Gardening/ Orchard

20 Easy Plants for a Fruit Tree Guild

On my suburban lot I like to use my space as efficiently as possible. So I plant my fruit trees in a food forest of overlapping fruit tree guilds.

In a FRUIT TREE GUILD all the understory plants contribute to the health of the fruit tree, but many of the plants offer one or even two additional benefits. These benefits include: attracting pollinators or deterring pests or weeds, providing living or biomass mulch, providing nitrogen or other nutrients to the tree, or being medicinal or edible to humans or animals.

I prioritize many of the blooming plants that are pollinator attractors or can be used as cut flowers to help beautify my orchard because my orchard is in the front yard of my house. I also prioritize edible plants and herbs to make the most of the space.

I currently have 4 apple trees, 1 sour cherry tree, 1 peach tree, 1 native plum tree, 1 persimmon tree, 3 paw paw trees, 1 fig tree, and 1 dwarf mulberry tree. I have designed a naturalized-style planting of a food forest where the benefits of the plants provide for multiple trees at once.

20 Fruit Tree Guild Plants Grouped by Benefit to Orchard

When planting my orchard I have tried to look for plants in each of the categories to benefit my orchard. The parts of a guild are not set in stone so you may find various lists with different beneficial parts to a guild.

Sometimes they are just additional sub categories of a more basic category. “Cut Flowers” is not traditionally a fruit tree guild benefit–it is a subcategory of human benefit—but I found it informative to my style of gardening to know that some of these plants traditionally found in fruit tree guilds have this additional human benefit as well.

Guild BenefitPlant
Pollinator AttractantBee Balm
Echinacea
Yarrow
Borage
Calendula
Fennel
Elderberry
Mint
Pest RepellantCalendula
Garlic
Chives
Daffodil
Nasturtium
Mint
Nutrient AccumulatorYarrow
Borage
Chives
Living MulchViola
Strawberry
Wild Violet
Mint
MulchingBorage
Rhubarb
Elderberry
Nasturtium
MedicinalEchinacea
Calendula
Elderberry
Grass SuppressorDaffodil
garlic
chives
Edible (Research to know which part is edible)Borage
Calendula
Viola
Strawberry
Fennel
Garlic
Wild Violet
Chives
Rhubarb
Elderberry
Blueberry
Raspberry
Nasturtium
Mint
Peas
Nitrogen FixingPeas
Lupine
Cut FlowerYarrow
Daffodil
Mint
Table of Fruit Tree Guild Plants Grouped by Benefit to Orchard

These plants can be grouped in any combination. One plant can fulfill many roles to benefit the guild. Or you can choose different plants fo provide each benefit.

In addition it simply benefits the guild more and adds more diversity to add any additional plants from each category.

I will share three examples of fruit tree guilds in my orchard, and after that I will share photos and tips for all the listed plants.

Example Cherry Tree Guild

My fruit tree guilds overlap into a larger food forest. So far these are the plants I have closest around my Montmorency Sour Cherry tree comprising my cherry fruit tree guild:

  • Pollinator Attractant: bee balm
  • Pest Repellant: onion chives
  • Nutrient Accumulator: yarrow
  • Living Mulch: wild violets
  • Mulching: borage
  • Grass Suppressor: daffodils
  • Medicinal: echinacea
  • Nitrogen Fixing: peas

Example Apple Tree Guild

Johnny Appleseed wanted to see apples all across America, and many people do choose apple trees for their home orchard. I have four different apple trees: Jonafree, Pristine, Enterprise and Gold Rush. This is the list of guild plant I have planted around my Enterprise apple tree:

  • Pollinator Attractant: fennel
  • Pest Repellant: perennial garlic
  • Nutrient Accumulator: yarrow
  • Living Mulch: strawberries
  • Grass Suppressor: daffodil
  • Medicinal: calendula
  • Edible: strawberries
  • Nitrogen Fixing: lupine

Peach Tree Guild

I love growing peaches because they are my first tree to leaf out each year and that always gives me so much hope for the upcoming year. I have planted a Redhaven peach because it is self-fertile. Here is a list of plants in my peach tree guild:

  • Pollinator Attractant: mint
  • Pest Repellant: chives
  • Nutrient Accumulator: yarrow
  • Living Mulch: wild violets
  • Mulching: rhubarb
  • Grass Suppressor: chives
  • Edible: rhubarb
  • Nitrogen Fixing: lupine

Fruit Tree Guild Plant Photos and Tips

Bee Balm: Pollinator Attractor– It is totally adored by the bees.  It did not bloom the first year I planted it.  But by the second summer it was already taller than the dwarf sour cherry tree I planted it next to. 

