They say a celebrity is just as good as the cast and crew with whom they are employed. And when it comes to growing an apple tree that is happy, safe, and bountifully created, this statement could not be more valid! Trees are not isolated beings: they have extensive contact with other trees and plants around them, both with their own relatives and with other animals, and they share networks.
Trees are also heavily dependent on underground mycelium or fungus networks that multiply the reach of their roots to enable them to source nutrients and water from far further afield, and from much smaller pores of the soil, than if they were growing in isolation.
In permaculture, a specially chosen community of supporting plants is called a guild. These guild forms work together, like a great dance troupe or theatre company, to create synergies, protect each other, and share resources.
There are multiple elements playing various roles in a typical apple tree guild, and each helps to positively influence the capacity of the tree to grow and produce. "You should serve as its "casting director" to make your tree shine, and consider the following players:
In nodules on the roots, harbor bacteria make nitrogen available to the plant itself and, as the plant sheds roots and aboveground biomass, to adjacent plants via the soil.
Helpful insects provide food and shelter and carry birds to serve as pest control. To ensure a good food supply for these little guest-stars, it is a good idea to have some flowering plants that are in bloom both just before and just after the flowering time of your tree. For this position, use plants native to your area as they will be well adapted to your environment and support the most diversity.
Before you have a chance, it can help prevent pests from getting to your apple! Since bugs are drawn to odors and pheromones, the scents coming from the apple tree and the pheromones emitted by the first pests on-site could be overcome by a few strong-smelling herbs in your guild.
Support your guild to keep weeds out, lock moisture in, and add organic matter. These guild-helpers, known as "chop and drop" plants, have a lot of leafy biomass that can survive being cut back two or three times a year and laid down to cover the soil on the field.
They have deep tap roots that suck up scarce nutrients from the soil to make them bioavailable to the plants around them. For example, pears need extra potassium and good amounts of calcium are needed for heavy apple crops.
It's more than just about the early color pre-show! In the early spring melts and rains, they help prevent nutrients from draining off the site. For spring bulbs, there are actually three distinct "seasons," early, mid, and late spring and a representative from each season will keep your guild at the top of its game. As a bonus, if planted in a thick circle following the edge of the dripline of your tree, spring bulbs may also assist with grass suppression.
Providing insects and other arthropods, and birds, with a backstage shelter and habitat. For ladybugs and snakes, you can also leave small piles of rocks around, or drill holes in logs for solitary parasitic wasps that are useful for pest control.
Aim to keep them three feet away from the trunk when planting your supporting guild plants around your apple tree to allow the tree's roots room for breathing. Focus on holding dynamic accumulators in or near the dripline of the tree, nitrogen fixers, aromatic insect confusers, and spring bulbs, while enabling habitat nooks and mulch plants to be a little further afield.
With these multitasking helping superstars, it is simple to get your own guild going. The following list is an excellent starting point for your own call for backyard guild casting, but feel free to substitute or swap them out for your favorite flowers with native plant 'understudies' in your region that can perform any of these functions. For each of the tasks that the guild needs to perform, just try to have at least one part!
(Tropaeolum spp.) is an annual that holds nematodes away from the roots of plants (great for tomato plants to grow around!) and is a good cover for the ground. The leaves and flowers both make a delicious addition to the salad. In the following season, seeds can be harvested easily and replanted.
(Baptisia australis) is a stunning perennial nitrogen fixer, native to Eastern North America. Consider planting where the drip line of your future fully grown apple tree will be, at four feet tall and wide. Good general nectar for lacewings and parasitoid wasps that can help manage pest insects is beneficial for pollinators as well.
(Allium schoenoprasum) and other species of allium serve as aromatic confusers for pests. To maximize nutrient absorption or repel squirrels, birds, and other apple robbers, they can also be used for holistic plant sprays.
(Symphytum spp.) is a Triple Threat Guild! It attracts pollinators, is a dynamic accumulator, and produces a great plant for mulching. Potassium, phosphorus, calcium, copper, iron, and magnesium are also strong sources. Opt for Bocking 4 or 14 varieties when planting comfrey, as these cultivars spread only by root division and will not take over your entire yard!
(Narcissus spp.) has several properties for pest control and can prevent grass from infiltrating your guild. Early, mid, and late blooming daffodils are present. For the most advantages, have some of each.
Native to Eastern North America, (Penstemon digitalis or hirsutus) avoids sawflies, aphids, and other pests by attracting lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps.
(Origanum vulgare) or thyme (Thymus spp.) are fine (and delicious!) herbs for use as confounding aromatic pests and for soil cover. Try mountain mint for a native option (Pycnanthemum spp.).
Nitrogen fixers and suitable small-space alternatives are (Trifolium spp.) Both before and after apple trees, bloom, holding pollinators across the region for a long time.
(Urtica dioica) is a dynamic accumulator that provides shelter for invertebrates and is a good source of potassium, calcium, sulfur, copper, iron, and sodium. It's also tasty (if you don't mind the possible risk of being stung!) and highly nutritious. And there are indications that when stored together, dried nettle can help keep apples longer.
The dynamic accumulator, pollinator attractor, aromatic pest confuser, and source of potassium, phosphorus, and copper is (Achillea millefolium). It also encourages both generalist nectar and specialist predatory insects and provides many beneficial insects with shelter. Just after apple blossoms fell, yarrow blooms will keep your local pollinators around for a good long time.
In addition to making the tree work to rave reviews, planting a guild around your apple tree would mean less expense and time spent on inputs such as fertilizers, sprays, and mulch. You can increase your apple yields, but also harvest a number of "spin-offs" from other plants that you can use for food, medicine, tea, mulch, dye, and more, both under and around your star player! Bravo!-Bravo!