Saturday, October 29, 2011

Planning an apple tree guild

Planting an apple tree according to permaculture principles (notes by an inexperienced gardener).
We're fortunate to have a garden, and having just removed a thirsty and vigorous eucalyptus we've been looking for a fruit tree to plant in that spot. In the end we were persuaded by an argument for the utility of an apple tree. After tasting Pitmaston Pineapple - a dessert and cider variety - in the community orchard in Palmer's Green, we bought a standard tree from Bernwode Fruit trees along with a second, called Hoary Morning, in the same pollination group but on a smaller root stock we could espalier along a fence. Together they will pollinate each other and the mix of fruit will improve the flavour of the cider we hope to be making before too long. They arrived and we're about to plant them.

Permaculture practitioners think of plants as best grown in mutually beneficial groups known as 'guilds'. They don't follow the practice of established growers like the lovely Carol Klein, whose Grow Your Own Fruit book (recently borrowed from Fullwell Cross Library) has several pictures of fruit trees with bare earth at their bases and a chemical solution for most health problems. Permaculture growers reason that plants will try to colonise a bare patch at any opportunity, so they may as well be beneficial ones which keep the others at bay and help to protect against health problems without the need for constant work, insecticide or weedkiller. The idea, as Tom Hemenway writes in Gaia's Garden: a Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, is that "this biological support replaces human intervention, shifting the garden's burden onto the broad back of nature".

Sounds great. So, for an apple tree what are those helpful plants and where should they be planted?

First of all (Wikipedia is my source) there are seven permaculture layers to consider. Running vertically from the top down:
  1. The canopy - the treetops.
  2. The understory or low tree layer - anything under about 4.5 metres. Our apple trees will be in this zone but in our neighbourhood they'll be some of the highest plants around so nothing will be competing with them for light.
  3. Shrubs - our rasberries, broad beans, and blackcurrants are in this layer. Being larger, the vicinity of the apple tree will only sustain a few of these. Broad beans are a good bet since their roots fix nitrogen from the air and get it into the soil where the tree and other plants can use it.
  4. Herbacious layer - lettuces, dill, thyme, cabbage, rhubarb and so on. Anything that flowers with the apple blossom will attract insects which will help to pollinate the tree (without which, no apples).
  5. Rhizosphere - root crops like carrots and potatoes grow here, so need to be kept far from the shallow roots of an apple tree. (I assume.)
  6. Soil surface - home of our strawberries, sedum and clover. Clover is another nitrogen-fixing plant.
  7. Vertical layer - our hops, cucumbers, sweetpeas and vines grow here. Sweetpeas fix nitrogen in their roots, which can be left in the ground after they have died back - but they climb and have thick foliage, so only suitable for larger trees.
  8. Some people include the underground network of some fungi as an eighth layer. In our garden the edible fungi include puffballs, though somehow we never catch them before they are football-sized.
That's the vertical plane - there's also a horizontal plane. An apple tree's root spread is one-and-a-half times the diameter of its canopy and its principle feeding roots lie close to the surface, which tends to be where most of the soil's nutrients are.

Gaia's Garden recommends planting a number of concentric rings of different companion plants whose purpose will be to attract beneficial insects (pollinators and predators), nitrogenate and enrich the soil, break up the soil - which in this part of inner Essex is heavy clay - allowing water to reach the tree roots, act as a shade to prevent water evaporation, help against blights and parasites, and keep the grass and weeds from advancing - and all without root competition with the tree for nutrients.

