Permaculture utilizes connections between plants, insects, animals, and soil biology to create a thriving ecosystem with minimal input from the gardener. These self-sustaining ecosystems can take five to seven years to fully develop, but you can still reap healthy harvests as they grow and mature.
These food forests follow the patterns of nature. In fact, many permaculture principles come directly from observing how plants grow together in the forest. No one tends to the forest, yet it is lush and vibrant. Permaculture strives to replicate this in your backyard.
One of the main methods used in permaculture is creating polycultures and guilds instead of planting rows of just one crop. When you plant multiple plants together, each one serves various functions to support the entire plant community. When you plant a row of one crop, you must pull weeds, fertilize, and spray pesticides. However, when you plant a guild, you group plants together that do these jobs for you. This lightens your work load and gives you more time to enjoy your garden.
The most common guild is the Three Sisters used by Native Americans. Corn, beans, and squash are planted together to grow healthier plants and maximize yields.
In the Three Sisters guild, the beans are hosts for bacteria that convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, secretes sugars in the root zone that feed the bean’s nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and provides some shade for the squash plants. The squash sprawls between the corn and beans, acting as a ground cover, suppressing weeds, and conserving moisture in the soil.
The Layers of a Guild
Permaculture mimics the forest, so it likes to fill in all the empty spaces between the lowest bushes to the tallest trees. Nature doesn’t waste space. When choosing plants for your guild, you’ll want to think the same way. Be sure to choose plants for each of the following layers: tall trees, small trees, bushes, herbs, ground covers, roots, and vines. A small garden can have as few as three layers, while a complete food forest will contain all of them.
Read also: How to Build a Food Forest
The tall tree layer consists of trees that are 50 feet tall and larger. For an edible garden, this overstory can include full-sized fruit and nut trees such as apple or pear. The trees should allow enough light through their leaves to reach the lower layers.
The small tree layer contains trees that fit snugly underneath the tall tree layer. Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees are perfect here, as are almonds, figs, and pecans. In a smaller garden, you can eliminate the tall tree layer and make the small tree layer the overstory.
The shrub layer fits nicely underneath the small tree layer and usually consists of flowering, fruiting, and wildlife-attracting shrubs.
These can include rosemary, blackberry, elderberry, cranberry, and blueberry.
The herb layer sits even lower to the ground and includes plants such as chamomile, chives, comfrey, fennel, oregano, sage, and yarrow.
The ground cover layer fits nicely in the small spaces between each plant. This layer suppress weeds and offers a habitat for friendly garden critters. Ideal ground cover options include strawberries, nasturtiums, clover, and creeping thyme.
The root layer fills space below the soil. Options include garlic, garlic chives, horseradish, hardy ginger, and potatoes.
Vines and climbing plants make good use of vertical space, climbing the trees and filling in all of the remaining gaps. Ideal options include grape, cucumber, hardy kiwi, melon, pea, and scarlet runner beans.
The Functions of a Guild
Each of the seven layers should be made up of plants that fulfill different functions. As far as permaculture is concerned, the more functions served by each plant, the better. Jobs that need to be filled in each guild include nutrient accumulation, nitrogen fixing, mulching, repelling pests, and beneficial insect attraction. Additional functions include feeding humans and animals, herbal medicines, breaking up the soil, creating habitat for helpful critters like frogs and snakes, and cleaning heavy metals from the soil.
Nutrient accumulators send their taproots deep into the soil and mine for minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. When these plants die back, their leaves drop and decompose, feeding the soil in the process. Nutrient accumulators include plants such as dandelion, plantain, chicory and yarrow. Certain nutrient accumulators can even be used to clean up heavy metals, such as lead, at contaminated sites.
Nitrogen-fixing plants have rhizospheres that are home to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria can take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that plants can use. Nitrogen-fixing plants include peas, beans, vetch, lupines, alfalfa, and Russian olive.
Instead of hauling mulch to your garden, you can simply incorporate plants that will mulch in place. Comfrey, artichokes, rhubarb, clovers, and nasturtiums are all excellent options. You can chop and drop these plants multiple times throughout the season and they will compost in place. These green manures will feed the soil as they decompose, conserve moisture, and encourage healthy and diverse soil life.
Instead of spraying pesticides, you can add plants to your guilds that will act as natural pest repellents. Nasturtiums planted around fruit trees will repel borers and are effective against whitefly. Alliums, such as garlic and chives, are regarded as a natural, broad-spectrum insecticide. Many herbs repel a variety of pests, including basil, lavender, mint, dill, parsley, thyme, oregano, and bay leaves.
No guild is complete without plants to attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Almost any flower that produces pollen or nectar will do this job well. Flowers attract both pollinators that will help fruit set, and predators, such as predatory wasps, that will dine on pests. Not only do flowers play a functional role in your garden, but they add dashes of color and beauty to your landscape. Butterfly weed, clover, coriander, dandelion, and fennel will attract lady bugs to your garden. Dill, fennel, and coriander are edible while also attracting predatory wasps. Butterfly bush and fuschia will attract birds that will gobble up the eggs and larvae hiding in the holes and crevices of fruit trees.
Read also: Plants for Pollinators
When designing your guilds, it is good to put plants together that are known to mutually benefit one another. For example, onions, leeks, rosemary, and sage planted near carrots will repel carrot flies. Carrot roots excrete a substance that stimulates the growth of peas.
Be sure to double check companion planting advice with current scientific studies. Many old-time companions have been proven not to be beneficial at all. For example, marigolds have long been regarded as pest repellents. While this is true of some varieties, other varieties actually attract pests, so it is wise to do your homework.
Apple Tree Guild
Now that you understand the main principles of a permaculture guild, let’s look at how to create a guild around an apple tree. The apple tree serves as the guild’s central element, providing food to humans. You could substitute it with any fruit or nut tree. The tree should be pruned into an open shape so light can reach the understory below.
We’ll plant daffodils around the drip line of the tree. They contain a toxin that repels animals like deer and gophers, and their bulbs will suppress the growth of grass underneath the tree. We could also add garlic and chives as added protection against pests.
Inside the ring of daffodils, we’ll interplant comfrey and artichokes. Their leaves supply nutrient-rich mulch, while providing the gardener with food and medicine. Comfrey’s flowers will also attract pollinators.
Dotted among the comfrey and artichoke, we’ll add yarrow, nasturtiums, dill, and fennel. We’ll even allow plants normally considered weeds, like dandelion and plantain, to grow. The dandelion, yarrow, and plantain act as our nutrient accumulators. The nasturtiums will serve as mulch and pest repellent. The dill and fennel will attract beneficial insects. The nasturtiums, dill, fennel, dandelion, and plantain are all edible, while the yarrow, dandelion, and plantain can be used medicinally.
To fill in the rest of the gaps, we’ll grow clover and fava beans as ground covers. These are our nitrogen fixers, and the clover can also be chopped and used as mulch.
As you can see, each plant serves multiple functions, and benefits the entire ecosystem. Health and yield will be greater than if any one of these plants were grown alone.
Now that you have a basic understanding of these guidelines and principles, you can start to create guilds at home and turn your vegetable garden into your very own food forest.