Around here I often see a bright variety in people’s yards as well.

Echinacea Pollinator Attractor, Medicinal– These flowers, also known commonly as “purple coneflower” attract all kinds of flying insects.  The butterflies are especially fun to watch.

Echinacea is traditionally used to support the immune system. I have not yet experimented with using my home-grown echinacea medicinally.

Yarrow: Pollinator Attractor, Dynamic Accumulator, Cut Flower–I planted my yarrow from a seed mix called the “Colorado Mix”.  I ended up with a white, yellow, hot pink, and pale pink.

It spreads readily and needs to be split every third year.  I have it planted quite a few places in the orchard and I’m really excited with how much it’s grown and how much the plants are are filling out– the colors are really fun as well 

Yarrow can be used in cut flower bouquets or can be hung and dried to use as a dried flower as well.

Borage:  Pollinator Attractor, Dynamic Accumulator, Mulching Plant, Edible–It produces periwinkle blue flowers that are edible.  People say it tastes like cucumber. I don’t notice a specific flavor other than a sweet drop of nectar.

The plants grow quite tall (around 3 feet)and leafy which will die down in the fall and provide mulch.

Calendula: Pollinator Attractor, Medicinal, Edible, Pest Repellant–Calendula flowers can be collected to infuse in oil and use for making salves and lotion bars.  If left on the plant the flowers go to seed and will self-seed each year easily.  

There are many varieties, but this classic orange “Resina” variety is the most prized for medicinal usage.

Violas Living Mulch, Edible–I planted some little violas from seed.  They have edible flowers to use in salads or sugared or pressed in to cakes or cookies.  

Strawberries Living Mulch, Edible. They have taken well in the wood mulch and they are spreading through runners.

Crops such as strawberries may not produce as much in a fruit tree guild as in a dedicated strawberry bed.  But the trade-off is the benefit it is giving to the tree.  

Fennel: Pollinator Attractant, Edible–My kids love to chew on the licorice-flavored fronds which are also good with fish.  If you dig up the bulb it is good in soups and salads.  

In this picture it is very young. By the end of the summer the fennel can grow 5 feet tall. The seeds can be collected as well and are a common ingredient used in sauerkraut.

Perennial Garlic: Pest Repellent, Grass Suppressor, Edible–Hardneck garlic is perennial and so you do not have to harvest it each year.  But you may need to split the clump every few years.  

It also produces edible “scapes” which can be eaten. However they develop further into little edible “bulblets” of garlic that are more similar to cloves of garlic that you can use and still leave the bulb in the ground to benefit the orchard.

Wild Violets: Living Mulch–I would rather not have quite so many. Wild violets are a “weed” in my area, and 6 inches of wood chip mulch over cardboard didn’t offer much deterrent.

I’ve decided to accept their presence because they do make an effective living mulch in my orchard guilds.  

In the spring they produce sweet edible purple flowers, and their leaves can be added to salads as well. (If you did not purchase the plants or seeds always be sure you are 100% certain you have properly identified a plant you believe to be edible.)

Onion Chives: Pest Repellant, Grass Suppressor, Edible, Nutrient Accumulator–All parts of the plant are edible. It is easy to grow from seed or you can spilt a large clump to divide into two.

It will bloom annually starting its second spring.

Daffodils: Pest Repellant, Cut Flower, Grass Supressor.  Traditional wisdom states that if you want to prevent grass and moles or gophers from getting close to your fruit trees you should plan daffodils in a circle touching bulb to bulb the whole way around.

Unlike your prized tulips, deer will not eat daffodil bulbs, so plant away!

Daffodil bulbs spread, and if you want to keep enjoying blooms you need to make sure they don’t get too crowded.

Rhubarb: Mulching, Edible.  Rhubarb leaves contain toxic levels of oxalic acid and should never be eaten by humans. However, when the plant freezes in the fall the leaves create good mulch in the orchard.

The pink or red stems are tart and edible, usually cooked into chutneys or pies.

Elderberry: Pollinator Attractor, Mulching, Edible, Medicinal– Always consult a wild edibles book to properly identify elderberries to make sure they are safe to eat. We dug up some shoots from down by the creek–a common place to find them.

