Designing food forest guilds

But it’s not what you do with food or forest, it’s why you do it. What you do will change from biome to biome; but why you do it should remain the same. You do it to honor what Creator has made. You do it to enhance the land you live on. You do it to diversify genes at every opportunity. You do it to honor the natural flow of water. You do it in the spirit of selflessness, in the spirit of service, in the spirit of community. And as long as you’re doing that, the technical skills will follow.

Lyla June, Forest as farm

Food forest guilds are are biodiverse polycultures

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

We ourselves are part of a guild of species that lie within and without our bodies. Aboriginal peoples and the Ayurvedic practitioners of ancient India have names for such guilds, or beings made up (as we are) of two or more species forming one organism. Most of nature is composed of groups of species working interdependently.

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual

Guilding is a permaculture technique that learns from and works with the relationships in nature, especially those in a forest system.

Unlike monocultures — a field of corn, a conventional apple orchard, a turfgrass lawn — guilds are biodiverse interdependent polycultures of plants, insects, microrganisms and animals. Guilds are three dimensional, extending beneath the soil, with plants connected by a mycelial network. Guilds are designed around a primary food producing species (such as an apple tree) along with diverse, multi-functional support species to maximize the health and productivity of the guild. They produce a wide variety of useful products such as food, medicine, fibre, wood and dye.

monoculture orchardfood forest
for humansfor all species
low diversityhigh diversity
transform the sitelearn from the site, choose plants to suit
higher conventional yieldshigher diversity of yields (nuts, fruits, berries, leaves, medicinals, flowers, roots…)
simultaneous ripeningcontinual harvesting
chemical fertilizers to feed the treescultivate a self-sustaining ecosystem
chemical pest control focus on healthy soil microbiology and attracting natural enemies
single functionmulti-function: grow fruit, perennial vegetables, herbs, medicines as well as designing for cooling, windbreaks…
two dimensionalmultidimensional
mostly machine or human labourplant, insect, fungi, soil microorganism and human labour
fighting wildlife for harvestsgrowing enough for all creatures

Food forests are inspired by Indigenous agriculture

“Kanan k’ax is a well-tended forest or a deity considered a guardian of the forest.”

Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands
Maya Milpa Cycle, Maya forest gardens, SUGi

“The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Food forests are a method of agriculture practised by Indigenous communities around the world, including the Americas (for example, British Columbia), Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Counter to the myth of the pristine wilderness, in North America European settlers didn’t arrive at an ‘untouched land’ — Indigenous peoples gardened the forests. Geoff Lawton, a permaculture designer inspired by a visit to a Moroccan Food Forest, helped bring the concept of food forests to the mainstream.

Let your site inform your design

Framework for overyielding polycultures, Edible Forest Gardens by Eric Toensmeier & Dave Jacke

Observe the sun: When does the sun hit the location? How long does it last? Is it full sun (6+ hours), partial sun (3-6 hours or full shade (<3 hours)? Most fruit trees require full sun. However species such as pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and hazelnut tolerate partial shade.

Observe the soil: Is it clay and poorly drained? Is it sandy and well drained?
Is it rich with organic matter? Does it have healthy soil life? Most of these you can determine with a simple soil test.

Observe the wind: Are there cold winter winds? Hot summer winds?

Observe the water: Is rainfall consistent throughout the season? Is there an opportunity to capture, divert and store rainwater? Do you have supplementary irrigation available?

Observe aesthetics: Is there an unwanted view to screen out? A desired views you’d like to experience from a window? A location you’d like to convert into an outdoor room?

Design for relationships

When designing a guild, consider the interrelationships between members of the guild. Place plants in relation to each other in a way that facilitates interconnection and support rather than competition (for example, plants with different root systems such as shallow vs tap roots):

  • Nitrogen fixing plants, along with species that supply phosphorus, potassium, calcium and other minerals, fertilize food producing plants
  • Soil food web recycles plant debris to build healthy, moisture retentive soil
  • Insectary plants attract beneficial predatory insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and predatory wasps as well as pollinators such as native bees that increase fruit and vegetable yield
  • Strongly aromatic plants such as oregano, garlic, thyme and yarrow confuse pests, preventing them from discovering the plants they like to eat
  • Diversity attracts a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, insects and birds to increase system health
  • Dense layer of herbaceous and groundcover plants suppress unwanted species and protect the soil

Ideas for food forest guilds

Use your imagination when designing guilds. This handout includes palettes for a variety of food forest guilds and step you through the process of selecting plants for each layer.

