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A Piece on Guilds

Simon Johnson
Posts: 194
Location: S Ontario, Zone 6/7
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I wrote up this little piece on guilds over at my blog http://www.mypermaculture.net/?p=128 . Check it out and let me know what you think.

I'll post it here for you guys as well.

We’ll have a look at guilds in permaculture today.

Let’s see what the dictionaries have to say about a guild.

“an organized group of people who have joined together because they share the same job or interest”


“ an organization of persons with related interests, goals, etc., esp. one formed for mutual aid or protection.“

A nice start, we could almost substitute people with plants and animals in those definitions, especially the latter one. The part about mutual aid is key here. So let’s see if we can’t come up with a working definition of guilds pertaining to permaculture.

How about, “a group of organisms that work in harmony towards the common purpose of supporting each other.”

Or as the graphic above puts it: “a group of plants functioning in harmony to support productivity of the whole system.”

These are both quite good. Basically the idea is to assemble plants in such a way that they each serve functions toward making the entire grouping of plants thrive. Each plant should serve at least three functions (more than ‘just because it looks good’ ) and should not compete with, or hinder the growth of, any of the other plants in the system. Makes sense I think.

Ok, so what sorts of functions would we want the plants to perform? There are a few major categories of functions we would want to fill when designing a permaculture guild.

1. Food Producing

This is the function of producing food for us to eat. I would say that no permaculture system is complete without food producing elements. Growing your own food to eat is one of the best things you can do to make a difference in the world for the better. Big time agriculture is playing a major role in the world’s problems these days and moving toward home scale food production helps to mitigate the damage done. Not to mention the fact that food grown in your back yard tastes waaaaay better than grocery store ‘food’.

2. Nutrient Accumulating

There are two sub categories here. Nitrogen fixing plants and dynamic accumulators. Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria on their roots, allowing them to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form and deposit this into the soil for the other plants around. Nitrogen is the main building block used by plants to grow and an element that can easily be depleted without proper care. Planting nitrogen fixing plants in a guild allows the soil to stay fertile so we don’t have to add fertilizer to make things grow. A real time and energy saver for us.

Dynamic accumulators are plants which generally have a long taproot that goes deep into the subsoil and bring elemental nutrients, like calcium, to the surface to share with the other plants. Many of the other plants being food producing, this will lead to much more nutrient dense food. This taproot also helps to loosen up compacted soil, allowing the roots of other plants to grow better. Loose soil also makes for better water penetration and retention. A nice loose, soft soil absorbs water much better than a hard, compacted soil, thus making the plants in that soil less susceptible to drought. Soil that holds water means we have to water it less.

3. Ground Covering

Plants falling under this category act as weed suppressors and soil shades. By covering the soil and not letting any light through, weeds can’t grow in this area and the soil is protected from the sun. When bare soil is shaded from the sun, it dries out much slower. Soil sitting exposed to the hot summer sun and wind is dried out very quickly and any plants in that soil will suffer. But when the soil is protected by a dense planting, creating shade and a wind buffer, it holds moisture longer and the surrounding plants are healthier. Basically, planting a ground cover greatly reduces weeding and watering, which equals less work again. Excellent!

4. Beneficial Insect Attracting

Insectary plants, as they are called, are plants that attract insects. These are often aromatic and flowering plants. By attracting insects into a system we are increasing pollination and diversity. With a divers number of insects in a system there will be more of a balance between harmful and beneficial ones. Many of the beneficial insects will be predatory in nature and the pest insects will be their food, thus helping to keep the pests at bay. The colourful and fragrant plants also help to confuse the pest insects and keep them away from key food producing elements in the system. Again helping to prevent disease and infestation. So, by simply adding insectary plants into our system, we increase fruit production through pollination and decrease pest related problems with predatory insects.

5. Mulch Producing

This category of plants produces a large amount of greenery which is cut and used as a mulch to be returned to the system. These plants usually have large leaves which grow back relatively quickly. When cut and placed as mulch, these leaves break down, helping to create soil and increase fertility. The return of organic matter to the soil is a key process to ensure the continuation of soil fertility. Not only is the mulch from these plants building soil, but it is also suppressing weeds, and protecting bare soil from the sun. These plants need not be cut, but can simply be left to return to the earth when winter comes. This way is less time consuming, but also less effective, as you only get one dropping of mulch per season, and that dropping is only in the place where the plant was growing. Growing mulch plants eliminates the need to purchase mulches, thus saving more time and money.

Now that we know the main categories of functions we want to fulfill when designing a permaculture guild system, it is time to get to it!

There are different ways to design guilds, but I like the idea of seed scattering. Basically we pick a central element to our guild, say a fruit tree. Some large, major element, which we really want to do well in our system; usually a fruit tree. We also want to pick a large diversity of plants which fulfill the aforementioned functions and purchase those seeds. Having multiple plants preform the same function is always a good idea. Diversity breeds stability.

We then go about preparing the soil around the area where the tree will be planted. This can involve tilling the area, or some other means of eliminating the grass and exposing the soil. Then the tree is planted in a central location relative to prepared area. Now we take all those seeds, mix them up in a pail, and scatter them all over the exposed soil around the central tree. Adding a light cover mulch and watering is a good idea to help the seeds germinate. Now we observe the system grow.

This method is a lot easier and cheaper than buying nursery plants and planting each one. That’s not to say buying the plants and planting them is a bad idea, it is just another way of creating a permaculture guild. Combining both methods is also good. Some plants are much easier to find and grow as nursery seedlings.

So, by designing with a diverse collection of living elements, which fulfill a key set of functions, while working in harmony, will produce a resilient, regenerative system requiring little maintenance, while producing an abundant harvest. That’s what we like!
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