Elderflowers smell delicious and you can make them into a syrup for elderflower cordials. When fully ripe the berries can be cooked into a medicinal syrup to support the immune system.

 

Blueberry plants: Edible–Blueberry plants have specific PH needs. They prefer soil PH as low as 4-5.  If your native soil is unfavorable you may find they perform better in pots. Peat moss is often used as a soil amendment to lower PH along with “acid-lover” fertilizers.

Raspberries:  Edible–Berries are a delicious layer to the food forest. Providing food for people and animals alike.

Take not of whether your variety is summer-bearing or fall bearing. This will dictate the maintenance they will need.

Nasturtium: Pest Repellant, Mulching, Edible–Nasturtium have beautiful spicy edible flowers that are sharp like mustard greens and fun to add to salads. They will vine out quite large and provide some mulching benefit.

Mint: Pollinator Attractor, Pest Repellant, Living Mulch, Edible, Cut Flower– I rooted some mint cuttings to plant in my orchard. I hope they will compete with the wild violets and creeping Charlie. Mint is known to be an aggressive spreader, so take care if that is not what you want.

Mint is a fragrant addition to cut flower bouquets, but is also edible and commonly used in baked goods and drinks.  

Peas: Nitrogen Fixer, edible–The first year I planted my orchard they were all just bare trunks with tiny “feather” branches. So I figured I might as well use them as little pea trellises. Pease help make nitrogen available to the tree and are delicious to eat as well.

Lupine: Nitrogen fixer, Pollinator attractor–Going forward I want to add more lupines as a beautiful nitrogen fixer to my fruit tree guilds.

Why These Plants are “Easy”

Many of the plants on this list are perennial which means they will grow back each spring. So you do not have to plant new ones each year.

Also, most perennial plants spread over time. The group or clump will get bigger and bigger. After a few years you can split these clumps to move part of it to fill in a spot that is empty.

These include: bee balm, echinacea, yarrow, elderberry, daffodils, lupine, mint, raspberry, wild violet, strawberries, onion chives and perennial garlic.

Quite a few of the rest of these plants are prolific self-seeders. This means that even though the plant will die each winter, if you leave the blossoms on the plant to dry in the summer and fall, they will drop their seeds and plant themselves again for next year.

These include: borage, calendula, fennel, violas, and nasturtium.

Through perennial spreading and self-seeding you can increase the number of plants in your orchard without heading to the nursery to buy any more.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree Guild

Plants in a fruit tree guild will do the most benefit for the tree if they fall within the “drip zone”. This is the area under the fruit tree where the majority of the roots of the tree reside and generally corresponds with the diameter size of the canopy of the tree.

When you first plant your tree this area is quite small. (See my article on planting fruit trees in clay soil which also includes general fruit tree planting tips.).

Since your fruit tree will immediately begin to grow branches, you can start by adding your guild plants within a 3-4 foot diameter circle around the tree. As your tree gets bigger you can expand that circle by splitting and spreading out your perennials, or adding additional plants outside that original circle to correspond with the growing size of the tree.

Have you planted a fruit tree guild? Share your favorite plants in the comments!

Guild Plants Video

If you want to see how this all looks together in my orchard, watch this video:

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    How to Plant Fruit Trees in Clay Soil – wanderingstarfarmhouse.com
    March 24, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    […] Click here for my full planting list of beneficial plants in the orchard. […]

  • Reply
    Charlesalaph
    July 10, 2023 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks, I’ve been looking for this for a long time
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  • Reply
    Hannelore Goos
    January 1, 2024 at 3:31 am

    Why didn’t you mention Phacelia for a tree guild?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phacelia

    • Reply
      Jeanette
      February 6, 2024 at 11:45 am

      Thank you, Phacelia is actually in the borage family. But I should look more into the different varieties!

  • Reply
    Siva Ranjani
    March 5, 2024 at 9:02 pm

    Hi, Thank you for sharing the detailed guidelines on planting fruit trees in clay soil. I’m planning to plant a peach tree this Spring. Would you recommend ading the beneficial plants this year or should I wait until the tree is a bit settled.
    Also, should I plant them close to the trunk or leave some space away from trunk.
    Thank you again.

    • Reply
      Jeanette
      March 11, 2024 at 7:54 am

      Hi Siva! You should add them right away so they can establish the beneficial ecosystem. Give them some space away from the trunk, but do plant them within the dripline for the most benefit (Within the circumference of the canopy and root system.).

  • Reply
    FrbetLek
    March 9, 2024 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for the post

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