I'm starting a small orchard of stone fruit trees -- just a few hundred square feet. I will be putting in plums next spring, and I'm thinking about what to plant between/around them. In the lingo of permaculture, I'm building a guild.

I'm in New Hampshire -- USDA zone 5 with a short growing season, heavy annual snowfall, and fairly reliable year-round precipitation.

The soil in this orchard-to-be isn't in great shape: rocky, shallow (about 4' to bedrock), acidic, and lacking nutrients. I know it needs improvement and I plan to add (have already started) manure, compost, and lime to correct the nutrient gap, organic matter, and pH. It's a well drained, silty loam.

Both white pine and sugar maples are growing natively, along with a lot of beech and black cherry. Understory includes blackberry and ferns I have yet to identify. It's downhill from the house, garden, and part of the lawn, so there's a potential to capture (if I want to) quite a bit of moisture. Eric Nitardy identified this environment in a comment below as "a Northern Dry-Mesic Forest. Dry, where the Pines do well, and mesic, where the sugar maple and beech do well."

The site is on an east-facing gentle slope with full sun.

Specifically, I'm looking for suggestions for compatible plants in the following growth zones:

  • ground cover -- probably a perennial nitrogen-fixer that will tolerate shade from the trees; I'd consider mixes. Does it make sense to plant something like strips of oats or barley in the cross-paths (for straw mulch and seed for the following year's cover crop)?
  • "understory" -- the plums won't be very big, so anything in the space between the plums and the ground cover can't be too tall or spreading. Future trees will be bigger. Small fruiting shrubs or something low like comfrey or rhubarb.
  • "canopy" -- 3-4 larger trees to be planted north and east of the orchard; primarily to provide protection from harsh winds. These will also help as a wind break for the house and summer vegetable garden. I'm thinking about a combination of a fast growing native like white pine, some kind of nut, and perhaps a cluster of birch or a sugar maple.

Attributes I'm trying to capture:

  • Dual-purpose plants -- pick two or more of nitrogen-fixing, soil-improving, attracts pollinators, has visual appeal, produces mulch, is edible, scares away deer and woodchucks to a distance of 500', etc.
  • Perennials (ideally) or annuals that produce lots of easily harvestable seed (e.g. oats, sunflower).
  • Plants that do not spread aggressively. I don't want to have to be constantly keeping "bullies" under control out there.
  • Roots that do not wander too far -- the leach field for my septic system is about 30' away from the north edge. Willows are not a good choice for the canopy...

(Side note: I realize this is asking for a lot, and I'm planning on doing a bunch of my own research, but I will upvote answers that provide a couple of plants that would work well together in this guild.)

  • Regarding "ground cover" are you planing to harvest for other uses? If yes, is that a good idea within such an environment you're after creating? Should all plants be harvestable or are you ok! with some "good looking" (nice to look at) plants, shrubs?
    – Mike Perry
    Sep 13, 2011 at 21:22
  • @Mike: visual appeal is ok, but I probably wouldn't pick a plant just because it's nice to look at -- I'd want some other function from it. (E.g. lupines are nice to look at, but they're also nitrogen fixers.)
    – bstpierre
    Sep 13, 2011 at 23:53
  • Regarding harvesting ground cover -- "harvest" only in the context of I might use, say, clover clippings as mulch on occasion. Or if I had a couple strips of oats, I'd collect the straw and seeds at the end of the growing season. I don't plan to harvest strawberries or anything intensive like that. Mainly I'm looking to have the ground cover provide something to the other plants -- nitrogen fixers, pollinator attractors, weed control, etc.
    – bstpierre
    Sep 14, 2011 at 0:12
  • NOTE: I will post an answer summarizing my research and the best suggestions (those I plan to use) of other answers.
    – bstpierre
    Sep 14, 2011 at 3:08
  • One thing missing from your description is the soil moisture situation. Is it dry sandy where the white pine would be happy? Or is it moist well-drained, where the sugar maple would be happy? The example linear guild in your link is a moist soil herb garden. If it were on a dry soil, the plant list would be very different (and much more useful for cooking). Sep 14, 2011 at 3:08

4 Answers 4


This is not really an answer to your question, but may be a step towards an answer.

If you want a plant guild adapted to your area that contains Prunus species, you may want to look at your local forest to understand how it is put together and where Prunus species fit into it. In Vegetation of Wisconsin, John T. Curtis measured the prevailance of plant species in the major plant communities in the state of Wisconsin. Your local forest is an eastern extension of a forest the Curtis called the northern dry-mesic forest. The forest in your area will likely contain all the species of its Wisconsin counterpart plus a few additional, in particular, a greater variety of ferns.