More guild possibilities to inspire you:

Diversity is key

Plant diversity plus bug diversity equals biodiversity… So many interactions, so many friends. An orchard ecosystem designed around diversity provides front-line answers that make pest challenges far more manageable.

Michael Phillips, The buzz on biodiversity
  • 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, dandelions, purslane and lambsquarters are edible and medicinal.

Prepare the site and plant

Build a mound to improve the soil

Smother the grass by building a circular mound at least 3×3 metres in diameter. Mounds help tremendously if you have heavy clay as most fruit trees dislike heavy clay. I used soil excavated from the mulch basin, mixed with organic matter, to build the mound. In a trial of 5 ways to prepare beds for tree and shrub planting, the Balkan Ecological Project found sheet mulch the most effective. Shape the mound into a gentle slope, then cover with a thick layer of woodchips.

Dig a mulch basin to store water

Mulch basin, Art Ludwig, Create an Oasis with Greywater

If you want to reduce the need for watering or capture and store storm or greywater, dig a moat 25-45 cm deep at the perimeter of the circle and use this soil to help build the gently sloping mound and to construct a berm around the outer circle to hold water in the mulch basin. Fill the moat with branches, small logs and cover with woodchips.

Shift soil to fungal dominance

Fruit trees prefer a fungally dominant soil. Trees roots partner with fungal mycorrhizae to share nutrients. To shift to fungal dominance, mulch deeply with woodchips and ideally introduce some native soil collected from around a mature apple tree or a forest. If you’re preparing the soil a year in advance, grow a cover crop. Michael Philips, author of The Holistic Orchard and Mycorrhizal Planet, recommends Red or Crimson Clover as a cover crop as they have a stronger affinity for mycorrhizal fungi. Finally, you want to spread woody mulch everywhere to feed the fungi in the soil.

Plant the fruit tree

Planting a fruit tree, Robert Kourik, Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally

Robert Kourik has an excellent article on planting fruit trees. With his technique, you build the mound as you plant, offsetting the need to dig a hole. Stake the tree only if needed, on the side of the worst summer winds. Position graft knob facing north (to protect the graft with the tree’s shade).

Buying fruit trees

Avoid buying potted trees from conventional nurseries and big box stores, they’re grown on unknown rootstocks and sourced from places like Oregon. Instead, buy locally grafted fruit trees (ideally 1 year old whips), carefully choosing your rootstock. The trees will adapt better to local conditions and will be more resilient if left to grown in their natural form, with a bit of training.

Rootstock choices for Southern Ontario

Recommended by Patrick Prior, a local supplier who does all his own grafting.

“Our first choice of rootstock are M111 EMLA and M106 EMLA. These produce trees in the larger range of semi dwarf. For those who want a full dwarfing rootstock, Bud 9 is the best choice. Avoid M9, M27, G41, M26.


  • Excellent cold hardiness (to zone 4)
  • Excellent root anchoring, so no staking is needed.
  • Excellent disease resistance.
  • Tolerates all soil conditions including heavy clay, but as any apple trees, will perform best in Sandy loam soils.
  • Tolerates draught conditions better than any other rootstock.
  • Excellent grafting compatibility with most apple cultivars.
  • Tolerates heavy pruning if you want to keep the tree smaller.
  • Excellent life expectancy (70-90 years).


  • Excellent cold hardiness (to zone 4)
  • Excellent root anchoring, so no staking is needed. 
  • Good disease resistance.
  • Slightly smaller than M111.
  • Performs best in Sandy loam soils: avoid planting in wet or clay soils
  • Doesn’t tolerate draught conditions as well as M111.
  • Excellent grafting compatibility.
  • Tolerates heavy pruning if you want to keep the tree smaller.
  • Excellent life expectancy (70-80 years).

Why we avoid full dwarfing rootstock: these create a dwarfing tree because they have a weaker root system. As a result, dwarfing rootstock requires staking for its entire lifespan, and should only be planted in ideal sandy loam soils. A serious drawback with full dwarfing rootstock is a short life expectancy of 25-30 years. Full dwarfing rootstock was developed primarily for commercial applications where smaller trees reduce labour costs for pruning and harvesting which requires no ladders. The only dwarfing rootstock we use is Bud 9 due to the excellent cold hardiness (zone 4), and excellent grafting compatibility. It should be planted with the understanding that it will require staking for its entire lifespan.”

From guilds to food forest

Elizabeth Waddington, Vermont guild planting plan

Start with a single fruit tree guild, then add more over time to create a food forest.

Recommended reading

Visit a local community food forest