The Sustainable Blog


Using Permaculture Plant Guilds for Low Maintenance Gardens

food forests permaculture regerative agriculture Jan 04, 2023

What are Permaculture Plant Guilds

Permaculture plant guilds are a key concept in permaculture design, which is a holistic approach to creating sustainable and self-sufficient systems. A plant guild is a group of plants that work together to provide a range of benefits, such as improving soil health, attracting beneficial insects, and providing food, medicine, and other resources.

Permaculture plant guilds mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems, and they can be used to design edible landscapes, agroforestry systems, and other types of sustainable agriculture. They are a key component of permaculture because they help to create diverse, stable, and resilient systems that are better able to withstand challenges such as pests, diseases, and climate change.

The basic structure of a permaculture plant guild consists of a central plant, or keystone species, surrounded by a group of complementary plants that provide a range of benefits to the central plant and to the overall guild. The central plant is typically a fruit tree or other perennial plant that provides a long-term yield, and the complementary plants may include annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, cover crops, nitrogen-fixing plants, and beneficial insects.

Ecological Function of Plants

Plant guilds in permaculture are designed to mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems, and they are intended to serve a range of ecological functions. Some of the key ecological functions that plant guilds can serve include:

  • Improving soil health: Plant guilds can help to improve soil health by adding nutrients, increasing organic matter, and improving soil structure. Nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, can add nitrogen to the soil, while other plants, such as cover crops, can help to add organic matter and improve soil structure.

  • Attracting and supporting beneficial insects: Plant guilds can provide habitat and food for beneficial insects, such as pollinators, predators, and parasites, which can help to control pests and diseases. Insectary plants, such as flowering herbs and vegetables, can attract and support beneficial insects, while pest-deterring and trap crops can help to control pests.

  • Providing food, medicine, and other resources: Plant guilds can provide a diverse array of food, medicine, and other resources, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, and other plant products. By including a variety of annual and perennial plants, plant guilds can provide a long-term yield of resources.

  • Increasing biodiversity: Plant guilds can increase biodiversity by providing habitat and resources for a wide range of species, including plants, insects, birds, and other animals. By creating a diverse and interconnected system, plant guilds can support a greater number and variety of species.

  • Enhancing ecosystem services: Plant guilds can enhance ecosystem services, such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat, by providing a diverse and interconnected network of plants and other organisms. By working with natural processes, plant guilds can help to create more resilient and sustainable systems.

Planting Ecosystems

Permaculture plant guilds can be designed to meet the specific needs and goals of the site and the plants involved. For example, a guild for a fruit tree might include nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil fertility, groundcover plants to suppress weeds and retain moisture, and insectary plants to attract beneficial insects. A guild for a vegetable garden might include companion plants to deter pests, trap crops to attract pests away from the main crops, and plants to provide habitat for beneficial insects.

To give an example, imagine that you have a lemon tree that you would like to plant up with some ecological partners. We can use the some of the following plants in and around your tree.

  • Keystone species: Lemon tree (Citrus limon)

  • Complementary plants:

    • Nitrogen-fixing plants: Popcorn cassia, (Cassia didymobotrya), White clover (Trifolium repens), common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), Guaje (Leucaena leucocephala)
    • Groundcover plants: Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
    • Insectary plants: Borage (Borago officinalis), calendula (Calendula officinalis), zinnias, sage, lavender
    • Pest-deterring plants: Marigold (Tagetes spp.), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
    • Trap crops: Radish (Raphanus sativus), mustard (Brassica spp.)

This guild would provide a range of benefits to the lemon tree, including improved soil fertility, weed suppression, pest control, and habitat for beneficial insects. The nitrogen-fixing plants would help to improve the soil by adding nitrogen, and the groundcover plants would help to suppress weeds and retain moisture. The insectary plants would attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, while the pest-deterring and trap crops would help to control pests.

This is just one example of a permaculture plant guild for a lemon tree and it can be customized to meet the specific needs and goals of the site and the plants involved. Other plants that might be suitable for this guild could include other nearby fruit trees, such as fig or mulberry, as well as herbs, vegetables, and other annual and perennial plants.

The concept of plant guilds move us one step closer towards low maintenance permanent gardens. Sign up for a permaculture design course to learn more about plant guilds, food forests, and other ways to partner with ecosystems to grow healthy food, medicine, fiber, and other products.