Permaculture Guilds: A Primer

Permaculture is a world created by merging the words “permanent” and “agriculture” or more correctly “culture”. Looking around, it is very hard to find a more permanent (i.e. sustainable) form of agriculture than, well, Nature; no one has to fertilize a Forest! And that realization is the crux of Permaculture in a nutshell: mimicking Nature’s vast experience in sustainability to make our own crude agriculture more sustainable in turn. In other words we are using Gaia as a mentor, rather than a nemesis. I have not actually attended a Permaculture Design Course, so I am not an official teacher, but I have read most of the major texts and they have literally changed my outlook on everything from our household’s waste stream to my perennial beds and choice of pets.

Guilding is perhaps the coolest detail level aspect of Permaculture theory. In Nature plants are grouped in small, reoccurring but loosely defined communities that are often referred to as guilds.
A full guild will have seven layers-each specifically designed to use one aspect of both the sun and root strata. On top will be the Large Trees, followed by the low trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, groundcovers, and finally “root” plants. But Gaia is subtle, and the coordination goes far deeper than resource use. Each participant in the guild brings a wealth of diversity to the table. The tall tree may house small animals that distribute seeds for them, and the shrub layer may provide feed for birds that use the low trees for nesting habitat and feed on insects that prey on the large trees. Plants in the herb layer may fix nitrogen for all to use, and the “root” plants may seek out pockets of nutrients in the soil that are made available to others in the guild as their foliage decomposes. Some plants will attract pollinators, others predatory insects. Some will act as mulch plants by creating excess biomass that regenerates the soil, while their neighbors may act as fortress plants protecting the entire guild from the encroachment of outside species. The inter-connectivity is how nature works-nice tidy systems that sufficiently supply the community with all of its needs given water and sunlight and a proper climate.
Permaculture takes this knowledge of resource management and biodiversity and attempts to modify nature into agriculture, which is really nothing more than an ecosystem modified by humans for their own ends. Unfortunately we have chosen to do this in a way that favors the monoculture. True Iowa GMA corn can net 240+ bushels of corn/acre, and is the most productive way known to eck corn from that acre (consequences be damned!), but Gaia can produce far more biomass on her own from that same acre without any inputs at all. The trick is to find a way to merge Gaia’s productivity and self sufficiency with plants that produce usable products from humans. “Guilding” a garden is that attempt.
For suburban use, the guilded Food Forest often forgoes the Tall Tree layer. One apex tree of this size would overly dominate a typical lot, but if you are planting a large deciduous tree to shade your home consider a useful tree such as a Standard Pear (fruit), Sugar Maple (syrup), Chestnut (protein!), or Black Locust (nitrogen fixer!). The Low Tree layer is where I focus most of my guilds. All semi dwarf rootstock fruit trees fit nicely and are uber productive on a suburban scale. Things to consider are whether you need a pollinator tree and also the ability of that variety to survive organically in your local-pears, paw-paw, and cherries are all good choices for the midwest with apples and plums good fits with careful pest management.
The fun really starts in the shrub, herb and root layers because of the amazing variety available. Each guild will need to provide for the needs of the group in as many ways as possible. Each needs 5 things: Nitrogen, Nutrients, Mulch, Pollination, Protection-both from competition and pests. When choosing your plants, in addition to a usable product for your family, each should provide a surplus of at least one service to the guild. Comfrey is a personal favorite of mine. The leaves are edible and medicinal, the roots are nutrient hounds, and they produce so much biomass that they can literally be hacked down to the ground 5 times a year. Nitrogen fixers are legion-including many edible varieties of annual beans and peas. Clovers are great n-fixers that also attract benifical insects and act as a mulch. My favorite shrub is the Goumi as it fixes nitrogen, has edible fruit and gives a good thicket habitat for insectary birds. Brambles and hazelnut shrubs are also great choices. Fortress plants can be as common as daylilies (also with edible tubers and buds!) or daffodils, as tasty as garlic, or if you really need to beat something back use an aggressive alleopath like our native Jerusalem Artichoke-but be ready to keep it under control! Luckily the best way to do this is by eating the delicious tubers!
A well designed guild will need little additional water due to less evaporation from the dense plantings and thick mulch, little to no fertilizer as it produces its own, and little to no pest control as the plants will attract their own predators. Sound to good to be true? Take a stroll through an established prairie or savanna and then ask the forester about his fertilizer or water bill…
My guild plans tend to rely on the fruit tree to supply most of the food, with the herb and shrub layers mostly supporting the tree’s needs while also granting some side benefits like edible fruits, landscape beauty, and wildlife habitat. Look for many updates, including plant lists, on my guilds as the season progresses!
If this post whet your appetite, the most accessible book on temperate permaculture is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and I highly recommend it!

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