Fruit Tree Guild in Summer

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Fruit Tree Guild with OllasThis is the first year I have tried to create guilds of plants in the garden. I added a dozen young fruit trees to the front this year, and I started each of them off with growing companions suggested by folks who know a whole lot more about permaculture than I do. Each bare-root tree was planted with something that would help fix nitrogen, like the peas pictured here, something deep rooted that would help accumulate minerals, a root crop to help break up the clay soil, use the space well and provide leaves for eating, shade, and mulch, and something from the Allium family.

Each guild also has it’s own ollas for irrigation since we’re in an arid climate in yet another drought year and evaporation is not our friend. You can see the top of the terra cotta ollas sticking up. The white stopper on top helps stop evaporation and keeps lizards and slugs out of the water. Lots of compost and mulch was added around the growing area, but not up against the trunk of the young tree. They apparently need some breathing room where the trunk meets the soil.

Guild in SummerNow that it’s July, the guilds have shifted from peas to beans for nitrogen, and from compost to a green mulch of leaves from squash, cucumbers, melons or sweet potatoes. I have also added an “aromatic pest confuser” to each guild. This is usually an herb that has a strong scent, something I like in the garden anyway, and which can be used to essentially hide the plants damaging insects may be looking for. Each of my young squash plants is mulched twice in the spring with rosemary cuttings for this same reason. It may seem a little weird, but no squash borers have turned up to call me on it. ;-)

This young peach tree has basil, carrots, leeks, chamomile, squash, and a lettuce plant in it’s guild. I am going to add perennial runner beans to fix nitrogen. Behind the tree, you can see the long, flat leaves of the horseradish patch. I may see if I can encourage the horseradish to expand away from the tree roots, but for now, they all appear very happy together. This tiny tree even produced three gorgeous fruit this spring. I expected it to take several years before I got to taste these peaches, so that was a very welcome surprise and I’m taking it as a good sign.

If you want to start a guild of plants around any of your trees to create a supportive growing neighborhood, it’s very easy to get started:

1. Choose a perennial nitrogen fixer, like a runner bean, or add annual nitrogen fixers such as peas in spring, beans in summer, peas again in fall.

2. Choose root crops or deep-rooted herbs that will reach down into the subsoil and help bring nutrients up to where the other plants in the guild can share them. Comfrey is a perennial favorite of permaculture fans. Borage is another one that requires no work at all to grow.

3. Choose aromatic pest confusers, herbs that you will want to smell and maybe eat yourself that help keep pests away from your guild. I like Lemon Balm, oregano, basil, and thyme.

4. Grow a living mulch that will contribute food for you as well as shade and leaves to mulch in place to keep the soil moisture consistent for the guild.

5. Enjoy!

What are your favorite plants to use in guilds or as companions for other crops in your garden? I would love to hear about them in the comments.

There Are Flowers in My Vegetables

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Yesterday I found a bee on the bright yellow flowers of a Chinese asparagus plant that had gone prematurely senile in it’s pot after our unexpected January heat wave. I whispered to the bee that we have lots more interesting delights coming for it this spring.

We’re growing Blue Borage to have a companion for tomatoes, strawberries and squash that is also edible. It really does taste like cucumber. I’ve already eaten some leaves. has a detailed, interesting entry on Borage, which includes this in the “Companion Plants” section:

Borage is good companion plant to have in the vegetable garden as the insects it attracts make good pollinators for crops. It is a very useful companion plant to strawberries, as they are believed to stimulate each other’s growth.
As a companion plant to tomatoes, it is believed that borage deters tomato worm, and is thus a natural form of pest control. Borage is attractive to blackfly, this can be used to advantage by planting it as a decoy close to one’s fruits and vegetables to prevent them being blighted – an excellent companion plant for beans and peas.
Borage is also good as a green manure. Its long taproot brings up nutrients from the subsoil that remain in the leaves. Before the plant flowers the plants can be dug back into the ground to release the nutrients back into the topsoil.