A northern dry-mesic forest in Wisconsin would have as dominant canopy species: Pinus strobus (White Pine), Acer rubrum (Red Maple), Quercus rubra (Northern Red Oak), Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch), and Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple). Unlike New Hampshire, Fagus grandifolia (Beech) is well down the list since it has hardiness issues in many areas of Wisconsin.

The two Prunus in the forest, P. serotina (Black Cherry) and P. pennsylvanica (Pin Cherry), are not very shade tolerant. So they also not major dominants. Pin Cherry is primarily a forest edge species since it is small. While P. serotina also appears at the edge and in openings, it also scatters large numbers of seedlings across the shady forest floor to wait for a large tree to die. If so blessed, one of the cherry seedlings will take the dead tree's place. So P. serotina regularly appears as a canopy tree. The similarly handicapped bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) uses the same stealthily approach to finding a place in this forest.

The following is a list of the major ground-layer species ranked according to their frequency of appearance:

Genus         Species        Common Name               Frequency 

Diervilla     lonicera       Northern Bush Honeysuckle 11.2  Weigelia relative
Rubus         allegheniensis Allegheny Blackberry       8.3  Forest edge shrub
Vaccinium     angustifolium  Low-bush Blueberry         8.2  Forest edge shrub
Rubus         pubescens      Dwarf Red Raspberry        5.6  Forest edge shrub
Viburnum      acerifolium    Maple-leaf Viburnum        5.4  Understory shrub
Rubus         strigosus      American Red Raspberry     4.5  Forest edge shrub
Cornus        alternifolia   Pagoda Dogwood             1.4  Understory, forest edge tree
Ostrya        virginiana     Ironwood                   1.2  Forest edge, understory tree
Ribes         cynosbati      Eastern Prickly Gooseberry 1.0  Forest edge shrub. Tasty
Lonicera      oblongifolia   Swamp Fly Honeysuckle       .9  Understory, forest edge shrub
Amelanchier                  Serviceberry                .2  Forest edge tree
Carpinus      caroliniana    American Hornbeam           .1  Understory tree
Hamamelis     virginiana     Common Witchhazel           .0  Understory shrub
Viburnum      rafinesquianum Downy Arrowwood             .0  Understory shrub

Maianthemum   canadense      Canada Mayflower          50.1  Dominant understory plant !
Eurybia       macrophyllus   Large Leaf Aster          35.7  Formerly Aster macrophyllus
Anemone       quinquefolia   Wood Anemone              18.1   
Mitchella     repens         Partridgeberry            15.2  Replacement for Vinca minor
Clintonia     borealis       Blue-bead Lily            12.5  Similar to Erythronium
Polygonatum   pubescens      Hairy Solomon's Seal      12.3   
Galium        triflorum      Fragrant Bedstraw         11.7  Similar to G. odoratum
Lycopodium    obscurum       Ground-Pine, Clubmoss      9.3  Cool soil
Trillium      grandiflorum   Large-flowered Trillium    8.0  
Cornus        canadensis     Bunchberry                 5.6  Cool Soil
Osmorhiza     claytonii      Downy Sweet Cicily         5.0  Scent of licorice
Dryopteris    carthusiana    Spinulose Wood Fern        3.4  Fern
Prenanthes    alba           White Rattlesnake Root     1.7  
Chimaphila    umbellata      Pipsissewa                 1.4  Hard to Grow
Actaea        pachypoda      White Baneberry            1.0 

Pteridium     aquilinum      Common Bracken Fern       28.4  Fern
Aralia        nudicaulis     Wild Sarsaparilla         26.1  The root beer plant
Oryzopsis     asperifolia    Canada Rice Grass         22.6  Grass
Trientalis    borealis       Starflower                21.4  
Uvularia      sessilifolia   Sessile Bellwort          14.3  
Carex         pennsylvanica  Pennsylvania Sedge         9.5  Sedge 
Maianthemum   racemosum      False Solomon's Seal       8.7  
Gaultheria    procumbens     Wintergreen                6.6  
Fragaria      virginiana     Virginia Strawberry        6.0   
Polygala      paucifolia     Gaywings                   5.8  
Pyrola        elliptica      Waxflower Shinleaf         5.1 
Viola         cucullata      Marsh Blue Violet          4.5  
Orthilia      secunda        Sidebells Wintergreen      4.0  
Viola         pubescens      Downy Yellow Violet        3.3
Toxicodendron radicans       Poison Ivy                 3.2   
Sanicula      odorata        Clustered Black Snakeroot  2.7  
Aquilegia     canadensis     Eastern Red Columbine      1.8  
Apocynum      androsaemifolium Dog Bane                 1.7  Milkweed relative
Pyrola        americana      Round-leaved Pyrola        1.7  
Brachyetrum   erectum        Long-Awned Wood Grass      1.5  Grass
Waldstienia   fragarioides   Barren Strawberry           .3
Clematis      occidentalis   Purple Clematis             .0  
Medeola       virginiana     Indian Cucumber-root        .0  Edible root

