By Jeanne M. Wallace, PhD, CNC
A key permaculture strategy is to plant shrubs, trees, vines, and perennials together in a guild, rather than to plant large areas of a single crop (aka monocropping). A guild is simply a grouping of plants which benefit each other. In conventional agriculture monocropping, the farmer is tasked with providing for the needs of the plants: breaking up the soil by tilling, adding synthetic nitrogen and other fertilizers, weeding, spraying for pests, and more weeding. Permaculture is designed to work WITH rather than AGAINST nature. Within a guild, plants are selected to nurture and care for the each other, reducing the need for human inputs, and mimicking natural ecosystems.
In a well thought out guild, plants can be included to:
- Break up compacted soil with strong taproots which also provide channels for improved water infiltration (for example, horseradish, dandelion or daikon).
- Provide nitrogen-fixing services (peas, beans, sea buckthorn or goumi, locust).
- Act as mineral accumulators, mining minerals from bedrock and bringing them to the surface where other plants can access them (e.g., comfrey, dandelion).
- Send carbon down to the root zone, feeding the mycorrhizae, fungi that colonize plant roots enabling them to take up nutrients from the soil. Without these fungi, plants are deficient no matter how much N-P-K is added; with them, plants can be healthy even when mineral levels run a bit low.
- Provide ground cover or green mulch to keep soil moist, inhibit weeds, and shade the soil from excess sun which can overheat it and decrease populations of desirable soil-based organisms.
- Host beneficial insects, to optimize pollination and naturally keep populations of pests in check (e.g., yarrow, dill, sunflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, daisy)
- Confuse pests with their volatile oils (e.g., mint, onion, chives, daffodils).
- Serve as a sacrificial or trap crop, drawing pests away from desired crops. An example would be planting Nanking cherries or mulberries to draw the birds away from your sweet cherries.
Within a guild, plants and insects do the work of creating a thriving healthy garden with much less work for us humans! Foods grown in guilds rather than in monocrop settings have the potential to be far more nutritious.
Want to learn more about guilds? Here the Balkan Ecology Project describes their creative “Chai Guild” using herbs and spices…among the most potent anti-cancer edibles.