As a gardener, you love your plants. A garden guild helps your plants love each other as well. The idea of the guild is one that weaves through the traditional farming and gardening practices of many cultures, and it’s one that happens all of the time in nature. By growing plants that work well together, you can make your life as a gardener easier, and your plants will thrive.
What is a Plant Guild?
A guild is a group of plants that associate well with each other. The connections between these plants benefit other plants in the guild. For example, one plant may attract a lot of pollinating insects, and in turn these insects pollinate other plants in the guild. When you create a plant guild, you think beyond the individual plant to the connections that these plants have with the others that you place in their environment.
The Layers of a Plant Guild
When you walk in a forest, you’ll generally see many different layers of plants, from the groundcover up to the tree canopy. As you plan your guild, you’ll make sure that all of your plants do the same thing, so that you can use your space sensibly. Some of the layers of a plant guild include:
- Root Crops: Plants that have a deep root system.
- Groundcover: Plants that grow over the ground.
- Herbaceous: Plants that are smaller than shrubs but taller than a groundcover.
- Shrubs: Tall, multi-stemmed plants that spread out.
- Trees: Tall and short trees that provide the top layer of your guild.
- Climbers: Plants that can climb on other plants, leading to a more efficient use of space.
Functions Within a Plant Guild
Plants in a guild can perform one or more functions that will benefit the guild. When you plan a guild, you can brainstorm a list of plants that would fill that role in your ecosystem. Some of the roles that you’ll probably want to fill are:
- Pollination: Plants that bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators love.
- Tilling the soil: Plants with deep root systems that allow air and water into the soil.
- Building the soil: Plants that fix nitrogen or have leaves that are very nutritious when they fall to the ground.
- Climate control: Plants that provide shade or wind control for other, more sensitive plants. In hot climates, these plants may provide leaf cover that helps keep water from evaporating.
- Structural Plants: Plants that allow other plants to climb on them.
- Bouncers: Protective plants that scare away animals that might want to eat the other plants. They may attract beneficial insects or may have thorns to scare away larger animals such as deer.
Plants in different layers can do these jobs, although some functions may be more suitable for specific layers. For example, a tree is an excellent form of climate control. There is no end to the number of different roles that plants play in an ecosystem.
Examples of Plant Guilds
If you love the idea of guilds but you just don’t know where to begin, start with a list of your favorite perennial and annual food plants. Think about what layers they are in and what functions each one provides. Determine what gaps you need to fill.
If you live in an area with coniferous trees, you could create a guild around a tree in your garden. Look at local shrubs that grow well under those trees, and see if you can find one that produces fruit. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, the salmonberry is a wild food plant that is related to the raspberry. You might choose to plant one of these berry bushes around the drip line of your tree. Under the tree in the shade, you could plant annual bulbs and sweet cicely, a shade-tolerant edible herb that attracts beneficial insects. Lemon balm would work as you get closer to the inner drip line of the tree, and it also attracts beneficials. If your tree is short, you might choose to plant a climbing plant such as a kiwi fruit that will grow along its branches. As you work with your guild, you can add, subtract, and replace elements when you decide to make changes.
If you want to work with a small space here is a book to help you:
Perennial and Annual Guilds
When you establish a guild, it takes some time to think through how all of these plants will work together. Although the most famous guild is the annual Three Sisters guild of corn, beans, and squash, it’s an even better investment of your time if you can make at least some parts of your guild perennial elements. In permaculture design, trees are often the center of a guild. If you have a smaller space, you could use a large, fruit-bearing shrub. By making your guilds perennial, you set those plants up for success over time and can learn about what works in your guilds from year to year.
Many of us have limited space in which to garden. It just makes sense to allow our plants to work together to create a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. Even if you have acres of land, the guild system will allow you to consciously design your garden so that it is the most functional space it can be.
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