Permaculture Guilds: A Primer

Permaculture as a term was 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 and networking to make our own crude agriculture and societies 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 one of the coolest gardening aspects 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 can be said to 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 Gardening 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 GMO 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 and overly shade the under story effectively eliminating any “edge”, 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 guild design. 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, and 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 human 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 seasons progress!



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!

14 Responses

  1. […] One Straw Revolution has a thorough primer on permaculture guilds, and has a link to a larger version of the graphic above. A full guild can be said to 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. Tags: landscape, food […]

  2. […] and has a link to a larger version of the graphic above. A full guild can be said to have … InstituteFor majority of permaculture students, guilds pose a lot of mysticism and seem […]

  3. Hello, Rob. I just happened upon your site while doing some guild research.

    If you have not yet taken a permaculture course, as you mentioned in the guild article, I highly recommend you do.

    The books – PC Designer’s Manual, Gaia’s Garden, etc – are all top notch. There is a temperate climate based book as dense in information as the Mollison tome. It’s called The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield. It’s a bit dry in writing style but has much more temperate climate specific info that Mollison provided, simply because of where these two guys live.

    Anyway, you should really consider taking a course. The books are one thing but the benefit of live instruction will blow your mind even more. I graduated in 1996 and want to take a refresher course soon myself for 3 reasons: 1 – to learn from different people’s perspective; 2 – because a lot of info has composted in my mind; I haven’t been able to practice the pc for about 8 years now as I had to put my life on hold. Maybe I’ll see you there…lol.

  4. I own a landscape design and build company and want to take a course in permaculture design. I live in Agoura California. The zip is 91301. Can you tell me where to find a class?
    Thank you

  5. […] design, are intelligent gardens that group different layers of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs into guilds. In essence, guilds are crafted so that each plant benefits from all of the others. Successful food […]

  6. […] Permaculture Guilds: A Primer […]

  7. […] December 8, 2009 by wweiseman I found this blog to be informative about guilds, the question of which comes up several times in most Permaculture courses. We structure a guild the way a forest or an ecotone (the transition between ecosystems or habitats) or a disturbed sight recently colonized by plants, structures the groupings and layers of plants and animals in its domain. It behooves us to study natural plant communities in our particular bioregions. It is important to explore areas that have been set aside for conservation, backyards, alleys, agricultural edges, etc to discover what plants are functionally supporting one another. We can then mimic this structure in our forest gardens, annual crop beds, edible landscapes, what have you. More on guilds later: […]

  8. I live in the desert where we get 3 inches of rain on average, I think that’s 100mm. Which permaculture books would you suggest for such an extreme area? Do you have any advice on a food forest in my location?

    • Serina; I don’t know if anyone’s gotten back to you yet, but you may want to check out Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands series:

      It’s not 100% permaculture but he has amazing ideas of how to utilize space and how grow in dry environments–he lives in Tuscan, I believe. I too am looking for a dryland permaculture based course as I live in eastern MT where we get about 14″ of rain a year (a flood considering what you get) and have extremes of -40 to 110!. Let me know if come up with anything else!

  9. I’d always thought daffodils were toxic. Wikipedia says there are specific types with edible leaves, but the roots are poisonous. Is there a type whose roots you can eat?

  10. […] lot of reading about permaculture since this fall and have lots of plans for nut trees, berries and guilds and the like for […]

  11. […] that can enhance our lives. Yet, the benefit of each tool emerges more fully if we plant them as a guild, integrating rather than segregating the […]

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