Create a Home Ecosystem of Perennial Edibles


Gardeners Notebook

By Joshua Burman Thayer | Illustrations by Cheryl Angelina Koehler


Have you ever imagined an orchard in your yard? Or perhaps you already have one but sense that your space is underutilized? Try composing your plantings into guilds. These are groups of plants that operate together to enhance each other’s health and productivity.

Production fruit trees (labeled P in the diagram above) are the heart of your orchard guild. These trees generally need full sun for optimal fruit production, so space them far enough apart to allow light penetration to their leaves. The in-between spaces can support secondary production trees (labeled S) like semi-dwarf or dwarf fruit trees, which do not exceed human height and thus will not shade out the primary trees. In the areas below and around your fruit trees, you can grow tertiary crops (labeled T).

A functioning ecosystem also needs a whole range of supporting players. Permaculture designers seek to imitate nature by creating systems that provide their own sustenance, with different plants supporting and feeding each other. Very important to that process are nitrogen-fixing plants (labeled N+) like redbud, mesquite, lupine, jacaranda, and fava. Root networks can trade nutrients in the soil, so by interplanting nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops around the production crops, you can naturally boost food production.

A guild also includes plants that give natural defense, pollinator support, and even structural support. Generally any plant that is aromatic to humans produces scents that are potent to creatures, and those scents can be used to draw in or repel animals and insects. Aromatic plants like onion, marigold, yarrow, and artemisia should be part of your guild, as should pollinator-attracting plants like nasturtium, marigold, borage, bee balm, and comfrey. Plant them around the edges of your orchard or in rocky or marginal soils around your property. Planted inside the orchard, these can give benefit by protecting soil surfaces from the dehydrating force of the sun’s rays.

Your orchard can also benefit from support by wind-blocking trees (labled W) like juniper, spruce, cedar, and yew. In some climates, blocking the wind can change orchard temperatures by more than 5°, making the difference between a decent crop and a bountiful one. Similarly those 5° on the coldest nights can be the difference between trees making it through the winter or perishing. ♦


Examples of guilds for different climates

Tropical Guild

Primary: avocado
Secondary: mandarin
Tertiary: sweet potato
Nitrogen fixing: jacaranda


Mediterranean Guild

Primary: pomegranate
Secondary: dwarf olive
Tertiary: malabar spinach
Nitrogen fixing: redbud


Desert Guild

Primary: carob
Secondary: dwarf pomegranate
Tertiary: malabar spinach
Nitrogen fixing: mesquite


Cold Winter Guild

Primary: pear
Secondary: espalier apple
Tertiary: highbush blueberry
Nitrogen fixing: redbud

Permaculture designer and educator Joshua Burman Thayer is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. In his monthly Gardener’s Notebook feature in Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter, he offers lots more advice on how to implement gardening ideas like this one. Sign up for the newsletter here. Josh has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find him and his work at, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.