Homesteaders, gardeners, and permaculturists alike are planting more and more fruit trees around the nation. As Jack Spirko said recently, ‘Plant a garden for yourself, plant a fruit tree for your children’. Fruit trees will take a few years to begin producing, but their yield and longevity can’t be beat. Cherries are one of the more popular fruits trees. Combining them in a fruit tree guild can make for more vigorous and productive trees with less work from us.
Why Tart Cherries over Sweet Cherries?
On our homestead, we planted three dwarf tart cherry trees in the parking strip between the street and the sidewalk. It was a good way for us to take advantage of the unused space and expand our food production. We chose tart cherries because they are naturally more compact in size and more winter hardy and bloom later in the spring, which makes them less susceptible to frost damage than their sweet counterparts. Tart cherries have a greater tolerance for our heavy clay soil, which can get rather waterlogged at certain times of the year. Additionally, tart cherries have demonstrated a higher tolerance for more humid climates and are less frequently afflicted by the common tell-tale signs of too much humidity: mildew and fungus. For all of these reasons, tart cherries are a good choice for us here in the Midwest. The converse is true for the more arid climates out West, where the sweet cherry may perform better.
What is a Guild?
A guild is a combination of plants that work synergistically together around a central plant to provide it with mulch, nutrients, better pollination, and pest or disease resistance. In a guild, each component should have at least two functions. This is for the sake of efficiency (modeled after nature) – there’s only so much room under each tree!
If all goes well, your guild will become its own balanced mini-ecosystem, which means less work over time.
Guilds as a Concept, Not a Recipe
What nutrients my cherry trees need in my soil may be different from the nutrient needs of your cherry trees in your soil. For the guild to actually work, the combination of plants needs to be correct, and this will depend on climate, soil, sun exposure, etc. Many well-known permaculturists have created fruit tree guild recipes because of persistent requests from gardeners looking for a plug-and-play option. The important thing to remember is that any guild recipe is just a starting point, and in permaculture what follows the plug-and-play is observation.
Build Your Guild
STEP 1: MULCH
The purpose of mulch is to retain moisture in the soil and create habitat for beneficial soil organisms. We planted four comfrey plants around each of our cherry trees. We also added a heavy layer of mostly-composted wood chips. For one thing, the wood chips look tidy, but more importantly, they retain moisture and add beneficial fungal networks to the soil.
Comfrey is the star of the mulching world with its giant soft leaves that can be cut back every couple of weeks throughout the growing season. Whenever I find the time, I use the chop-and-drop method to keep a continuous supply of comfrey mulch covering the soil. Comfrey is but one of many living mulch options.
STEP 2: NUTRIENTS
Miraculously, the forest grows without man-made fertilizers! You could say that the towering forest canopy trees are coexisting with their own supporting guild plants below on the forest floor. We want to add herbaceous plants underneath our cherry tree that will naturally fertilize.
Some plants are dynamic accumulators, meaning that they reach their roots deep into the ground and dredge nutrients from the subsoil up into the plant itself. Cutting the leaves of these plants or letting the plants die back on their own will add those mined nutrients to the topsoil, which can then be used by the fruit tree. Many common weeds are actually dynamic accumulators.
Other herbaceous plants are nitrogen fixers, meaning that they extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to a useable form at their root level. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for fruit trees.
Comfrey: Luckily for us, not only does it make excellent mulch, it is an excellent dynamic accumulator.
Chives: We added four garlic chive plants underneath each tree in a ring inside the comfrey plants, touching the trunk of the cherry trees.
Chives and comfrey together provide nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and silicon.
Clover, fennel, vetch or yarrow would work well in combination or in place of comfrey and chives. I recommend checking out Toby Hemenways’ book Gaia’s Garden for his straightforward plant lists.
STEP 3: POLLINATION
Attract pollinators to your fruit tree in bloom and get better fruit set. April and May is the time when cherry trees are blooming and when you should have other things blooming around the cherry trees. If you build a buffet for the pollinators, they’ll tell their friends!
Comfrey wins again: It is a prolific spring bloomer with very popular flowers.
Note: We planted garlic chives in our guild, but regular chives would work just as well, and their flowers bloom in the springtime (garlic chives bloom in the fall).
Daffodils are another excellent spring bloomer and additionally, if planted thickly at the dripline, can minimize grass invasion into the tree root zone and guild.
STEP 4: PEST/DISEASE RESISTANCE
Many of the afflictions of cherry trees are fungal and mildew in type. For this reason, I might consider adding herb plants to the guild that have antifungal properties.
Chamomile, garlic, scented geraniums, and peppermint are all antifungals AND dynamic accumulators (always search for dual function). We did not add any of these additional plants to our guild because we wanted to see if the chives, being in the same Allium family as garlic, would offer sufficient resistance to fungus and mildew.
STEP 5: OBSERVE
Our cherry trees were planted in 2011, and our first real harvest came in 2013. The three pints of fruit were delicious. I can’t wait for an even bigger harvest this year!
Often, complications in tree health or in the combination of guild plants will not show up until fruit production is in full swing. While our cherry trees have shown prolific growth and tolerance to both wet and dry conditions, this year our trees suffered an infestation from a non-cherry-tree related pest: the uncommon hawthorn lace bug. We noticed that a nearby hawthorn tree was looking lackluster, but didn’t consider that the problem might affect the cherry trees.
The lacebugs showed up later in the season after the harvest, so they didn’t disrupt our happy cherry-picking. But they did do a number on the trees, which lost more and more leaves as summer went on.
While it’s likely that you will not encounter lacebugs on your cherry trees, the process is the same:
1. Observe: We discovered the pests through observation.
2. Identify: We identified them with help from the internet and our local extension office.
3. Attack: We researched what the pest’s natural enemies are and how to attract them.
STEP 6: ADJUST
We discovered that lacewings, assassin bugs, ladybugs, and hoverflies are all natural predators of hawthorn lacebugs, so the essential next step for us is to add something to the guild to attract the good guys.
Yarrow is my pick, because it attracts 3 of the 4 beneficial insects listed above. It is also a dynamic accumulator, and while it accumulates several nutrients, I am particularly interested in the fact that it accumulates phosphorus, one of the essential nutrients we were missing in the chives-comfrey duo. This year, we will add yarrow plants to our cherry tree guild and begin the observation process once more.
Cherry trees are a worthwhile fruit-producing crop, and they benefit from the use of a guild, which supplies them with mulch, nutrients, pollinator attractors, and pest/disease resistance. As with any actions we take to create integrated design systems, we must make time to observe our work and make adjustments as we go along. If we can create well-functioning fruit tree guilds, we’ll be on our way to healthy, balanced ecosystems and highly-productive gardens.