Guilds for the Small Scale Home Garden
Building guilds is a clever way to put gardens together. Instead of toiling over providing this or that nutrient for plants or battling with pests or relying on the success of just one crop to provide the food, a massive mixture of productive growth is but a few preparation steps away.
We often talk about guilds as a grand scheme, part of growing a food forest, starting with something huge like an apple tree. From this centerpiece, we design outwards, including understory trees, nitrogen-fixers, dynamic accumulator, bug repelling plants, and groundcovers. These designs, of course, require at least enough space for a large tree then all of what goes around it. Put together well, it’s a really big thing of productive beauty.
But, there is also a lot to be said for creating cultivation compilations in small-scale home gardens. Whether they are a group around a small citrus tree or just in a typical raised bed, guilds are worth the time it takes to put them together, and designing them really helps you get to know the plants you are working with. There are many classic combinations to utilize, and logical creativity can produce even more fruitful groupings.
Looking at Classic Companions for the Home Gardens
Guilds are more or less just a step beyond well-established companion planting arrangements, moving from useful pairings onto functionally, ideally self-sustaining polyculture systems. In guilds, many plants are serving one another en route to a stable co-existence in which the garden is mulched, the soil fertilized, the pests controlled, the pollinators attracted, the nutrients accumulated and the cultivators feed. We now know better than to monocrop. We’ve established great charts for plant compatibility. The final step is to simply add some design knowledge and extend simple pairs and trios into mixed garden eco-systems.
Basically, to guild a classic combo like carrots and onion, we’ll look at what else we might supply for this mutually beneficial relationship, as well as what’s missing. In this case, both carrots and onions like to grow along side lettuces, which could supply a great ground cover to the mix, which would help keep the soil moist and the soil life safe and provide a steady harvest in the meantime. Peas work really well with carrots but not so favorably with the onion family, so vining peas could be trellised near carrots but separated from onions for nitrogen-fixing and to add a vertical element to the combination. Rosemary is a great perennial herb that helps deter pests and could act as another taller element in the mix, perhaps the centerpiece. Now we’ve got a pest deterring upper layer, root crops, edible ground covers, and nitrogen-fixing vines to provide shade for the lettuce. We’ve added a lot more diversity with a lot of function.
Corn, beans, and squash are the classic example, and while these three work great together and could be considered a guild as is, we might be able to improve it. Corn is already providing a stalk for the beans to climb, beans are provided nitrogen to feed the others, and the big leaves of clambering squash plants are creating a moisture-retaining ground cover. In this combination, comfrey might be another great addition, adding a deep-rooting nutrient accumulator, an attractant for pollinators, and chop-and-drop mulch. Sunflowers might work well as productive deterrents to pest, sources of nutrient-rich seeds to eat, but their allelopathic characteristics don’t mix well with beans (so be aware). Amaranth might work better. Traditionally, the three sisters would often also be accompanied by chilis, sweet potatoes and more.
Finding lists of companion plants online is child’s play. They are everywhere, and for the most part, they are much the same. Some are quite basic, with photo representations of what goes together, while others are serious tables marking all that goes well and all that does not. Whichever determiner that feels comfortable for any particular grower is probably the best bet. From there, it’s just a matter of trying to make logical connections and then experimenting. To do that, it’s good to know what kind of things to consider when making a guild.
Important Considerations for Home Garden Guilds
Companion charts are great resources, but they are but one tool in the mix of what goes into making a successful guild. Perhaps more important is understanding why certain plants go well together and what things to consider when trying to create new groupings. This is where understanding guild-building basics comes in handy. From there, it’s coming up with pleasing combinations and giving them a go. When an assemblage seems to work well, replicate it and think about how it might be subtly improved or expanded. But, we must start from somewhere.
What’s at the center?
In most guilds, there is a main crop. Building around apple trees, the answer is obvious, but getting into rather equally-sized vegetables, the yields get comparable as do the value levels. It might help to choose the vegetable that is either the largest or the most desirable. Tomato plants don’t necessarily provide a lot for the plants around them, but they provide a lot for us as humans. They are really versatile in the kitchen. They are the heart of many sauces and soups, crucial for a veggie sandwich, and amongst the most beloved of home canning crops out there, providing surplus food for the winter. They come in abundance when the come, and we want them for that. For this exercise, let’s choose something most gardeners love: the tomato.
What’s that smell?
Pest are often repelled by smelly plants, and pollinators are often attracted to them. Culinary herbs come in great variety, and most of them are quite agreeable alongside other plants. Basil is one of these. Not only does it produce a smell to protect tomatoes from pests, but it is also pairs well with tomatoes on the plate, perfect for joint harvesting. Besides its great flavor, fresh basil provides all sorts of nutritional and medicinal value to meals. It also grows into a nice-sized bush that fills the space between high-flying tomato vines. What’s that smell? The basil.
What’s protecting the soil?
