How To Plant A Permaculture Orchard

Apple trees
(Image credit: joannatkaczuk)

Most gardeners have heard of permaculture, but what exactly does it mean? The term is a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” It refers to a sustainable type of agriculture with the diversity, stability, and resilience of a natural ecosystem.

A permaculture fruit orchard design contains a variety of fruit trees and other plants that will look and act like natural ecosystems. This type of planting is sometimes called a “fruit tree guild.”

Fruit Tree Guild Permaculture

Transforming vacant land into an aesthetically pleasing and productive orchard is an appealing concept with many advantages. Planting trees benefits the environment by reducing urban heat, absorbing noise and carbon emissions, limiting water runoff, and creating habitats for wildlife. In addition, organic and wholesome crops result.

A fruit tree guild orchard includes not just several individual fruit tree specimens, but layers of trees and plants. This maximizes the harvest and echoes the ecology of natural forests. These types of plantings require less maintenance and offer more diversity than regular orchards, and suffer less pest damage.

Permaculture Fruit Trees

Even if your intention is to focus on one type of fruit tree (creating, for example, a permaculture apple orchard), the fruit tree selection will be diverse in this type of fruit tree guild. Multiple trees and plants provide more harvests and can result in continuous food production. 

Trees in a permaculture orchard are planted in layers. The canopy layer might include dwarf and semi-dwarf trees to make the harvest easier. Consider including apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. Underneath it would be the shrub layer, with berries like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and gooseberries.

In addition to the canopy and shrub layer, there would be a vine layer, occupied largely by grapes, and an understory layer. This could include both annuals and perennials like strawberries and rhubarb

Starting Work on the Site

To get this project underway, it is necessary to tackle the preparatory work first. This would include soil testing, soil amendment, and soil preparation. If possible, install a solar power source for irrigation, water storage, and pollination pools. This is the time to put in compost bins as well.

Only after the site is prepared and any hardscaping added, can you look to planting. Try to find trees, bushes, vines, and plants available at low cost from non-profits promoting environmentally responsible land management. 

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.