How to Create an Apple Tree Guild

An apple tree guild is an assortment of plants under and around an apple tree designed to build and improve the health and production on the apple tree. When you think of an apple tree in nature, it is rarely positioned like we would plant it in an orchard without any vegetation around. By interplanting strategically and observing what grows here naturally, you can help build the soil, attract pollinators, repel pests, and suppress grass.

While this article looks specifically at creating an apple tree guild, most of the ideas and plant suggestions work well for other fruit trees and you can use this to create a peach guild, cherry guild or plum guild.

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Over the last 10 years we’ve been experimenting with planting guilds as well as other Permaculture designs and ideas. One of my favorite resources for planting around fruit trees is the book The Holistic Orchard. This book goes into more detail about how to take care of fruit trees. You can also join our newsletter list to get gardening and homesteading information sent to your inbox each week.


What is in an Apple Tree Guild

An aple tree guild is typically centered around a single apple tree and includes a variety of other types that each benefit the apple tree in different ways. Below are the types of plants that could be included in an apple tree guild.

Apple Tree

This is the center of the guild and positioned in the center. Any type of apple tree will work for a guild although I generaly prefer the health of a standard sized tree. What you plant beneath the tree will change as the tree grows and creates shade over the plants. Start with a healthy tree if possible, although there is also a benefit to creating guild beneath an older apple tree that needs a bit of restoration.

Support Plants

The next category in the apple tree guild is support plants. These are plants that assist the fruit tree in various ways and are described in more detail below. They can include nitrogen-fixing plants like legumes (e.g., clover, peas, beans), dynamic accumulators (plants that bring up nutrients from deep in the soil), or plants that provide support for climbing fruits like grapes or berries.

Ground Cover Plants

Ground cover plants are low growing and cover the soil, helping to reduce weed pressure, retain moisture and provide a low habitate for certain insects. You can use plants like strawberries, creeping thyme of low lying herbs like chamomile.

Nutrient Accumulators

Certain plants help the apple tree by pulling nutrients from deeper levels and making this available to the tree. This usually includes plants with deep tap roots. Plants like comfrey and yarrow and even dandelions fall into this category.

Insectary Plants

These plants are important as they help control predatory pests and attract beneficial bugs. The simplest type of insectary plants includes flowering plants that attract pollinators, while other plants repel the predatory bugs that can impact the health of the tree and the apples. Herbs like chives, dill, fennel, and marigolds are all helpful at managing insects as well as garlic and onions.

Companion Plants

Many of the plants described above fall into the category of apple tree companion plants. One way to think about an apple tree guild is to think on an apple tree surrounded by a number of companion plants. See a list of apple tree companion plants.

Bulbs to Deter Rodents

One method that we’ve used since we first planted our apple trees is to grow bulbs (either daffodil or tulip bulbs) at the base of the trees. This can help deter rodents that come to chew on the bark at the base of the tree.


Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with the roots of many plants, including apple trees. This can help the fruit tree take up more nutrients. Encouraging the growth of beneficial fungi in the soil can be an important aspect of an apple tree guild. The good news is that using the other plantings above and limiting soil disruption will help to improve the fungi in the soil.

Apple Tree Guild

Creating an Apple Tree Guild

The steps you are using to create an apple tree guild depends on whether you are starting with a young tree or are building your guild around an older and established apple tree. An older tree will provide more shade so you will need less mulching plants and can focus on larger plants for pollination and nutrient fixing.

  • Start by making some general obervations about your apple tree. Even different apple trees on the same property may not have the same needs and design principles. Pay attention to the amount of light, the angle of the land, and the plants growing underneath the tree already. Is there an abundance of grass beneath the tree? If the tree is established, is the tree healthy? Is it recieving enough light and water? Before you plant your guild, you can make larger changes like moving the tree to a lighter area, creating a berm to improve water retention in the soil or pruning larger branches.
  • Before planting anything you will want to consider how your apple tree will change over time. You may want to position the plants under your tree so they will continue to get enough sun as the tree grows. You will also want to consider how diverse the guild will be. The more diverse, the more resilient your guild will be in the future. You can use you plants in layers to create diversity.
  • Make your guild a food forest. Consider planting edible food so you are increasing the harvest from the area under the tree. I like to use strawberries, rhubarb, and currants beneath the apple trees since they offer benefits to the tree and can survive in shade.
  • When selecting plants for your apple tree guild, choose plants that will thrive in your climate. If you spend time nursing you plants you aren’t getting the benefits of the plants and you are wasting time.
  • My last tip for creating your guild is to plan and establish your plants, but allow nature to also play a role. See what plants are growing naturally under tree and consider encouring them.

Plants to Include in an Apple Tree Guild

You can find many lists of plants to include in an apple tree guild. Here are the things I’ve used:

  1. Comfrey – Dynamic accumulator, brings up nutrients.
  2. Clover – Nitrogen fixer, improves soil fertility.
  3. Yarrow – Nutrient accumulator, attracts beneficial insects.
  4. Dill – Insectary plant, attracts pollinators and beneficial insects.
  5. Chamomile – Ground cover, suppresses weeds, attracts beneficial insects.
  6. Oregano – Ground cover, suppresses weeds, culinary herb.
  7. Strawberries – Ground cover, suppresses weeds, edible fruit.
  8. Marigolds – Insectary plant, deters pests, attracts pollinators.
  9. Grapes – Support plant, provides shade, edible fruit.
  10. Garlic – Companion plant, deters pests, culinary herb.
Apple Tree Guild

Steps for Creating your Apple Tree Guild

The step by step description below assumes you are planting a new young tree. If you are establishing a guild around an existing apple tree, skip down to the appropriate step:

Step 1: Choose a site the recieve ample light. Prepare the soil by digging a large hole and incorporating organic matter into the soil. Plant you apple tree in early spring when the tree is still dormant.

Step 2: The area right around the trunk (about a 2 foot radius) should be free of plants and grass in particular. Around this ring, plant bulbs. You can use small rocks or mulch to keep weeds out of this area. Keep this area weeded, especially during the first 5 yeards.

Step 3: Plant in your companion plants. It’s best to do thisearly on so you don’t need to disturb the soil as the tree matures. Plant the guild using a combination of plants from above making sure to get a diverse assortment that benefit the tree in different ways.

Step 4: Maintain your tree guild – continue to make adjustments based on your observations of the plants and the health of the apple tree.

Last thoughts: while this article focuses on creating a specific apple tree guild, don’t overlook that many things around the rest of your homestead can benefity our guild. Pollinators that are attracted to your garden in general will find your apple tree even if the plants aren’t directly under your apple tree (see how to plan a pollinator garden). You can also connect your guild with other fruit tree guilds for an even bigger benefit. Finally – consider how to incorporate other parts of your homestead – we often let our chickens under our fruit trees in the fall which allows them to eat any fallen fruit and add nutrients back into the soil.

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