Apple Tree Guild: Creating a Mini-Ecosystem Around Your Tree

Despite the many advantages of trees, including fruit trees, they often require more space than the average garden or lawn can accommodate.

It’s not just the height and width of the tree, but also the space under the canopy. How many plants can you fit into that space around the trunk of the tree?

With the right design, you can grow a lot of plants there. That’s what is known as a tree guild, and it works well for a lot of fruit trees including apples.

What is an apple tree guild? An apple tree guild is a system that allows you to reclaim the space beneath the apple tree and grow plants that benefit the tree in different ways. Some plants have a symbiotic relationship with the apple tree, and that translates into fewer pests, fewer diseases, and higher yield every season.

If you’re new to the concept of apple tree guilds, this post is for you.

Read more to find out how to take advantage of the wasted space under the apple tree and turn it into a mini-garden of its own.

Ready to take your apple tree care skills to the next level? Dive into my must-read article, Apple Tree Care and Maintenance, and become a master in nurturing and optimizing your trees.

What Is the Purpose of a Guild?

A fruit tree guild works as expected. It’s a group of plants that do well together and benefit each other in different ways. S

ome plants fix nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil, others repel pests, and yet others help conserve water and retain moisture in the soil.

When selecting the community of plants under the tree, you can help protect the soil against erosion and benefit the tree at the same time.

Components of a Typical Fruit Tree Guild

Since plants have different qualities and properties, when choosing plants for your apple tree guild, or any other fruit tree guild for that matter, you should take into account the various benefits that each plant can offer.

In general, a typical fruit guild should contain one or more of the following qualities:

  • Suppressors: These are plants that suppress the growth of weeds. Examples of good suppressors include winter squash, strawberries, mint, thyme, and buckwheat.
  • Attractors: These are plants that attract pollinators and good bugs with their flowers. Mustards, yarrows, buckwheats, and butterfly weeds are good examples of attractors that improve the pollination of fruit trees.
  • Repellers: These plants do the exact opposite of attractors. They repel pests and thus help prevent diseases in plants in the guild. Repellers include balm lemon, lemon grass, garlic, chives, marigolds, and onions.
  • Fixers: Fixers are plants that fix nitrogen in the soil to keep it rich and reduce the need for fertilizers. Alfalfa, beans, red clover, white clover, peas, and lupines are good fixers to plant in the guild.
  • Mulchers: As the name suggests, mulchers provide good mulch to the tree to help regulate the soil temperature, slow moisture loss, and suppress weeds. Mulchers include buckwheat, hostas, and comfrey among others.
  • Accumulators: Deep-rooted plants tend to gather nutrients from the deep layers of the soil and bring them to the top where other plants with shallow roots can absorb them. Examples of accumulators include comfrey, chicory, borage, and alfalfa.

Do Fruit Tree Guilds Work?

When done properly, fruit tree guilds can have amazing benefits for the tree.

You’ll notice that the tree is less prone to diseases and pests, its annual yield has improved considerably, and the amount of work and time you put into caring for the tree goes down as well.

As long as you put a lot of thought into choosing the right plants for the type of fruit tree guild you’re trying to build, you’ll reap all the benefits of the guild.

A good rule of thumb is to choose a couple of plants from each one of the components discussed in the previous section to create a complete ecosystem.

Benefits of an Apple Tree Guild

An apple tree guild can bring more than just health benefits to the tree and increase its productivity.

It’s a chance to create a healthy ecosystem teeming with apple tree companion plants and take advantage of every inch of space in your garden. The benefits can be summarized as follows:

  • The guild is more suitable for small gardens and when you don’t have a lot of space to grow different plants.
  • A guild allows you to try out various plants that you wouldn’t usually consider planting together in the same space.
  • By keeping weeds and other invasive plants at bay, the apple tree will not compete over resources and won’t need as much fertilizing as without a guild.
  • You won’t use as many pesticides and fungicides when you have repellers in the guild.
  • A diverse ecosystem attracts good bacteria and microorganisms that break down the organic materials in the soil and make it more fertile.
  • The apple tree guild makes watering more efficient.

Do All the Plants in a Guild Have To Be Edible?

The fruit tree guild should contain a wide variety of plants. Each plant has a different role to play in the whole ecosystem, but not all of these plants have to be edible.

Some plants, like marigolds, have the benefit of attracting pollinators and repelling pests.

Even though you may not be able to eat every plant in the guild, the pollinators improve the yield of the apple tree and other edible plants in the guild.

In general, you will want the guild to contain different plants with different roles to create a healthy ecosystem regardless of whether the plants are edible or not.

Considerations Before Planting an Apple Tree Guild

Since an apple tree guild can contain a lot of plants of different species and growing requirements, the key to success is to choose the plants that can do well together.

You also need to consider the mature size of the plant as spacing is crucial to improve air ventilation and prevent infections.

You might also need to select some nitrogen fixers such as red clover and white clover to benefit the apple tree and the other plants in the guild.

In general, you’d want to diversify the plants according to the benefits that each provides to the whole guild. 

A large apple tree in full bloom on a cloudy day.

Apple Tree Companion Plants

The apple tree does surprisingly well with a wide variety of companion plants. However, not all of these plants can get along well in a guild.

You’ll need to pick and choose based on not just their suitability but also on the benefits they can offer to the guild. Here are some good candidates and what they can do:

  • Red clover: A nitrogen fixer that enriches the soil and reduces the need for fertilizers.
  • Winter squash: Use the vining type to suppress weeds and prevent competition over resources.
  • Lemon grass: A good repellent plant that keeps many insects and bugs away from the guild.
  • Yarrow: A medicinal plant with bright flowers that attract bees and butterflies to pollinate the apple tree.
  • Hosta: The leaves of this plant can turn into mulch to improve the water retention in the soil and suppress weeds.
  • Comfrey: Comfrey offers many benefits to the guild. It’s a good source of mulch, it pulls nutrients from the deep soil and makes them available near the surface, and it’s a powerful addition to your compost pile.
  • Alfalfa: Another fixer that improves the nutrients in the soil.
  • Marigolds: These plants repel insects and keep the guild healthy and free of disease.

Apple Tree Guild Examples

When it comes to apple tree guilds, there’s not just one right answer. Every guild varies depending on the microclimate, the growing conditions, and your personal taste.

As long as you add one or two plants from every component (repellers, fixers, attractors, mulchers, suppressors, and accumulators), the guild will be healthy.

Also, keep in mind the considerations discussed above. Finally, follow your personal taste, and add the plants that you love.

Tips for Planning Your Apple Tree Guild

  • The location of the apple tree is crucial for the success of the guild. It should be in a spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of sunlight every day.
  • Keep your design fluid. The initial design should be flexible so that you can add and remove plants later on.
  • Keep the guild size within the drip line of the apple tree, but if you have more space, you can increase the size later.
  • Water and fertilize the guild on a fixed schedule.

Final Thoughts

Apple tree guilds are healthy ecosystems that allow you to take advantage of every inch of space in the garden. The plants in the guild offer different benefits to the apple tree and to each other.

These benefits include repelling pests, attracting pollinators, mulching, fixing nutrients in the soil, and suppressing weeds and other invasive plants.

Get creative, and have fun! Whatever you decide to plant will be a step up from that ugly bare spot under the tree that you once had.

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