Planting for production can become a very laborious process, ask a farmer. Fortunately there are a few time-tested planting groups that thrive together which can help lighten the load. These are known as guilds, and they are a crucial asset to organic growers. There are infinite and diverse combinations, and similar to a harmony in musical composition it may achieve any of a number of outcomes depending on the intent, extent and implementation. I will describe three common guilds and explain the role and interplay of each member.
The Three Sisters
Certainly the most well-known of agriculture guilds, this grouping most often includes Corn, Pole Beans and Squash and was developed by the long time inhabitants of this continent as a supplement to their hunting and gathering, each was grown to be stored after the harvest through the cold season. There is a very intricate web woven here, one which strengthens each of the plants involved. On the surface each plant inhabits a different level, the squash spread across the ground and provide shade which is the heat of summer will protect vital moisture in the soil, the corn shoots straight up towards the sun and in doing so provides the perfect structure for the vigorous pole beans plants to ascend.While doing this the roots of the Pole Beans are fixing nitrogen into the soil, which is much-needed by her nitrogen hungry sisters. The harmony persists even after harvest, these plants provide a balanced supply of protein and carbohydrates when eaten together!
The Apple Guild
While lacking a catchy name this Guild is equally dependable. Consisting in it’s most basic form of an Apple Tree, Russian Comfrey and edible or ornamental Onions. Again each of these plants occupies a different canopy, with the onions producing delicious bulbs under the surface while deterring a number of pests which have become common on grafted apple varieties. The traditional medicinal Comfrey or Boneknit grows from a powerful tap root which carries nutrients from the air down to the roots of the Apple as well as providing ample mulch to nourish the Apple, which provides you with spring blossoms and wholesome fruit. This guild may also be expanded upon to include an increasingly more common suburban garden feature Gallus gallus domesticus or the common chicken, these helpful creatures may be allowed the wander the orchard at their leisure and will forage on high protein insect pests which trouble all fruit trees while leaving the Apples untouched.
The Hemlock Guild
While hiking in the temperate forests of the PNW you my notice something, Guilds! These groupings have been arranged by mother nature herself and may serve as a excellent model for our agricultural attempts. Under the towering upper canopy of the Western Hemlock, we find an understory of roughly a dozen plants which differ from each ecosystem to the next. I will cover the delicious ones! The Evergreen Huckleberry and Red Huckleberry can be found rising from the rotting logs left by fallen Hemlocks, each of which produces excellent edible berries and the former of which makes an excellent perennial landscape plant at home. Underneath these covering the forest floor, spare some room for Ferns, is Salal which itself produces edible berries which are best pressed and dried into a fruit leather which keeps for years, believe me. And in very moist areas you might even find some Wild Ginger. The interactions and mutual benefits of this guild are so established and intricate that, they function as organs within the same body.
These three guilds are just the beginning of the many combinations of plants that work harmoniously together. There are no rules in nature, and the same is true regarding guilds, they are limited only by your imagination as a designer and remember you are a member of each guild. Explore what each plant has to offer and put your knowledge to use!