A Permaculture guild is more than fruit tree companion planting or planting companion vegetables and herbs. That’s because Permaculture emulates the productivity of natural ecosystems by incorporating animals too.
So, what is a guild?
A guild in Permaculture landscape design is a harmonious assembly of species (plant or animal) physically associated with a central plant or animal species to provide it with some benefit.
So, guild plant or animal species are strategically selected to boost the productivity of the central animal or plant element. The central element can be a fruit tree, for example. The guild members, then, must either improve its yield or reduce the work needed to manage it.
By design, this enhances the overall self sufficiency and sustainability of the system.
The range of benefits that can be derived from guild species include:
• Providing mulch:
Plants that either act as a living mulch (e.g. nasturtium, sweet potato,) or shed mulch onto the soil (e.g. banna grass, poplar) form a protective cover over soil thereby improving soil conditions and retaining moisture.
Nasturtium and borage are great in fruit tree guilds.
• Offering shelter and protection from frost, wind or sun:
Hardy nitrogen-fixing “nurse” species (e.g. honey locust, acacia, tagasaste) interplanted with orchard trees can moderate frost effects, nutrify soils, and provide mulch and shading for sensitive fruit trees such as avocado and citrus.
Others planted as a windbreak bordering orchards (e.g. cane grasses, poplar, Casuarina) can be used to deflect or diminish frost and drying or damaging winds.
• Hosting predators:
Many predators of garden pests (e.g. wasps) only hunt to feed their offspring, themselves being wholly nectar feeders. Providing forage for adult stages is thus part of companion planting for a bug free garden (most small flowered plants provide this, including umbelliferous plants such as carrots, parsnip, fennel, dill and coriander, and others like various daisies, acacias and tamarisk).
• Remove pest habitat:
Larval forms of orchard pests such as fruit fly flourish and multiply in fallen fruit, so seasonally introducing a forager such as pigs or poultry aids in pest control while adding fertilizer (and tilth if left too long) to soil.
• Prey on or deter pests:
Insect eating birds (e.g. honey-eaters) can be encouraged by planting a few nectar producing and insect hosting plants (e.g. buddleia, banksias, dryandras, fuschias, callistemon, salvia) scattered around your orchard and vegetable growing zones.
Eagles and other birds of prey can be kept around to deter parrots and other fruit spoilers by keeping rabbits, pigeons or guinea pigs in your orchard. Alternatively, hawk kites flown overhead can be even more effective if not overused. A single alpaca or donkey amongst your sheep will keep foxes away.
Most duck breeds (not muscovy) will clean up slugs and snails and can be ranged through your food producing areas periodically when their appetite for seedlings will not compromise your yield.
• Killing root parasites or pests:
(e.g. Tagetes marigolds fumigate soils against nematodes and grasses, while Crotalaria [Australian Bird Plant] disables nematodes that damage citrus and solanum plants [e.g. potatoe, tomatoe, eggplant, capsicum]).
• Providing nutrients:
Nutrient enhancing plants can be allowed to grow then slashed periodically to provide mulch (e.g. nitrogen fixing plants such as clovers, tagastaste, acacias, lucerne, and casuarinas; and high humus producers such as bananas). Foraging animals periodically allowed into the system also provide nutrients in the form of manure.
• Facilitating root penetration:
Unlike grasses some plants offer an open root structure that does not interfere with the central plant’s ability to feed at the soil surface (e.g. comfrey, winter and spring bulbs, comfrey, globe artichoke). Such plants should be established in orchards in place of grass to boost productivity.
Grass is a poor companion to fruit trees as it interferes with surface root penetration
• Convenient harvesting:
It’s an interesting fact that plants that make good companions often taste great together too! So growing them together not only improves their yield but also simplifies the job of harvesting. (e.g. marigolds grown with tomatoes, parsley, basil deter nematodes and contribute petals to eat in salads; dill grown under apple trees host predatory wasps and tastes great with apples raw or cooked).
How do we know what will benefit what?
Companion planting guides and other references offer a great starting point to beneficial guild assemblies for Permaculture landscape design.
Observation is the only way to build upon this knowledge. You might even conduct a survey of plant and animal associations in your local area to this end. Keep a look out for “accidental” guilds that you can emulate by design:
You may notice, for example, that a neglected but flourishing apple tree is growing alongside acacia and mulberry, with comfrey, nasturtium, iris and clover beneath it.
As you gather observations, you might also come to notice that healthy apple trees are never found near walnut trees (walnut roots secrete growth inhibitors that apple trees are sensitive to).
Interactions – both positive and negative – may or may not be sensitive to the distance between elements. Again, observation will provide the answer of how critical spacing is in your Permaculture landscape design.
In the case of conflict between elements, such as between walnut and apple, neutral elements (e.g. mulberry and acacia) that are not affected by walnut can be planted as a buffer separating them as an intervention strategy in your design.