In the world of permaculture there is a concept know as a tree guild. The basic idea is that you plant certain plants together to form a mutually beneficial relationship. This is sort of like the companion planting thing, but on steroids! You want to try to mimic a natural system as much as possible by creating multiple levels of production. What I mean by this is you would have a canopy layer (your fruit/nut tree), then something like a brush or shrub layer, then a herbaceous layer, followed by a ground cover, then perhaps a root and vine layer depending on how intense you want to take this concept. Each layer should benefit the other layers and provide some sort of harvest.
I like to have multiple yields or benefits from each of the plantings. I will try to fill each niche with either an edible, medicinal, or mulch planting. If you can grow something that fits into a couple or all of those categories, well then now your cooking! Your goal is to create a sort of closed canopy at multiple levels (think of a pyramid with plants) that will shade the ground conserving moisture and crowding out any undesirable plants, all while getting a harvest from each level.
I shot some video of one guild that has worked out pretty well for us here on the homestead. It’s a plum guild featuring an Italian Prune as the center piece with some comfrey, rhubarb, strawberry, and peony as companions. This one’s still in the establishment phase, and I’ll be adding some currants or gooseberries this fall and maybe some more culinary type herbs or annual vine crops like cucumber or melons to the mix . So far it’s working out pretty good though, and we’ve got many of our fruit trees started down this road.
I think a system like this may sacrifice a little bit of individual plant performance,but as a whole you gain more output per acre than you would otherwise all the while saving yourself considerable time in maintenance. There is virtually no weeding, fertilizing, or spraying going on here, and the water usage is pretty minimal. Harvest can be a little more labor intensive, but I think that is to be expected with such dense plantings. Overall this technique seems to result in healthier plants, increased yield, and reduced inputs (labor and monetary). I call that a triple bottom line win for the homestead, the planet, and your pocket book! Try it out, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised….