Photo: Panorama (Courtesy of hardworkinghippy)
In the scheme of permaculture food production, harnessing the most out of nature whilst using its own attributes, creating plant guilds ranks pretty high up there. Most of us know them in simplified forms such as the three sisters—corn, beans and squash—or companion plantings like carrots and onions or tomatoes and basil. While these combinations are great things to be familiar with, the larger lesson is learning to create more systemic guilds on our own.
Obviously, it is much more beneficial to us, as growers of food and designers of edible landscapes, to recognize the pattern of plants that group together nicely as opposed to learning a few complimentary sets. In essence, wouldn’t it be great to simply know how to make our own, personalized guilds, to be able to effectively combine plants suitable to our respective environments rather than trying to plant an apple tree guild in the tropics or bananas in Canada?
Well, I’m quite certain that Big Bill and Dapper Dave, the co-originators of permaculture, would shout enthusiastic “yeas” in response to this question. The idea has always been to take what works—the guilding system—and translate that around the globe. Let’s leave bananas to the tropics and apples to the temperate, but we can find them climate appropriate plants with which to mingle. So, then, from that perspective, what makes a good guild?
In the largest scale of things, a guild starts with a centerpiece, a tall and often widespread overstory tree. These are enormous trees that tower of everything. Though it may take several years, perhaps a decade or more, they produce food on an equally massive scale. They are the very trees that, in the end, will be the ceiling of the food forest, and it is with their success in mind that the guild is being created.
In smaller scale guilds, there should still be a centerpiece to represent the main yield of the system. In the case of the three sisters, corn—the food staple—represents this centerpiece, while beans and squash find respective roles that will aid the system as a whole and particularly the production of corn. In other cases, such as a suburban lawn, the centerpiece could be a small fruit or nut tree, from which the rest of the guild will fall into place.
10 Potential Centerpieces: apple, mango, macadamia, pears, pecan, mulberry, chestnuts, carob, avocadoes, date palms
Many suburban and urban systems will only be able to support one large centerpiece tree, if any, or for larger spaces, guilds will need to be spaced appropriately, perhaps with centerpieces sharing the elements betwixt them. Either way, there should be space in which to grow an understory. Filling this area, these swaths of sunlight, will be smaller trees, the understory, which can provide yet more valuable crops.
Understory trees are those that won’t grow as high or spread out quite so luxuriously as the overstory pieces. Typically, there can be several understory elements for each centerpiece. Citrus trees often fill this bill well, as do hazelnuts, dwarfed soft fruit varieties, and tropical fruits, like carambola and papaya. One thing to certainly keep in mind with the seconds is that they ideally would have a different rooting system than the centerpiece so that they won’t be competing for resources.
10 Possible Understory Trees: papaya, hazelnut, dwarf apple, guava, coffee, citrus (anything), almonds, nectarine, peach, cacao
Amongst all of this, especially at the beginning, there will likely need to be an abundance of nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees. These trees are a natural way of fertilizing the ground from both above (via chop-and-drop mulching) and below (sloughing of nitrogen nodules from the their roots) the surface. For constructing food forests, it’s often suggested that nitrogen fixers make up a large percentage of what is being planted.
Throughout time, these trees, bushes and groundcovers will either be thinned or shaded out. The general idea will be to, in the long run, keep only about ten percent of what is planted in this group. This might be productive, longer living varieties like ice cream bean or moringa. In the interim, short-term legumes like pigeon pea or peanut will provide some quick food production, as well as great fodder for the other plants. An initial crop of annual beans, such as with the three sisters, works well in this capacity also.
10 Forms of Nitrogen-fixing Foliage: pigeon pea, ice cream bean, Siberian pea, lupin, clover, vetch, groundnut, kudzu, honey locust, carob (Here’s a massive list)
Plants with deep-tapping roots tend to be great accumulators of nutrients that have sunk too far for other plants to reach. The taproot spikes down into the earth, below the reach of neighboring roots, and taps into its own supply of vitamins and minerals. This is good mainly in two distinct ways: The plants, which can add to the overall production, aren’t competing with other yielders, and even better, they are harvesting otherwise inaccessible nutrients.
