Food Forests: Designing Fruit & Nut Tree Guilds

Joyce described the recent shift in approach to fruit growing, seeing plants as part of a “community”. To provide context she gave an overview of some of the more ancient food growing practices and some examples of more recent successes. This was followed by practical information including a brief guide to how to plan a food forest, companion planting and how to plant a fruit tree. Finally there were your questions. This section includes more information about companion planting.

Source: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison

Joyce shared the slides from her talk. They include planting palettes for a black walnut guild, native plant guild, asian inspired guild, medicinal guild, medieval guild, ornamental guild, apple guild, pear guild and apple guilds. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Introduction and context

Industrial commercial  fruit tree growers farm with a focus on maximum yield. The tree is seen as a food machine and pruning, herbicides and pesticides are seen as necessary tools to maximise production. While these methods are effective in the shorter term, they are not sustainable.

Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect and leading voice in ecological design has stated that the big shift “in horticulture over the next decade is a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to thinking about plants as social networks – that is, communities of compatible [beings] interwoven in dense mosaics.”

These ideas are not new. Joyce went back in history to look at the growing methods of earlier civilizations who were closer to nature. She described the Iroquois “three sisters” method of growing corn, beans and squash. These were planted as interdependent crops; corn providing supports for the beans (nitrogen fixers) to climb and squash shading the soil, preserving moisture and crowding out weeds.  Another ancient approach first used in Mesoamerica was Milpa. This involved the complex exchange between farmers, crops and the land. In this approach, religious and social significance appeared to exceed the nutritional and economic importance of farming.  Joyce also noted that the Amazon rainforests, while seemingly natural, have been domesticated for eons. The indigenous Waorani have a story that their ancestors planted the jungle. For them, gathering is gardening.

The current shift in approach is global. Akinori Kimura of Japan transformed agricultural methods by “what he learned from the apple tree” managing a very successful orchard without the use of pesticides. Yoko Ono made his book available for free in English online. Permaculture was also used in France to restore land at the  La Ferme Biologique du Bec Hellouin. Closer to home is a permaculture orchid near Montreal, Miracle Farms

Highlights to this approach

Plants are a member of an ecological community. They grow interdependently of the other plants in their neighbourhood. Thus, biodiversity leads to resiliency. Even below a healthy soil there is exchange through a mycelium network. While most plants grow effectively in community, there are some that are competitive so some planning is necessary.

Think in terms of layers

  • Canopy (tallest trees)
  • Understory
  • Shrubs provide berries and/or seasonal beauty and can attract insects.
  • Herbaceous layer, can be living mulches that carpet the ground. They can also be used as a crop to “feed” or replenish your soil. These can be cut down and left on the soil to decompose. Think of plants that carpet the ground, as an alternatives to lawn.
  • Roots, tubers and bulbs can produce edible roots and build organic matter.

When planning, start with the tallest layer.

Proportions are important when planning

Thomas Rainer, in his book Planting in a Post-Wild World, recommends the following proportions for a beautiful designed plant community:

  • Structural layer (10-15%) Large plants that form the visual structure of the plantings. Trees, shrubs, upright grasses & perennials/large leaved perennials. Plants in this layer have distinct forms (silhouettes) and are long lived. Plants tend to be competitors or stress tolerators.
  • Seasonal theme (25-40%) Mid-height plants that become visually dominant during a season because of flower colour or texture. When not in bloom, become green supporting companions to the structure plants. Long to medium lifespans. Tends to grow in masses or drifts. Competitors, stress tolerators and ruderals (plants that grow in disturbed ground).
  • Ground covers (~50%): Low, shade-tolerant species used to cover the ground between other species. Functions as ground cover, erosion control, nectar source. Plants tend to be rhizomatous. Stress-tolerators.
  • Fillers (5-10%) Ruderal and short-lived species that temporarily fill gaps and add short seasonal display. Plants grow quickly, but do not tolerate competition. Annuals, biennials, and short-lived perennials. Rudbeckia triloba, Aquilegia canadensis

Get to know the characteristics of your plants

  • Are they clump forming, slow spreaders or rapid colonizers?
  • Do they feed the soil? e.g. nitrogen fixers (like Canada Milkvetch)
  • Are they edible? (fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, roots, tubers, bulbs, sprouts, shoots, flowers, buds, pods, petals, hips, seeds)
  • Are they medicinal?
  • Do they attract beneficial insects or deter pests (plants with small flowers tend to attract beneficial insects)
  • Are they miners (making minerals available to the plants as needed)
  • Do they increase the beauty of the design? (think about their shape and structure)
  • Are they perennial, annual, biennial or ruderal?

