Guilds really are great. These interconnected systems of plants and animals are clear demonstrations of how nature achieves balance and harmony. Taking their cue from natural ecosystems such as forests, guild planting seeks to recreate the beneficial links between organisms by planting species that will aid one another close together. The resultant guild will also form relationships with insects and other organisms to create a thriving ecosystem.
Within a guild there are those plants that feed us, by producing edible crops. As in all permaculture practice, planting a guild should have the aim of maximizing biodiversity and so expanding the range of foodstuffs grown. Most guilds are organized around the central species of a fruit tree. Around the tree, the gardener should be able to cultivate a wide variety of edible plants, including fruits, herbs, vegetables and legumes. The guilds interaction with animals can also provide a source of food, such as bees visiting blossoms in the guild, or livestock foraging fallen fruit. It is also worth noting that often plants that grow well together taste good together as well, making harvesting for a meal easy.
Fixers refer to the plants in a guild that help to make nutrients in the soil available to all the plants in that guild. Chief among these nutrients is nitrogen. Second only to water in importance to healthy plant growth, nitrogen is a primary component in plant proteins and in chlorophyll, which the plants use to photosynthesize. Certain plants are able ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, by interacting with a certain soil bacteria to hold nitrogen on their root nodules. From there the plant itself uses the element, but some is also released into the soil from where other species can access it. Legumes are the order of plants best suited to fixing nitrogen in the soil, so planting beans, peas, nuts and leguminous trees such as tamarind and acacia as part of your guild will ensure good nitrogen levels in the surrounding soil.
Guild plants can also add to the nutrient load in the soil with their fallen leaves and other mater that falls from them onto the ground. In nature, this provides compost, and the permaculture gardener can mimic nature by simply leaving such material to reap the nutritional benefits. As the matter breaks down it adds all the nutrients that where in the organic matter to the soil from where plants can use them to grow. In this respect, you could also classify microorganisms in the soil as fixers, as they break down the organic matter within it and release the nutrients.
Certain species of plant can be used in a guild for the benefits that their deep rooting systems bring to the guild as a whole. Plants that send down deep roots – such as trees, yams and potatoes – help to improve the structure of the soil, providing pore spaces into which air can flow and water can percolate. They also reach deep into the ground in the search for nutrients and minerals that they bring to the surface where shallower-rooting plants and microorganisms in the topsoil can access them. In fact, some of the microorganisms in the soil could themselves be considered rooters, as earthworms, beetles and other insects help to keep the soil soft and well structured by burrowing through it.
Cover crops are plants that are low-lying and spread out to shield the soil. Sweet potato and pumpkins are examples of cover crops that can be utilized in a guild. By covering the soil, these types of plant protect the soil from the sun, limiting moisture evaporation and preventing weeds from getting the level of sunshine they need to photosynthesize. They also help protect the topsoil from erosion by wind and rain. Cover crops can also be useful to prepare a site prior to planting a guild system. The cover crop will help improve the soil while it is growing, then can be slashed and left to rot as part of mulch. The subsequent guild plants will then be able to access the nutrients provided by the cover crop.
While some plants thrive lying low to the ground, others climb upwards in order to grow. Climbers are typified by slender stems and branches and thus smaller crops items. Beans, cucumbers and passion fruit are examples of climbers. They can be particularly useful in increasing diversity and yield from a small space.
If you have climbers in your guild, you’ll need something for them to climb up. That’s where the supporters come in. With thicker stems, trunks and branches than climbers, they provide the solid base on which the climbers can grow. In nature, trees, bushes and tall string plants like sunflowers would be classified as supporters. The permaculture can use these types of plants in a guild, but may also wish to use non-living things, such as trellises, fences, the sides of buildings and garden walls as well. Some climbers can overwhelm some supporters; so plan ahead when pairing the two.
There are a lot of different types of organism that can play a protecting role in a guild. Some plants can be used to repel or confuse insects that may attack other plants in the system. Certain species may also be used to deter grazers such as deer. Insects themselves can be beneficial to the guild by predating on pest species, while other animals such as birds, lizards and frogs, and livestock such as chickens and ducks, can perform a similar function.
It is certainly true that each species is not limited to a single role within this framework. Fruit trees, for instance, the specimen at the centre of the guild could be considered a feeder, a rooter and a supporter. It can also be a fixer if its fallen leaves remain on the ground. This is a characteristic that guild planting takes from natural ecosystems and dovetails with the permaculture principle of maximizing the functions of any single element on the plot.