A Subtropical Fruit Tree Guild

subtropical fruit tree guild

A few weeks ago I designed a fruit tree guild for the subtropics for a client in Central Florida. Today I’m going to tell you how I did it and give you an in-depth look at how fruit tree guilds work.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of plant or tree guilds, it’s a permaculture idea that serves multiple functions (as permaculture ideas often do!). Plant guilds combine intercropping or “companion planting” with pest control and insect habitat, nitrogen fixing and stacking more food and medicine into the same space that would normally contain just a single tree.

Wild Tree Guilds


In a forest, trees are almost never all alone. They share their space with mosses, ferns, creepers, shrubs, epiphytes, herbaceous plants, and lots of creatures. A fruit tree guild mimics nature’s patterning and builds upon it in a planned way.

For instance, you might see an oak by the road with a mimosa tree (nitrogen fixer) beneath it, a sumac (insectary and wild wildlife feeding understory tree) beside it, wild grapes (vines and wildlife food) climbing it, wild mint or bee balm (insectary plants and possible pest repellent) beneath it, along with who knows how many other species… and that’s not even including the resurrection ferns and Spanish moss in the tree’s branches or the fungi interconnected with its roots. The forest creates a huge amount of biomass via these wild tree guilds… and feeds itself and the animals quite well.

subtropical fruit tree guild garden bed

My perennial garden bed is basically a miniature planned forest. Lots of species, lots of good insects.

These are unimproved trees and plants, however. With man’s ability to tweak and breed and select trees and plants for great traits such as high fruit yields, sweetness and production… well, you can seriously get a lot of food going by creating your own planned fruit tree guilds.

Planning a Fruit Tree Guild


Here’s where I think people fall apart. By wanting “perfect” results, they instead end up getting nowhere. Look – you can spend ALL your time planning and no time planting!

I like to do things the other way around. All these plants are just here for ideas. You could literally blindfold yourself, throw 10 darts at a wall covered in pictures of plants, pick the ones you hit, plant them together around your fruit tree, and you’d probably do fine. The biggest thing seems to be not leaving your fruit tree alone.

You can do better than blind darts with a little planning, but don’t get too hung up.

Here are some suggestions for your subtropical fruit tree guild.

Add The Fruit Tree

If you want a nice fruit tree guild, first pick yourself out a fruit tree. Since I’m located in the subtropics, let’s go with that climate. You can pick trees and plants that fit a temperate or tropical climate, too, – it’s the same system. Look around for what does great in your area.

A fruit tree that don’t cast a huge shadow is great (sorry, mulberry and loquat – I’m looking at you!) unless you want to grow shade-loving plants beneath it.

Japanese persimmons, small citrus, pears (until they get huge), plums, peaches… all are pretty easy to deal with.

Add Small Fruits and Berries

Then pick out a few other smaller fruits you’d like to eat. Thornless blackberries, blueberries, strawberry guava, natal plum… the choices are endless. Pop a few of those in near your tree.

Add Herbs

Then grab some herbs for (hopefully) repelling some pests and spicing up your kitchen. Rosemary, oregano, lemon grass, turmeric (in the shadiest spot beneath the fruit tree)… you get the idea.

Add Greens

Now I like to add some salad and greens. Mexican tree spinach (AKA chaya), Surinam purslane, cranberry hibiscus – these are all good and don’t take up tons of space.

Add Tree-Feeding Plants

Now let’s add something to feed the tree. Pick a nitrogen-fixer or two and plant them right by the fruit tree. As it grows, chop it back over and over again and drop the branches as mulch. Every time you do this the roots will release some nitrogen for your fruit tree. In the subtropics, mimosa trees, black locust, coral bean, pigeon peas, autumn olive, cassias and plenty of other species work well. If you want to create more mulch and add other nutrients, you can also plant a great biomass producer like Tithonia diversifolia nearby (watch out – they get huge – be sure to cut them back regularly and drop the mulch around your fruit tree!) or, if you’re luckier with keeping them alive than I am, plant a bunch of comfrey like temperate climate pemaculturalists are apt to do.

Add Insectary Plants

You can also pop in pentas, flowering almond, African blue basil, milkweed and other blooms for the butterflies and bees. There are lots of options here. I like them for the beauty and the fact that the more insects you have buzzing and creeping around, the less major pest problems you seem to have. An active ecosystem tends to be self-policing, keeping problems from getting too out of hand.

Add Edible Groundcover

Sweet potatoes and Seminole pumpkins work really well for this. You can also plant Okinawa spinach and longevity spinach, among other good edible ground cover plants.

Voila! You’ve put together a guild. Mulch well, keep watered until it establishes, and you’re set.

Now – here’s the design I did for my client:


A subtropical fruit tree guild. Center tree will likely be a Japanese persimmon.

The soil is acid, so the blueberries should be very happy. One area not shown is the ground cover layer, but that will likely be seasonal in this guild. It’s getting planted this fall, so sweet potatoes will not be appropriate until the spring weather kicks in.




My book has lots of tested plant species listed in the back. $2.99 = cheap gardening success.

