Planting the guild – part 1

So now we’ve come to the second phase of planting our edible forest garden at Dreamland. Most of the “overstory” has been planted – in our case the fruit trees, the big screening native plants and the trees we left in place. So now we have to plant the “understory”, consisting of edible shrubs, herbs, groundcovers and other beneficial plants, grouped together in guilds.


In their book titled “Edible Forest Gardens”, Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier define a guild as “Groups of species that partition resources or create networks of mutual support.” The goal in forest gardening is to create stable, resilient and self-maintaining communities of plants.

So in layman’s terms, planting in guilds is like applying companion planting, but on a bigger scale, typically involving more than just two or three plants. It is often implemented around a tree or using plants that grow to different layers and that each fulfil one or more necessary functions “for the better of the group”.

The various types of plants that make up a guild, in addition to the “central” tree, are as follows (taken from “7 Parts of an Apple Tree Guild”):

  •  Suppressors: Plants with bulbs or shallow roots that help to suppress grass and weed growth.
  • Attractors: Plants that attract a variety of insects to the guild is beneficial to help pollinate the plants and it prevents any one species of insect becoming a problem, as different species predate on one another.
  • Repellers: Plants that repel potentially damaging insects.
  • Mulchers: Plants that naturally provide mulch to the guild saves the gardener time and energy. It also means the soil retains good structure, helping aeration and water percolation, and provides nutrients that all the plants in the guild can access.
  • Accumulators: Species that will increase the nutrient content of the soil, which lessens the need for manually adding nutrients by composting, for instance. Accumulators send roots deep down into the soil profile to bring up nutrients such as calcium, potassium and sulphur. These nutrients are used by the plant and by neighbouring specimens as well.
  • Fixers: Plants that will increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil. After water, nitrogen is the most important element to plants, as it is essential for key activities such as energy production and photosynthesis. Leguminous plants have special nodules on their roots that form a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria to help ‘fix’ nitrogen.

Mixed bag

At Dreamland, although the soil quality and orientation is quite the same throughout the property, we have quite a mixed bag when it comes to forest development stages and successions.

Firstly, we have inherited some established fruit trees, with some rough wood mulch underneath. However, the mulch has not been applied very thickly, so in some places we have weeds and thick grasses growing through. These sections are another day’s problem…


Guild - established trees

Established trees with problematic understory


Secondly, we have large areas where we planted new fruit trees in holes dug into in the existing half-grass, half-weed lawn. These areas need some serious preparation before we can turn them into patches of edible forest garden. On the largest areas, with the strongest lawn remaining, I have pinned down weed mat, with the objective of first smothering the grasses and weeds underneath, and then later composting and planting into that soil when it’s ready. Ideally you want to use something denser than weed mat, like a thick black plastic, but then you have to balance that off against costs and the danger that the plastic may leech unwanted particles into the ground. So weed mat it is for now, with the understory planting scheduled for much, much later.


Guild - prep for 2nd planting

Preparations for second stage guild planting


Thirdly, we have the flat areas that were totally disrupted by all the digging. Now there is just bare soil lying there, ripe for any seeds to establish themselves – which is typically where weeds grow first in an attempt to get the area covered in order to reduce moisture and nutrient loss. It is this area we are tackling first to try and beat the weeds to it. That’s the topic of the remainder of this post.

Lastly we have the areas on the hills and terraces. These are mostly also bare and should also be planted before the weeds get a chance to establish themselves, but in the priority race, the flat areas around the fruit trees won. Here and there, we plant some plants on the hills and terraces, but that’s mostly coincidental if we run into a nice suitable species.

Note that spring hasn’t quite sprung here yet. In fact, we still had frost two nights ago. So it is still difficult to get all the plants we need for a “complete” guild, but we got and planted as much as we could in an attempt to beat the weeds to it, and to get an early start where we could. So far we have “guilded” the cherries and the plums and some of the apples which were planted in totally disrupted open soil. We have also planted some camomile around some of the peaches, but those were only coincidental; just because we could get some young camomile seedlings, some of an edible variety.