We’ve also had good germination with our Calendula, a good companion for our cabbage family plants. The ‘Pacific Beauty‘ Calendula we’re growing is a culinary marigold, though I understand only the petals of the flowers are really edible. They are also supposed to soothe bee stings if you rub the fresh flowers into the spot that was stung. I’m wondering if I should be planting the Calendula away from where I want to attract pollinators though. Some of the listings I’ve seen say they repel insects (and deer). Louise Riotte (Carrots Love Tomatoes) doesn’t mention Calendula by name, though she does mention marigolds in general for nematodes and other uses. In Great Garden Companions, Sally Jean Cunningham reports Calendula attracts beneficials and may repel Asparagus beetles.

OK, this whole companion thing gets complicated quickly, doesn’t it?

We have also started a nice planting of ‘Pesche’s Gold’ marigolds, which are apparently ‘French’ marigolds. And we are getting ready to start ‘Tangerine Gem‘, which apparently also have edible petals.  Rosalind Creasy mentions them in the latest edition of Edible Landscaping. The ‘Sunrise’ Cosmos are coming along nicely. I have to pot them up again or decide where they are going in the garden fast. They will be almost the same colors as the marigolds on taller, frillier plants. We’re using the cosmos to attract bees, parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects on the theory that pretty much anything that’s good for the bees is good for the garden.

Mexican sunflowers, Echinacea and Yarrow, as well as Sweet Alyssum (to shelter ground beetles and spiders),  are also part of the garden plan for this year. We are also trying Tarragon as a Nurse Plant for our eggplants who often don’t quite get the warmth they need in our climate and take a long time to fruit. Hopefully they will grow better with a little help from their new friend.

If you have tried and true companions you use in your garden, please let us know which combinations and varieties work well and which Zone you are in.

January Blooms

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Thyme and 'Negreta' Fava Beans

Thyme for Favas

OK, fine. I broke down and grew a flower. Sure, the blooms might be technically edible, but I admit it, I am growing something in the garden that’s not for eating. Those of you who know me might suspect that it’s not actually just one flower. It’s a lot of flowers. More on that in a minute. First, these beauties, surrounded by my Extra Thyme plants, are ‘Negreta’ fava beans that are about ready to transplant into the garden. That will make three varieties of favas on the place, growing lots of biomass, holding the soil together and deflecting some of the compaction from the rains, fixing nitrogen, and making winter beans for the crock pot. And they do make really nice black and white flowers. But those aren’t the flowers I’m talking about.

Flat of Blue Borage, Rutabagas and Spinach

Baby Blue Borage

This year, for the first time, we’re growing over a dozen beneficial or “insectary” plants that are either good companions for crops we especially like, are good food for pollinators or insects we like having around the garden or do good things for the garden soil.  The first one we started, shown here on the right, is Blue Borage which is supposed to have flowers that taste like cucumbers but we’re trying it as a companion for beans, spinach, strawberries and maybe one of the tomato patches as well. It should bloom a good part of the year and we can always toss it in a salad in an emergency cucumber shortage.

We’ve also got some nice looking Calendula coming up from Seeds of Change seed I’ve been hanging onto since 2007. I had no idea it would still sprout but it looks fine so far. We’re also trying ‘Tangerine Gem’ and ‘Pesche’s Gold’ Marigolds, which are supposed to be bad for the bad nematodes, Cleome, Zinnias, Echinacea, Cosmos, Mexican Sunflowers, ‘Texas Hummingbird’ Sage and Alyssum.

Persian Cress Sprouts

Is Persian Cress like English Watercress?

And that doesn’t take into account the herbs, like my Extra Thyme, which is growing in several spots in the garden. We’re also starting Sweet Marjoram, Italian Flat-Leaf parsley, Mexican Tarragon and I’m not sure which category to put the Sesame in. I thought it would be fun to try to grow our own sesame seeds. Does that count as an herb? And does anyone know the difference between ‘Persian’ Cress and English Watercress? Are they related? That’s gardening for you. It always brings up more questions than it answers!