Creating a fruit tree guild is easy. This subtropical fruit tree guild didn’t kill me to design, though I do admit that drawing it out neatly took a bit of time.

If you don’t have the money to buy plants, propagate your own from seed and cuttings. Don’t worry about getting everything together at once, just start from where you are and start popping things in. I’ve always got plenty of herbs, berries and other cool things getting started in pots… just take cuttings now and again, pop seeds here and there, and pretty soon you’ll have lots of plants for your fruit tree guilds. Even the fruit trees themselves can be started from seed if you don’t feel like paying and you have some time to wait.

Soon I’ll show you one I designed to fight citrus greening… but until then, get reading, check out all the species listed in the back of Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, doodle some of your own guilds and most of all – go plant some fruit trees!

When Life Gives You Scrubland, Plant an Amazing Permaculture Garden! (Pt. II)


(For part one, click here.)

That’s what a permaculture garden should look like.

Of course, I say that as somebody with terminally rectangular beds in my backyard…

Do as I say, not as I do. Heh.

Beans are growing along the trellises Sam built in his permaculture garden, both traditional pole beans:

And velvet beans:

Another thing you’ll see in this garden is the use of plant “guilds;” for example, here’s a classic apple/comfrey guild:

In the mix as well is some thriving yarrow. Tucked in nearby are a few healthy summer squash vines:

And a psychopathic gnome:

Also nearby are some arrowroot plants, just emerging from their winter slumber:

If you don’t have arrowroot, come see me at the 326 Community Market; or, if you’re further away, you can pick some up online in the winter from Grower Jim.

Look, anyone can grow a garden. When you prep the soil properly and apply water regularly, plants will grow. It may take a while to figure out what is going to thrive, so do like Sam did: plant a bunch of different things and tweak as you go. This garden is just a testing ground for him before he opens up some larger acreage for a food forest.

His permaculture testing ground looks a lot better than most people’s regular gardens.

And, of course, if you’re interested in diving into permaculture gardening in Florida, pick up a copy of my book Create Your Own Florida Food Forest on Amazon for $2.99 in Kindle version or $6.99 for the paperback.

And if your soil is bad and you need to kickstart it without killing yourself or going broke, pick up a copy of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Composting.

Whatever you do, don’t give up… even if you’re in the scrub. Sam’s garden proves the power of permaculture!

Support this site: shop on Amazon using this link. It doesn’t cost you a penny and it helps pay for my hosting!

When Life Gives You Scrubland, Plant an Amazing Permaculture Garden! (Pt. I)


I had the good fortune to finally visit my friend Sam’s place somewhere out in the Florida scrublands.

Out in the scrub, the soil is hot and dry and looks like this:

Yet with some applied permaculture, it can look like this:

And Sam tells me I’m inspiring?

In order to transform this piece of scrubby pastureland into a permaculture paradise, Sam added buried lots of tree debris in hugelkultur mounds and piled up truckloads of tree mulch on the surface.

He also built some really cool trellises… which I’m totally going to rip-off and copy at my place.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the entrance of this beautiful permaculture garden and move in from there.

Out in Sam’s neck of the woods, deer are rampant. In order for him to have a garden, he had to put up a deer barrier, hence the fencing around this permaculture plot.

The fencing itself is a fine woven mesh which looks a bit flimsy but manages to keep the deer out regardless, perhaps due to its height or the fact that deer are stupid.

Inside the garden are a variety of pollinator species, nutrient accumulators, herbs and even pokeweed and wild pawpaw (which Sam built around without disturbing – you really can’t transplant pawpaw!).

The chewed-up portions of the pawpaw shrub above were caused by zebra swallowtail caterpillars. The zebra swallowtail is a lovely butterfly native to Florida which only lays its eggs on pawpaws.

Photo credit Greg Gilbert.

In my book, it’d be worth planting pawpaws just to have these attractive butterflies winging about in my yard.

Of course, once they emerge from their cocoons, they need something to eat, right? Sam’s got the pollinators covered right here:

That’s bee balm, a useful herb as well as being a great plant for the insects. A permaculture garden can be anything from a mixed-bed to a food forest. Sam’s is a mix of everything and is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen.

Want to see more? Here’s Part 2!

Support this site: shop on Amazon using this link. It doesn’t cost you a penny and it helps pay for my hosting!

New Excuse For Not Cleaning Up: Edible Wild Cucumbers In the Brush Pile!


A few months ago I noticed a lawn company cleaning up a bunch of brush and vines from a neighbor’s yard. I asked the fellow doing the work if he would mind dumping their truck of brush at my place.

He looked at me like I was crazy. Which was okay – I’m used to that.

I finally convinced him to dump it at my place but he wouldn’t dump it in the yard. Probably scared I would sue him or something. So he dumped the brush in my front swale in front of the fence.

When I went to start picking it up to throw over the fence, I realized that it was such a tangle of vines that it would be a serious pain to move… so I left it to dry out and rot for a while.

Then a week or two ago, I took another shot at it, along with the “help” of my two-year-old.

I started dragging vines to throw over the fence… and then I noticed this:

edible wild cucumber vines

It was obviously a cucurbit of some sort so I stopped what I was doing in case I broken any of the tiny vines… then I went inside and looked it up. This is what I found, thanks to Green Deane. So is wild cucumber edible? Yes!

