Intriguing Apple Guilds

"Bailey's Triple Play", the tri-apple tree in my backyard. There were more apples on it, but both my husband and the squirrels like them green.

“Bailey’s Triple Play”, the tri-apple tree in my backyard. There were more apples on it, but both my husband and the squirrels like to eat them green.

A conversation with my niece, Amy, has been reverberating in my head and psyche. We were discussing food sustainability one day and Amy wondered aloud about the keeping ability of apples. Back in pioneer days, people would keep apples all winter in a storage cellar, but it doesn’t seem that would work today. Apples available in the store go bad after just a few weeks. What happened to “keeping” apples?

Well, they still exist! Like a lot of food today, however, only a few varieties make it to the grocery store. There are over 40 apple varieties available in Ohio. Some of these trees might be found for sale in a nursery, but a fruit tree catalog will have the widest selection. Some are labeled as early or late ripening and many are labeled as “keeping”. Unfortunately, mail order trees are rather small. It might be a fun day trip, though, to find an Indiana or Ohio nursery that specializes in different kinds of fruit trees, and worth the expense of purchasing a couple of larger trees. My niece’s family have enough property to consider investing in such sustainability. They will need at least two trees, of different varieties, to ensure adequate pollination.

I invested in a Tri-Apple tree, really three semi-dwarf trees growing in one container. The small tree (I will refer to it as one) fits much better in my small backyard. Unfortunately, none are keeping apples, but they will ripen at slightly different times in order to extend the harvest. I also have a couple of sweet cherry trees, planted in a row by the fence. My husband complains a bit about mowing around them, and I promised to surround the three with one big “mulch bed” to make mowing easier. Little does he know I am considering how to create an apple guild around the fruit trees.

An apple guild is such an intriguing idea! At the end of this article is a website linked to an excerpt of the book Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. He writes of “permaculture”,  a kind of gardening where plants are chosen and grown together in order to benefit each other and the gardener. It is an ethical, save-the-earth style of gardening that also uses nature to do much of the work. Building an apple guild is a good introduction to permaculture gardening.

Fruit trees can be pretty high maintenance plants. A guild, however, uses nature to control insects and other pests, fertilize, conserve water, attract pollinators, and balance fungal populations to control disease.

To build a guild, first plant daffodils around the tree. Plant them in a circle around the edge of where the full grown trunk will be, and plant a second circle around the outer edge of where the drip line will be when the tree or trees are grown. They will repel animals that might browse on the twigs or bark. This will be a lot of daffodil bulbs to plant, but think how nice they will look each spring.

Plant edible bulbs inside the guild, too. Wild ramps are becoming more and more popular. Garlic chives would also be useful here. The bulbs will keep grass out of the guild.  Fruit tree roots lie near the surface of the ground, so shallow grass roots steal water and nutrients away from them. Spring bulbs that are summer dormant will allow the trees all the water use during the hot summer.

Flowers can be planted in the guild to attract two categories of beneficial insects. Pollinators are required for good fruit set. Predatory insects that feed on other harmful insects such as the coddling moth are a necessity.  These nectar producing flowers can be grown for only beauty or one can use herbs (which also have beautiful flowers)  to do double duty. A flowering shrub such as a butterfly bush can be grown near the guild to attract insect eating birds, birds that once attracted, will also pick insects out of the apple tree bark. My niece’s chickens would also be very useful for that purpose!

Other plants in the guild can be used as  mulch, cut down and composted right where they grew. Many plants with deep taproots such as dandelion, chicory, yarrow, and comfrey will extract nutrients from deep in the soil. As they are cut down and composted, they will recycle those minerals and make them more available to the fruit trees. Composting within the guild will create a living soil with a competitive environment. This is good, as microscopic life is not as likely to get out of balance and cause diseases like scab.

Comfrey is the poster child plant for mulching and composting in place. Some complain that comfrey spreads and becomes a garden pest. Mr. Hemenway states he has not experienced those problems. To be on the safe side, use only the leaves as mulch and compost. It may propagate from pieces of stem. Other good mulching plants include rhubarb, clover, artichokes, and nasturtiums.

Why add fertilizer? Use nitrogen fixing plants in the guild instead. White clover, beans and peas would all add nitrogen for the fruit tree’s benefit. Shrubs that fix nitrogen can be planted in a few places at the expected drip line.

Apple tree guilds, or any plant guild for that matter, are flexible and creative projects. Many of the plants used to support the fruit trees have several functions. For instance, comfrey has flowers which bees adore as well as the mineral extraction and mulching compost functions described above.

Importantly, there is no one design fits all. The plants chosen for the guild should reflect the personality of the creator and the functions desired. In my small yard, I love the idea of encompassing a flower and herb garden around my tri-apple and semi-dwarf cherry trees. It will be fun to try my hand at raising ramps. Amy, however has the space for standard size apple trees, “keeping” apples and otherwise. She has the space to grow more edibles within the guild, perhaps even enough to start a small business with ramps as a luxury food, herbs, other edibles, and cutting flowers. The business potential is another possible aspect of permaculture. The idea of living in harmony with natural earth processes instead of fighting them with sprays and bare earth is intriguing. Building an apple guild is a fun first step. The daffodils will be gorgeous every spring.

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