Interestingly, there does not appear to be any nitrogen fixing plants in either the canopy or ground layer. Alder (Alnus viridis) does fix nitrogen, and, though it was observed in the somewhat drier and pine dominated northern dry forest, even there, it was rare (seen in one of thirty-eight stands).

The next step in developing your plant guild would, I suppose, be to figure out the ecological purpose of some of the plants present so that you can decide whether to include those plants or something similar in your guild.

Edit. Corrected some plant names above and added some observations:

I notice that among the top five or six ground-layer species there is a large variation in bloom time, running from early spring to early autumn. I am guessing this is due to competition for pollinators. I see this issue in my herb garden. Normally, thyme and chive flowers are quite attractive to bees. However, when the fennel is in bloom, they couldn't be bothered. Hence, you may want to take care that the bloom time of plants whose fruit you want does not overlap with others. At the same time, it may be wise to see that there is always something in bloom so that pollinators will choose to take up residence in nearby.

The ground-layer species in this forest, mostly, are not good ground covers. They either intertwine a couple-three species to cover the ground or they depend on leaf mulch. If you based your guild on this forest, you will likely need to need to add a layer of mulch each fall.

That said, there are a few species that do behave like traditional vigorous, tight ground covers: Diervilla, Mitchella, Gaultheria, Waldstienia, and Clematis.

Finally, it is curious how many of fruits in the understory tree and shrub layer seem so delicious. With only two exceptions, all the fruits are shrub layer fruit are very attractive to wildlife. I imagine that all of these plants are opportunists the way black cherry and butternut hickory are, spreading their seed far and wide in hopes that there will be an opening for them somewhere.


White dutch clover attracts pollinators,fixes nitrogen, is a perennial and will grow in shade. It is best to mow it every couple of weeks to keep it flowering for weeks. Asparagus could be planted in the understory because they thrive in poor soil. They do not need attention. Shagbark hickories could be planted in the canopy because they have huge deep taproots and so they could be planted around without running into surface roots. They also produce high quality nuts and wood.

  • Thanks for the suggestions. On the hickory, will it thrive if the soil is shallow? I forgot to mention that I've only got about 4' of soil to bedrock...
    – bstpierre
    Sep 14, 2011 at 3:05
  • @bstpierre: Four feet is shallow only if it is a sandy soil. Sep 14, 2011 at 3:24
  • @Eric - I was thinking about trees with a deep taproot. Most plants don't seem to mind.
    – bstpierre
    Sep 14, 2011 at 12:00
  • 1
    They can wedge their taproots between rocks, and force their way through the wort soils. Not that this is ideal.
    – J. Musser
    Sep 15, 2011 at 1:18

As promised in a comment under the question, I'll update this answer with selections from my own research as well as those plants from other answers that I plan to use in the guild.

This is a work in progress...


These are some possibilities. I need to narrow it down.

  • Prunus serotina (Black cherry). I'm planning to retain one or two existing "volunteers" on the northeast edge. Part of the wind break. Provides edible fruit (for cooking). Interesting flowers. [The primary drawback on this site is that leaves are poisonous, but this is far enough away from livestock pasture that it will be safe.]

  • Carya ovata (Shagbark hickory). Seriously considering a pair of hickories as very large trees on the east/northeastern, slightly downhill side of the site. Part of the wind break. Provides edible nuts. Mature trees will produce a lot of biomass (this could be drawback too). [The primary drawback is that this is a very large tree and good nut production is better with a cross pollinator -- meaning two very large trees to fit in the space. Another drawback is that it can produce a lot of litter -- leaves, twigs, and nuts; for me this is "biomass" to be used appropriately.]

  • Gleditsia triacanthos (Honeylocust). Another possibility for the wind break. A nitrogen fixer. Spring flowers. Pods can be fed to pigs or cattle (not that we have either (yet?)); good fodder for chickens (maybe better ground up?). Not as weedy as black locust, and not poisonous to horses like black locust.

