time to find some pest repelling plants. Onions, for example, contain sulphur, which repels cabbage moths, aphids, slugs, and carrot flies. You can plant Egyptian Walking onions, chives, garlic, or garlic chives. Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) is another good choice. I’ve planted it near apple trees, and ever since that I have only found one wormy apple.

Southernwood,  can grow large and spread, so I hack it back quite severely and lay it down around my plants as mulch. Whenever you use pulled weeds or prunings as mulch, make sure that nothing takes root, unless you want it to. Marigolds are another good pest repellent. (Plant them near your tomatoes!). Finally, lemon balm contains citronella, but I would be careful about planting it, as it can become a “weed”.

Next up are the Nitrogen fixers.

On large properties, some Permaculturists plant a nitrogen fixing tree, such as a locust or Russian olive, but that’s not a practical idea for the person who has a half acre or less to work with. It makes a lot more sense to plant clover, lupines, beans, or peas. You can plant a Siberian pea shrub, which is a Nitrogen fixer, and whose pods are tasty and edible, but it will grow pretty large, so I wouldn’t use it on a very small property. I have some in Montana, and they make a great edible privacy hedge, but they do have thorns, so keep that in mind.

You can plant fava beans and chop them down before they flower. If you let them go to seed, they’ll use up a lot of the nutrients and nitrogen, as the energy will go into bean production. This isn’t a disaster, however; you can eat the beans and chop down the plants to use as mulch, adding organic matter to the soil.

photo showing magnolia flowers

The magnolia is an unlikely choice for a guild tree, but if you already have one, use it! The flowers are edible.

magnolia flower up close, it is edible

Beautiful magnolia flower

illustration of comfrey, a good plant for the tree guild.

And speaking of soil, plant some mulch maker plants!

These include hostas, comfrey, deciduous shrubs, and buckwheat. To use them as mulch, simply hack them up, leaving the roots and lower leaves, and lay them down as mulch around your plants. 

Many of these plants perform more than the one function of making mulch: hosta shoots are edible, hosta flowers are pretty and popular with pollinators, and the leaves become good mulch. Comfrey mines the soil for nutrients and attracts pollinators, it makes incredible mulch, it activates compost, and it can be used as a poultice for bruises and broken bones. It’s also edible in moderation. Many deciduous shrubs feed both humans and pollinators. 

Even if you choose none of these plants, or if you can’t grow them in your location, you can still use plants to make mulch. You can pull or chop down your weeds and simply lay them down around your plants, to cover and feed the soil. As you feed the soil, you’re creating more soil. Cover the soil to reduce water loss through evaporation!

Now we arrive at the bioaccumulator plants.

That’s a fancy name for deep rooted plants that pull up nutrients from deeper soil, making those nutrients available to the plants you want to foster. Comfrey, borage, chicory, and dandelion all do this. Treat them as you would the mulch makers: pull some up and lay them down, or give them a harsh trim and leave the root. Those nutrients that were deeper down in the soil are pulled up by the bioaccumulator plants, and when you lay cuttings of these plants down on the soil surface, those nutrients that were once deep in the soil become available to more shallow rooted plants. If you don’t like the look of them lying around on your soil, you can dig them into your compost. Comfrey is a compost activator. By putting these plants in your compost, you will make sure that your plants still receive those nutrients when you spread the compost around them.

As you look through this long list of niches and functions, you may notice quite a bit of overlap.

Many plants perform more than one function, and many functions are covered by more than one type of plant. This creates more resilience in the garden. Bill Mollison, one of the fathers of Permaculture, said that in redundancy lies resilience. To illustrate this point: if one of your pollinator plant species dies, your other plants will still be pollinated, as long as you have at least one other type of pollinator plant. Creating this network of functions and species builds a healthier garden .

In Permaculture one seeks not only diversity of species, but also diversity of relationships between species.

And illustration showing the layers of a food forest tree guild

Here is a depiction of the various layers of a food forest.

A drawing of a permaculture tree guild.

There’s one more type of diversity that a tree guild creates – a diversity of microclimates.

In the northern hemisphere, plant shade-loving plants to the north of your tree and sun-loving plants on the south side. The east and west sides will get some sun too, but east will get shade in the afternoon, and west will get shade in the morning. (If you live in the southern hemisphere, it will be the opposite). Remember this when you choose sites for your plants. If you live in the far north, the sun will even cover the northern side of your tree a bit in the summer. In that case, I would recommend you wait until your tree has grown some before planting the shade loving plants, so they don’t get sunburned, even on the north side! You can also put them under a big shrub.

Here is one example of a tree guild. Notice that the shade tolerant plants are on the north side. This is how one would do it in the northern hemisphere.

Maximizing Produce in Limited Spaces

Growing a garden in this way will give you a lot of produce from a small space. You get tree fruits, elderberries, blueberries, raspberries, currants, onions, herbs (dill, oregano, lavender, rosemary), garlic, beets, carrots, lettuce, hosta shoots, goumis, grapes, artichokes, asparagus, violets (great candied or in salads), lettuce, and strawberries all from the area around one tree. This is just one example. And you’re not just feeding yourself and other humans! You’re also helping to create a refuge for wildlife in town. If many people in towns did this, it would create a diverse maze for wildlife in what might otherwise be a culinary desert or even a complete barrier to animals. Towns can become more sustainable in this way. 

After reading all of this, you may think, “there’s no way I can get all of this right! That’s a lot of plants, and it sounds so complicated!” But it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start out with a simple tree guild, one with only a tree and two other plants. I have one such guild – a witch hazel with strawberries as ground cover, and with flowers nearby. Maybe your lawn is full of dandelions and daisies, and you plant a tree in it. Plant some strawberries under the tree, and you now have pollinator plants (the “weeds”), ground cover, and the tree. That’s a very good start, and it will work well.

Finally, the more food we can provide for ourselves on our little town plots of land (as we build soil and biodiversity), the less dependent we are upon Big Ag, which uses a lot of fossil fuels and chemicals, creates huge monocultures, and ships food over vast distances. Our food doesn’t travel, so it’s fresher and more delicious, and its production requires no herbicides and pesticides.

While contributing to the well being of the creatures who share your land, you will save money and eat better.

Shows that artichokes attract pollinators

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