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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
Pest RepellantCalendula
Nutrient AccumulatorYarrow
Living MulchViola
Wild Violet
Grass SuppressorDaffodil
Edible (Research to know which part is edible)Borage
Wild Violet
Nitrogen FixingPeas
Cut FlowerYarrow
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:

Gardening/ Orchard

How to Plant Fruit Trees in Clay Soil

I don’t know what area of the United States does not have predominantly clay soils, but it’s no where that I have lived. But that hasn’t stopped me from planting gardens and even fruit trees.

There are many important steps to take at planting time to ensure the good health and growth of fruit trees that this article will discuss, but the most important principle to successfully planting fruit trees in clay soil is this:

Fruit trees can be planted in heavy clay soils by planting the tree in a mound at least partially above ground level, which raises the roots above the ground water so that they will not drown during wet periods.

Here is the method I have used to successfully plant fruit trees in heavy clay soils in two different states.

Mulch Planting Area in Advance

Fruit trees are nourished through their roots and much of the important nutrition and water is actually provided through a symbiotic relationship with a type of fungus called mycorrhizae.

As far in advance as possible, prepare the soil where you will be planting fruit trees.

Lay down unprinted cardboard and a few inches of wood chips, straw, or raked up leaves. If it is not a wet time of year wet down this material periodically.

Naturally occurring mycorrhizal fungi is activated to begin breaking down this material. You can inoculate the material with this fungi, or let it come naturally. It will spread and begin creating a fungal network through the ground that will ultimately benefit your tree with greater health.

Dig the Right Hole

Once you acquire your tree you can dig your hole. Do not dig a hole too far in advance in clay soil or it will crust over .

The hole needs to be more shaped like a wide bowl than a deep bucket. It should be about as deep as the roots and 3-4 feet wide.

Score the sides of the hole vertically with your shovel about every 10 inches so that the sides are not slick and smooth. This will give the roots a place to catch and dig in to grow outwards and not in a circle.

Prepare the Tree Roots for Planting

If you receive the tree dormant with “bare roots” you should be prepared to plant it within a day or two. Do not let the roots dry out while waiting.

The roots re often packed with shredded paper or something similar. If it is drying out and you will not be immediately planting the tree, spray the paper with water so that it is moist, but not dripping wet.

To prepare the bare root tree for planting remove any shredded paper or other medium the roots may have been shipped covered in and submerge roots in a bucket full of water for at least one hour, but less than three hours to rehydrate the roots before planting.

Set the Tree at the Proper Hight

It’s most crucial that you plant the tree high in its hole.

I like to lay a rake handle across the hole to accurately gauge the hight of ground level, and make sure that the upper roots of the tree are above the ground level level.

Mound up some soil in the bottom of the hole to set the tree on at the proper height. Spread the roots evenly around the mound in a circle.

Backfill With Native Soil Only

Put the same soil you dug out of the hole right back into it. Do not add any extra organic matter.

Adding organic matter only creates an easy “path of least resistance” compared to the clay around the hole, which encourages the water to seep into the hole and drown your tree.

The only thing I add when filling in the hole are a sprinkling of Azomite trace minerals and mycorrhizal fungi.

Water in the Roots

When half the soil is back in, and once again when the remaining soil is back in the hole, gently tamp down the soil by stepping or pressing on it, and run water over the soil.

This will help the soil to settle and prevent air pockets which would kill your roots.

Mound with Amended Soil

After I have returned all the native soil to the planting hole there are still roots of the tree exposed above ground level.

Create a planting mound up around the tree with raised bed planting mix to cover all the upper roots. This is light and airy soil that will ensure you tree gets all the oxygen it needs and that you never have all the roots completely submerged in groundwater.

If you want to mix your own use one part each topsoil, peat moss, and sand.

Leave Graft Above Soil

Identify the graft union of your tree.

Mound soil over the roots and all the way up to the trunk’s previous planting depth (where the bark changes color). This should be about 2-3 inches below the graft.

Always leave the graft 2-3 inches above ground level.

Mulch Tree Mound

Mulch around the tree with wood chips or straw. The more aged the better.

Keep the much away from the trunk a few inches to avoid rot.

For the best health of the tree keep the tree mulched in its entire drip zone. Basically, however wide the canopy of the tree is–that is how wide the mulched are beneath the tree should be to help keep the mycorrhizal fungi for the roots happy.

Add Beneficial Plants to Create a Fruit Tree Guild

This is my Summerhaven Peach immediately after planting.

Here it is in its second summer after planting.

The tall buttery colored flowers growing underneath it are Yarrow which is a dynamic accumulator, pollinator attractant and used in bouquets. Behind the tree is mint, thyme and oregano, which are all pest repellants, edible, and pollinator attractants. To the right of it you can see a small rhubarb plant that is a mulching plant and edible. Also, in the spring this area had daffodils which are pest repellants and can be used in bouquets.

Further back to the right is our American Persimmon, surrounded by medicinal calendula. In the very back are some tall elderberry plants which are edible and medicinal.

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

Video of Planting Fruit Trees in Clay Soil