It’s possible to find accumulators that produce both medicinal benefits (comfrey, for one), as well as edible harvests (dandelions). But, for sure, look for accumulators that make good chop-and-drop mulch. The big idea here is to pull nutrients up from below the reach of other plants and deposit those nutrients in a more accessible location. While the soil around taproots will provide some of this wicking action, most of those nutrients will be transferred via mulching with leaves and branches.
10 Dynamic Accumulators: borage, comfrey, chickweed, yarrow, nettles, chicory, amaranth, moringa, lamb’s quarters, mulberry
The Ground Cover
After quite some time of silly agriculture in which soils are stripped of weeds and left bare, we have discovered the folly of our ways. In fact, healthy soils are soils thick with plant-life, covered over so that they retain moisture and support an immense host of organisms and life. It seems that the long, raging battle with weeds might be nigh to an ending. These days we plant ground covers rather than turning the soil bare, as bare soil actually encourages weeds to grow.
Not unlike the no-till beds, ground covers are more effective than constantly turning soil because they harness the power of weeds. They render the problematic plants moot by cutting off their supply of sunlight and gobbling up their patch of ground. This preserves all that good accumulated energy and beneficial effort performed by weeds (essential weeds grow to supply something important that’s missing in the soil) without having to destroy the soil structure. Ground covers are especially important for young guilds in which the sun reaches the earth and where weeds and grasses are true competition for trees.
10 Useful Ground Covers: sweet potato, red clover, salad vegetables, parsley, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, rhubarb, strawberries
The Pest Control & Pollination
Other helpful additions to any guild are those plants that insects hate and/or absolutely love. These tend to be aromatic varieties such as repelling stuff from the mint family or bug distractors like sunflowers and dill. These plants exemplify one of the major aspects of why poly-cultures work better than monocultures: They confuse the hell out of damaging insects, as well as attract predatory and pollinating (helpful) ones.
Here we are aiming to protect the buds, leaves, roots and trunks of our primarily productive plants—the fruit and nut trees, the big harvest yielders—by deterring the bugs that might otherwise prey on them. What’s more is that, in doing so, we can produce yet more useful plants for our guild. Who doesn’t want the addition of homegrown sunflower seeds, fresh dill and basil in their culinary repertoire?
10 Pest Control Plants: mint, peppermint, basil, dill, marigold, sunflower, lemongrass, citronella, lavender, coriander
Other Important Considerations
To say that this is the whole thing summed up would be a gross understatement. Rather, this is a means by which to begin the contemplation of what someone might want to include in a guild. There is much more to think about, so much actually that it can be quite bewildering. In other words, at some point, we must simply plant what we’ve designed, certain that we’ve missed out on something or chosen incorrectly somewhere. It’s no big deal if a support plant fails. It just means we’re one step closer to finding what will work.
Before getting that guild in the ground, here are some other useful things to consider:
• Landscape: How does the water hold across the land? Is there a good spot to put a swale, which will keep our plants and trees hydrated and happy? In general, how can the landscape play a helpful role in what we are planting and where we are planting it? What will grow well in wet spots? Dry spots? Sunny spots? On a slope?
• Climate: What are the weather elements to consider? Does wind whip through the area such that some breaks might help? How can we be sure to keep the system vibrant in cold weather as well as the warm summer months? Or, the obvious climatic element is which zone we are working in. The tropics versus temperate makes a massive difference as to what we can plant.
• Layers: Forest, i.e. Mother Nature’s guilds, occur in layers, which include overstory trees, understory trees, bushes/shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground covers, vines, and roots. Often people like to add fungi into this mix. Our guilds should strive to include all of these elements, maximizing the production of the space by creating plenty of edges for the layers.
• Arrangement: For each component of the guild, there is an appropriate place. Vines need something to grow on. Deep tapping plants can be very beneficial underneath most fruit trees as they won’t compete for nutrients with the shallow root system (of most fruit trees) but will actually add valuable nutrients. Puzzle together the most sensible arrangement possible.
• Combinations: Realize that accumulators, nitrogen-fixers, fruit trees and so on can come in all shapes and sizes. Piece them together in a way that is appropriate, where each shape and size niche is fulfilled, as well as each component listed above is tended to. Sometimes plants can form multiple functions on the list of requirements, and we should strive to provide multiple plants for each component when possible. The goal is to have good systematic reasons for each plant and have a plant for each systemic purpose.