Mulching is key to gardening well, as it keeps the soil life thriving, keeps everything moist, prevents erosion, adds organic matter, and the list goes on forever. In the beginning, straw or dry grass clippings work, but eventually the goal is to have a living mulch, which can provide more production in the same space. Nasturtium, a beautiful and prolific spreading plant, covers the ground and provide delicious edible leaves and attractive edible flowers. Even the seeds can be pickled to make a poor man’s caper. And, guess what is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes: the nasturtiums.
What’s providing fertility?
It’s always important to consider how the soil in a system is being replenished. In the case of tomatoes, though they are rather hungry plants, they aren’t really friendly with nitrogen-fixing legumes. In this case, then, the better answer might be a different route, a plant that pulls up trace minerals and fertility from deep. Comfrey is usually the answer, but borage makes a better choice for this guild. It’s great for repelling tomato worms, is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes, attracts pollinators (especially bees), and adds nutrients to the ground. Plus, the leaves and flowers are edible, often compared to cucumbers. It’s a self-seeding annual that can go right back to the soil. Fertility (and much more) comes from the borage.
What’s at the root?
One thing that I often find about companion planting and building guilds is that the plants that compliment each other in cuisine often go well together. Peas and carrots. Tomato and basil. Apples and chives…Okay, it doesn’t always work, but I like that often I can and should grow, as companions, things that I eat together. Tomatoes also pair really well with garlic, and while garlic takes a long time to mature (like 10 months), the garlic chives are still really flavorful and can be harvested much sooner. Plus, the garlic bulbs are doing some work underground, deterring blight. Garlic doesn’t take up much space, and grown correctly, it can be a perennial crop that requires very little attention. At the root, there is the garlic.
Even in garden beds meant to cultivate annuals, it’s a good idea to include a healthy mix of perennial plants. They are less intense on the soil, often adding to as much as they take away. They keep things intact, providing long term animal habitat, root structure, early crops, chop-and-drop mulch, and something to look at when all the tomatoes are gone. In short, finding some perennial vegetables for every patch isn’t the worst idea. In this case, asparagus gets included, if for no other reason than it’s a perennial that is listed as a good companion with tomatoes (and basil). The idea of it’s spindly stalks sticking up through the thick of everything is appealing, and while waiting years for the first asparagus harvest, the garden is still hugely productive. Garlic and basil are also perennial. Tomatoes, borage and nasturtium are great self-seeders that can handle themselves. The last piece in this puzzle is the asparagus.
Confessing That Guilds Take Guile
The information above is not a guild that I have ever used, but one that I’d try. I’ve planted garlic, tomato, and basil together for a while now, often with a parsley and cubano oregano. I’ve had a little success growing nasturtiums and love their flavor, but it wasn’t until digging a little deeper, in need of a ground cover, that I learned they get on with tomatoes. Borage is a plant that I’ve been dying to work with (companioning them with strawberries) but haven’t gotten my hands on any seeds yet (I live in Central America where acquiring certain seeds takes time). And, asparagus always makes sense as an easy perennial crop, but it’s one of those things that could really use another selling point, like adding it to a guild so that I’m not waiting around three years for a noteworthy yield. Voila.
It’s important to acknowledge that seemingly perfect combinations do not always work, but then it’s just a matter of following the lead the plants supply. If borage as the fertility accumulator isn’t doing the job, toss in some comfrey or create a little garden bed vermiculture system for quicker cycling of the organic matter that the bed produces. Perhaps that manure-creating animal element is just the right addition for a soil fertility component (Hey, why not include this from the get go?). Once something takes and a few plants seem to really be cooperating, tell us what they are. Let others start playing with your guild, adding and substituting, so that we can start publishing all sorts of fun guilds for all over the world.
Creating garden guilds just takes a little guile. Do some research. Find out what likely makes good companions. From there, start considering the characteristics of the individual plants and how they might interact. Use this checklist to help you consider what’s going on:
• Compatible water needs: If everything likes water, no worries. If everything is drought-tolerant, wonderful. Start mixing it up and that might be a problem.
• Different root systems: Try to vary root systems such that plants aren’t competing, and try to think about including a root crop in the mix. Carrots also work well with tomatoes.
• Plant arrangement: Piece together plants of different sizes and shapes, envisioning how they might work in close proximity. What’s that vine going to grow up? Stuff like that. Think of the vertical spacing.
• Insects, good and bad: Plants for attracting beneficial insects and deterring pest need to be in the mix. Often, as in the case above, many additions are performing this function.
• The soil: Something needs to always be covering it. Something needs to always be feeding it new nutrients. Get a ground cover. Get something to chop and drop. Hopefully, a nitrogen-fixer is in the cards.
• Use the rule of three: Have at least three reasons for including a plant in the mix. It attracts bees, provides food, accumulates trace minerals in the soil, and adds another color to the garden mix.
Then, sit back and watch. Adjust. Tweak. Let nature take the lead and practice permaculture.
Feature Photo: A Mixed Bunch (Image Courtesy – Emma Gallagher)