Reconsider your definition of a weed. For example did you know that dandelions are edible and medicinal. Their deep tap roots are beneficial to the soil and they attract insects.

Think “Companion Planting”

For the most part plants are fairly compatible. Black walnuts and butternuts are two exceptions as they exude juglone which is alleopathic to certain plants. Get to know them and the plants that like to grow with them (such as pawpaws).

Some examples of good companion plants in a walnut tree guild

Herbaceous layer – the Water Leaf (Hydrophyllum Virginium). The leaf of this plant can be eaten, and it will go dormant for a period in the heat. It needs lots of shade.

Vines – Five Flavour Berry (Schisandra Chenesis) , also used in herbal medicines.

Understory tree – the Pawpaw tree (Asimina Triloba)currently grown in Gananoque. The fruit is tasty but does not travel well. It does not like full sun.

How to plant a tree in clay soil

Amend the soil by covering with a layer of wood chips. These will “heal” the soil over time.  Be sure they don’t pile up around the trunk of the tree.

Dig a moat around the tree. Fill it with twigs and wood and then cover with wood chips. The wood will absorb water and reduce watering requirements. You can use the soil you remove from the moat to make a mound in the middle where you plant your fruit tree, thus raising it and preventing “wet feet”.

One way to water a new fruit tree is to place a large bucket with drainage holes near the tree and fill it twice with water. The water will drain slowly and the placing of the bucket will ensure the tree gets enough water in the root zone.

Take care working around the roots when adding companion plants,.

Avoid pruning your tree heavily as this shortens its life.

Did you know diluted urine is good for fruit trees, as it is high in nitrogen?

What to consider when buying trees

  • Buy fruit trees that have been grown locally as they will be well adapted to local conditions.
  • Find out about the root stock (fruit trees are grafted) – will they grow in our local soil (heavy clay)?
  • Ask the nursery not to trim the tops, as the tree will be healthier over time if left to grown in its natural form, with only a little training.

Q & A

What about harvesting fruit when there are plants growing under the trees?

Leave space for paths or place stepping stones under the tree canopy. Another alternative is to plant ground cover that can withstand light foot traffic such as sedges, wild strawberries and barren strawberry. The woodchips covering the moat is also a natural walkway.

Samples of effective companion plants

Below is a list of plants suggested for companion planting. While there has been careful research, practical trials are still underway in the local Kingston food forests. We welcome your feedback and experience in this regard.

Other resources

Check plant catalogues. Aside from lists of plants for sale and prices, Nursery catalogues often provide additional very useful information.

Where to get native plants

At this time there are no native plant nurseries local to Kingston except for the Lemoine Point Nursery. Local nurseries and sources for fruit trees. On our Nurseries, Seeds, Soil resource page we list sources for fruit trees, local nurseries and mail order native plant nurseries.

What is the best approach to working with existing trees (Apple/Ash)  – is it possible to salvage them or is it better to start from scratch?

Joyce recommends  you work with what you have. If the apple trees were traditionally pruned and are now overgrown they may need some pruning. Remove grass which is very competitive with tree roots and create a guild instead. The Kingston area is loosing many Ash trees as a result of the Emerald Ash Borer, so if you have a healthy tree, try to preserve it. 

Recommended books

Visiting local food forests

There are currently two food forests being established in Kingston, one at Oak Street Community Gardens and one at Lakeside Community Gardens. Unfortunately because of Covid-19, you can’t visit them this summer. At Lakeside you can become a member for $10.00 & adopt a fruit tree. Once established the fruit at Lakeside Gardens will be shared: 1/3 to members, 1/3 to the public and 1/3 for donation.

Starting trees from seed – Chestnut/ Pine Nut trees

When growing from seed, the saplings need to be sheltered for the first year especially if they are slow growing. At this time the leaves are tender and attractive to animals. Korean Pine Nut seeds are difficult to germinate, and the young plants cannot overwinter. They need to be covered with burlap to protect form wind and frost and their roots need to be protected with a layer of straw/leaves or plastic. When starting trees from seed, use deep pots like a tall milk carton to allow for the development of deep roots.

Upcoming events

If you’re not already registered, join our next Master Gardener Zoom Q & A on Eventbrite

Happy gardening!

Reporting by Colette McKinnon, Master Gardener in Training, Rideau 1000 Island Master Gardeners