  • Pinus strobus (Eastern white pine). Tons of these growing natively. Fast growing evergreen. Good for wind break. They're not really multipurpose, but they grow fast, they are free, and they provide winter protection (deciduous trees lose some wind break effectiveness in winter). These may work better planted east of the site -- protecting the guild but not really part of it.


The smaller trees -- and the core of the guild -- are plums.

  • Prunus hybrids and Prunus domestica
    • 'Superior' (hybrid)
    • 'Kaga' (hybrid)
    • 'Mount Royal' (P. domestica)
    • 'Stanley' (P. domestica)

Shrub Layer

Ground Cover

  • Mitchella repens (Partridge berry). Under consideration. Hardy, spreading, shade tolerant, low growing evergreen with edible (but tasteless?) fruit.
  • Symphytum officinale (Comfrey). Hardy, spreading, shade tolerant. I'm not interested in medicinal uses. Dynamic accumulator. Leaves are a good addition to compost pile. Downside: invasive.
  • Unidentified Lupinus (Lupine). Propagated on-site for years, originally from roadside weeds. Attractive early flowers. Nitrogen fixer. Hardy, easy to propagate. Will probably be part of a border.
  • Trifolium repens (White clover). Hardy, low growing, shade tolerant, nitrogen fixer. This is probably what we'll grow in the paths, possibly mixed with a grass. Tolerates foot traffic (it even bounces back after light tractor traffic). Grows really well elsewhere on the property. Basically free if we put down a 2" layer of horse manure and keep it watered... we'd probably seed it to help it along and provide a desirable grass companion. Technically edible, though we aren't likely to eat it. Good for grazing sheep (not that we have sheep (yet)). Clippings from mowing are excellent addition to compost pile. Flowers attractive to bees, makes good honey (for a future adventure with beekeeping).
  • Unidentified fern. The ferns are already in this area, they don't seem to mind the rocks. For a while at least (i.e. a year or three), rather than improve the soil in the entire area I'll just leave an area for the ferns to do their thing.
  • 1
    I have come across a reference that you may find useful for your project: Perennials and their Garden Habitats by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl (Timber Press, 1993). The book lists every garden growing situation that you can think of, woodland, woodland edge, in alkaline or acidic soils, open soil, amidst rock, moist borders, dry borders, etc., and then it lists perennials, grasses, bulbs, or sub-shrubs that will grow there. Categorizes close to 3000 species in around 120 growing situations. Sep 22, 2011 at 6:29
  • I am curious why you chose Aronia for the shrub layer instead of the more tasty options from Rubus, Ribes, and Amelanchier. I like Aronia, but I see it primarily as an ornamental. Oct 24, 2011 at 5:12
  • @EricNitardy: I started editing but ran out of time to finish. I'm also looking at A. alnifolia 'Regent' Juneberry. Other Amelanchier I've seen are a bit too large (20-25') for this space. No need for Rubus here: I've got cultivated raspberries elsewhere, and wild blackberries all over the property. Ribes: NH regulates these because they can host white pine blister rust. There are new approved resistant varieties to choose from but I haven't gotten that far yet. Also: Symphoricarpos ("unattractive to deer" - "attracts bees"). I've got two months to get my 2012 tree order sorted.
    – bstpierre
    Oct 24, 2011 at 12:30

Let me first say, (Forest) "Guild" is a fascinating subject, at least I think it is now that I've done some research, reading on the subject...

Second, I have no experience with putting together, managing such a horticulture project, so the below could very well be far from perfect...

I believe the below resource could be helpful/useful as you put together your "Guild" plan:

Ground cover, part shade to full shade:

Deciduous shrubs, part shade:

Deciduous shrubs, full sun to part shade:

Companion plants that might work well in a "Forest Guild":

Q. Have you considered, thought about growing edible fungi in your "Guild"?

A. If yes, below are a few fungi that should work within your "Guild" (environment).

Deer "resistant" plants and resources:

  • Cornell gardening resources Deer defenses

    • Strategies, plants and products to reduce damage in your gardens and landscape.
  • Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance

    • The following is a list of landscape plants rated according to their resistance to deer damage. The list was compiled with input from nursery and landscape professionals, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Cooperative Extension personnel, and Master Gardeners in Northern N.J.

Though Fylde Coast - Gardeners’ Question Time is UK based I think you will find it interesting and worth your time to listen. Beginning at 31mins:04secs Martin Crawford and Anne Swithinbank discuss "forest garden":

Good luck! and I hope the above proves somewhat helpful.

  • Great list. Thanks for the fungi suggestions, I hadn't considered that. I've done some research on deer resistance; the two links you provided should be helpful.
    – bstpierre
    Sep 15, 2011 at 11:31

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