These rings (roughly from inside to outside) should comprise something like the following.
  1. At the base of the tree, a thick ring daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs. Daffodils are poisonous to several animals known for chewing tree bark (they're also toxic to humans so you have to be very careful not to confuse them with anything edible ). All of these bulbs are shallow-rooted so they compete with and block grass roots. But the spring-flowering bulbs are dormant in summer so don't compete for water and nutrients with the tree. Along with these plant chive, garlic and leek (members of the allium family) in this band, to repel fruit tree borers and many other garden pests.
  2. Outside the bulbs plant a broken circle of comfrey. As well as shading the roots of the tree and preventing water evaporation, comfrey fixes nitrogen from the air and therefore makes an excellent liquid fertiliser concentrate if cut and submerged in a bin of water for 6 weeks or so (stinky - keep up-wind of it). It has deeper roots which help to break up heavy soil and which don't compete with the tree's shallower roots, and purple blooms which attract bees (bees can see purple flowers better than other colours). As well as comfrey, the patch will sustain 3 or so globe artichokes and 3 or so broad bean plants, whose roots also help to condition the soil. As a general rule, the larger he plant, the fewer you grow.
  3. Around each of the plants in 2, grow dill, fennel, coriander and other insect-attracting plants. You can eat some of these and they are also striking to look at. Grow nasturtiums too. They are good against aphid and have pest-repellent properties which aren't very well understood, but they have been tested more than other pest-repellent plants and are known to work well in most guilds. As well as being pretty nasturtiums are very tasty in salads - the flowers have a peppery hit followed by a little bit of sweet nectar at the heart of the bloom. Also plant chicory and yarrow.
  4. Throw down clover seeds in the gaps. Clover is a legume which fixes nitrogen and attract bees. Provide habitats for insects and small vertabrates, such as rotten wood and small piles of large stones or small rocks.
  5. At the drip line (based on an estimation about the mature tree's outermost leaves) plant another thick band of alliums and daffodils. Again, these act as a barrier.
I can't say I don't have questions at this stage - for example, how much of this advice is compatible with London/Essex, or even England? How big do these companion plants grow - that needs planning. How far apart should the various plants be? Presumably they all need to be able to seed themselves, so do you have to make sure you don't buy sterile varieties? If pungent herbs repel pests, how come they don't also repel beneficial insects? Which herbaceous plants flower at the right time to help with pollinating the apple? How many of the companion plants do you have to resow each year? How exactly do you take root stock from comfrey?

But I'll just busk it - and if something goes a bit awry, no harm done. Maybe Barkingside21 readers already know a fair bit about this kind of thing - any suggestions appreciated.


  1. The one thing you've overlooked is the dreaded codling moth (Cydia pomonella). The maggots eat apples and are a major pest. We gave up on our apple trees and chopped them down.
    And don't forget that apple trees need pruning. If they get tall and spindly, they don't produce many apples.
    Once established, they'll need to be trimmed with an 8 foot pruning pole. Join the Tomswood Hill Allotment Association for advice and tools at a discount.

  2. Ah, NEVER under-estimate the moth. It will always appear around the Barkingside area when you're least expecting it.

  3. I've recently become awae of mycrorrhizal fungi as an aid to get trees and other plants established. These are symbiotic funghi that help roots feed. The commonest brand for these is Rootgrow. Haven't tried them myself, yet, but reports at the RHS and elsewhere are positive, so it may be worth shelling out for some.

  4. I think the things to do about the codling moth include: bamboozle the moths and their young with pungent herbs; trap them in special jars of sugar water; provide nest sites of corrugated cardboard so you can sabotage them; get a chicken to eat overwintering caterpillars before they get in the fruit; attract a bat. As Harry knows they can occasionally be coaxed away from the tree by Abbott ale or similar.

  5. Well, Mira Vogel - many of us can be coaxed away from all sorts of things by Abbot ale!

  6. I just learned about espalier fruit trees (seen them did not know what they were called) and then saw this site with SCARY stories of monsters eating the trees and apples - is it worth the ££ and trouble to look for a supplier of the above mentioned trees (can someone help me to locate suppliers in/around Havering). I really want to use my little garden to produce fruit and veg. I also realise I need to study what to buy as wanted an apple and plum trees each)

  7. Please go read this:

    He has some very interesting ideas about how to combat moth problems by acting in different phases of the moth life cycle.

  8. yarrow and comfrey are perennial and won't need reseeding, and will cover much of the summer with blooms.

    Garlic I like just because, you know, it is garlic.

    bulbs like narcissus or crocus will handle early spring. also will pretty much self propagate.

    Other plants I have heard of in this context. Sweet Cecily, sweet woodruff, feaverfew.

    Here in the US south east, I would also use beebalm, beeweed, and monarda.

    I am thinking about put in some joe-pye weed by my new whips. Those would be taken out as the trees mature.