I have edible wild cucumbers!

I couldn’t find any fruit, though it had a lot of little blooms as you can see. That meant I couldn’t move the brush… since it had become a trellis for a potential food source.

See? I’m not lazy! I’m just growing food holistically. Or something.

A few days ago I found a few fruit and Rachel and I tried them. A nice little burst of cucumber flavor in a bean-sized package. I think I’ll see if I can find some ripe fruit so I can save the seeds and scatter them around my food forest for next year.

wild cucumbers edible

Wild cucumber!

 Good thing I have nice neighbors.

An illegal garden? An Interview With Sean Law


Over a week ago, my dad sent me an article on Longwood homeowner Sean Law and his battle to restore his piece of the Earth to a healthy ecosystem.

When I saw the piece, I felt a quick connection to the guy, particularly when he mentioned Fukuoka as an influence. So, after some finagling, I managed to reach him personally for an interview.

Before I caught up with him via phone the first time, I wondered if he was going to be one of those “crazies” that simply won’t abide by the rules or make friends with neighbors, etc. You know, the kind of guy that fixes cars late at night with pneumatic wrenches while cranking up AC/DC, or the gal that stuffs her house with piles of newspapers and dead cats.

Sean Law’s inspiration, Masanobu Fukuoka

Instead, I found Sean to be more caring about people that you would imagine, considering his current battle with the city of Longwood. He’s unassuming, friendly, coherent and well-versed in Florida law. He also has a deep love for the environment and the many creatures that inhabit it, right down to the microorganisms in the soil.

His focus, rather than being on the way things are clunking along right now and on the codes that keep us in a cycle of cropping and poisoning… is on the future of humanity and our planet.

Here he is, in his own words:

Sign his petition by clicking here.

UPDATE: After this interview, I was able to visit Sean Law’s illegal garden and found it to be a marvelous place filled with life. Unfortunately, the city has now taken his house from him. Not all battles end as well as others. The Helvenston garden fight was won… but Law’s was lost.

Soil Creation and Thoughts On Complexity


Soil is the key to a healthy garden – but have you ever thought about soil creation and how it takes place?

I was just going through my pictures from the Appalachian Trail and found this:

Soil creation in slow motion.

Lichens are patiently eating into that big hunk of rock. Slowly but surely, it’s being turned into soil that will feed the surrounding forest for generations and generations to come.

Some people might just see a mushroom… some mold… flies devouring a carcass or ants carrying away crumbs from a picnic.

But there’s a lot more going on in nature. There’s a huge cycle set in place long ago, where every piece interacts with every other piece, sometimes in immeasurable or incomprehensible ways.

The fungi in the soil can transfer nutrients across the forest floor… the bacteria in the soil can take nitrogen from the air and convert it into plant fertilizer… the insects break down organic debris… and the lichens on a rock can release minerals that feed the pines.

When you spray poisons or flood the soil with synthetic chemicals, you run the risk of damaging the trillions of processes happening in your garden’s ecosystem.

Slow down… observe… think about how much is going on. Plant an abundance of species, drag home piles of sticks and logs to feed the fungi, sprinkle seeds around, mulch and let nature repair and balance itself.

When it comes to gardening knowledge, we’ve barely scratched the surface, just like those lichens. But every little bit of knowledge or thoughtful action makes a difference.

There’s a plan here, set in place by Someone far above us.

Seek it out and enjoy the good things that come your way.

The Great South Florida Food Forest Project: June 2013 update


As I’ve written before, I’ve got something cool going on down south.

I visited last week and got some new photos. It’s amazing how fast tropical plants grow – everything is looking pretty darn good. I need to get some nitrogen-fixers going, though. Maybe I should mail Dad some pigeon peas…

Check out what’s going on – the 6th Street Mulberry I got from the Edible Plant Project and gave to Dad has almost doubled in size. Crazy.

Below is a look at the food forest from the back fence side. Here you can see Senna alata (with the yellow blooms), Tithonia diversifolia to the left, malanga near the bottom, some cassava, a glimpse of moringa trunk and a bit of banana tree.

 messy south florida food forest

The next shot shows a giant papaya on the top left. I grew that thing from seed. In the lower middle is a chaya plant, also known as “Mexican tree spinach.”


And now, take a look at the little grumichama we planted earlier this year. See the sign? That’s so Dad doesn’t forget what it is. He’s not quite the plant nut I am.
And here’s a shot from the house side. Look at that cassava coming along!


Next, here’s my little tropical avocado seedling. It’s about 4′ tall now. Not as amazing as Eddy’s, but it’s gonna get there.

Remember my previous story about cutting down the scheffelera tree? The acerola cherry we planted to replace it is doing wonderfully… and it’s bearing fruit already. Dad’s been sharing them with visitors. Look!

And… here’s one last shot for the road. I may not be able to grow the tropical subsistence plot I want up here, but at least I get to play around every few months ago in my parents’ backyard.

Not bad at all. Mom and Dad have already been harvesting fruit, beans and even the occasional self-seeded tomato from this little patch of jungle.

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