Guilding the cherry

Around our cherry trees, we have planted:

  • Oregano, three different types
  • Garlic, two different types
  • Many, many Marigolds on the sunny side (tagetes patula, apparently tagetes erecta is not a good companion)
  • Horseradish
  • Putanea Scabra as a native nitrogen fixer, which I got from Nick at Otways Indigenous Nursery (
  • We still need to add: Chicory, Feverfew and Geraniums.


Guild - cherry with marigolds and horseradish

Cherry guild – with horseradish, oregano and marigolds


Guilding the plum

Around our seven new plum trees we have planted:

  • Nasturtiums, three different types
  • Lemon balm
  • We still need to add: lots of Daffodils (but it’s the wrong season now), Comfrey, Hissop or Vetch and Lemon Verbena


Guild - Plum, lemon balm and nastertiums

Plum guild – with lemon balm and nasturtiums


Guilding the apple

Around some of our apple trees, we have planted, let’s call it a conventional guild:

  • Garlic, two different types
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Leeks
  • Chives
  • Horseradish
  • We still need to add: Comfrey, Chicory, Yarrow

However, around a small bunch of three apple trees, we are trying a more native-inspired guild:

  • Running postman (Kennedia Prostrata), a nitrogen fixing groundcover
  • Indigo (Indigofera Australis), a closely planted bunch of three, which is also a nitrogen fixer, but which also produces purple flowers that you can make a natural dye of. Bring on the psycadelic t-shirts!
  • Garlic, two different types
  • Fennel
  • Dill
  • Horseradish
  • We still need to add some native accumulators


Guild - apple and indigo

Apple guild – with Running Postman, dill, garlic and showing Australian Indigo in the foreground


Other areas

Elsewhere, we have planted a large patch of mixed geraniums to create an area of concentrated colour to attract insects, birds and people – seeing it is right next to the proposed entrance to our forest garden.


Guild - Geraniums



In another sunny spot where we wanted to keep the understory low, near some apples and peaches, we planted a biggish patch consisting of a roughly stratified mixture of:

  • Lavender, two types
  • Valerian
  • Perennial basil
  • Sage, two types
  • Marjoram, two types
  • Many, many thymes, three different types, intended to grow as a thick carpet.


Guild - herb guild

Herb patch


So in some areas, like these, we’re not only focussed on edibles, but on beneficial plants that will attract bees and birds, and which has other uses such as medicinal, culinary and maybe even just for the pleasure to the eye and nose.

Lessons learnt

  • We have now “guilded” about 15 of the 60+ fruit trees at Dreamland, and already it has been a massive effort and expense. We have quickly learnt we won’t be able to plant around all the trees using nursery-bought seedlings. So we have side projects on the go to sow our own seedlings in the greenhouse, and others, like comfrey, we are going to sow in place. (Comfrey has a very deep taproot, so ideally you need to plant the seedlings out before the root hits the bottom of the seedling container.)
  • Another interesting challenge we have is to now cost-effectively “reverse-engineer” some of these concepts into our more conventional young orchards over at Homeland, where we slowly have to replace the thick mulch layers with more multi-functional and beneficial plants, but that’s also another project and another story for another day…




About (207 Articles)
My name is Martin Rennhackkamp, I now live happily in Lara, Victoria, Australia with my wife, two children and two dogs. My interests, apart from the obvious Organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture Gardening and Farming, include sustainable living, surfing, horse-riding, a wide variety of music, dancing, nature, birds, reading, Christianity and a few other things which I never get to...

3 Comments on Planting the guild – part 1

  1. Dit lyk baie goed Martin…als eers begin ernstig groei sal julle n stal moet open!..Gte

  2. Awesome post. What great records for looking back on.

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