When I used to hear the word ‘guild’, my mind used to immediately go to the world of glitz and glamour at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in the USA! But when I came across the word in my Permaculture training, it was not about red carpets and fancy ballgowns. Instead ‘guilds’ are a great way to add vibrant colour to your garden and to ensure it is thriving with beneficial plants and organisms. Plant guilds are a combination of different plant species providing beneficial outcomes. Plants that work together to help your garden flourish - complementing each other.
Let me elaborate…
You may have a fondness for certain plants, wishing to grow them or might already be growing them. However, before planting seeds willy-nilly or placing some plants, think about arranging certain plants close together so that they support each other in some way. Some plants could provide shade and some would provide nutrients by fixing nitrogen in the soil, while some provide protection from pests. Taking some time to plan the right combination will not only reduce your work in the garden but will also help generate a hub for beneficial organisms, both above and below the ground. When designing or placing plants in your garden, think of a combination of plants – groups of flowering plants, groups of herbs, or a combo of flowering and fruiting (vegetable) plants. So what are my top tips for setting up a plant guild?
If you don’t mind natural chaos, you can arrange the plants randomly – but not thoughtlessly! The growth behaviour, nutrient and light requirements of each plant is good to note down before you start placement so you can figure out the best spot for it in the guild. When you plan to grow vegetables or fruits that you would harvest eventually, consider rows or concentric circles so that you can access the plants easily. Let natural forms of landscapes be your inspiration!
2. SHADE/ SUNLIGHT Requirements
Since home gardens are, of course, close to or surrounded by homes and buildings, these structures can create shade and vertical spaces. It either becomes an advantage or disadvantage depending on what you want to grow. Note down the shady spots in your garden and then select plants accordingly as shade is something you can’t change without emptying your pockets.
Here in Colombo, where it’s usually hot and humid, most plants that prefer full sun will also tolerate moderate shade. For example, Gerberas prefer full sun in the sub-tropics and cooler tropical regions such as Kandy and Matale. But here in Colombo, it will still do well with moderate shade especially during the afternoon. This, however, will not work with Tagetes (Marigold), they just love the sun and will twist, turn and become leggy (tall) to get to sunlight if not planted in a sunny spot. (check the photo of the Marigold growing in my garden bed).
3. The RIGHT plant combinations
The following are my top tips for the best plant combinations in guilds:
a) The Ginger Family
Bananas, ginger, and/or turmeric combined with flowers such as marigolds on the edges make a good guild. Musa (banana) will provide dappled sunlight for the ginger/turmeric rhizomes to grow while marigold will bring in some colour, bees and beneficial insects to the garden. You can always replace/grow ginger and turmeric with Colocasia (Taro), Alpinia, Heliconia to add colour. Bananas don’t mind when their roots are slightly disturbed so growing root vegetables and spices around it would work best at utilising that space around the banana plant.
b) NFTs and Pepper
Nitrogen Fixing Trees (NFTs) and vines grow abundantly in the Colombo area. Acacia, Gliricidia and Albizia species which are large trees that can be kept small by regular pruning. Let Piper (Black pepper vine) grow up the trunks of these trees for support. When you prune the NFTs, the nodulated roots release some of the nitrogen in to the soil, plus the cuttings themselves are a good source of nutrients and mulch. These trees are also great to place Orchids to grow.
c) The three sisters
If you have ample sunlight through the day, consider growing Zea (corn), (Dolichos lablab) beans and Cucurbita maxima (pumpkins/squash) together. This is a time-tested Native American formula. Plant the corn early in the season, followed by beans which will climb up the corn stalks for support and followed by pumpkin which will cover up any bare ground, smothering the weeds. The roots of the bean plants will provide the needed nitrogen through nodulation (something nitrogen fixing plants do) when you trim, chop some of the foliage and pluck the beans, helping the hungry pumpkins to thrive.
4. Don’t forget to EXPERIMENT
Plant guild combinations are of course not set in stone and your garden will benefit if you’re looking to experiment with unusual combinations. I have tried a combination of Punica granatum (pomegranate), Origanum (oregano) and Eruca (rocket). This combination has somehow worked for me. I harvest oregano every two weeks; it thrives under the pomegranate though it gets partially shaded. The wild rocket also does well in the tropical climate and adds a culinary twist to our food. All these three species technically prefer subtropical and warm temperate climates like that of the Mediterranean. But in my case, what really works for me is that oregano never really dies off and is permanently covering the bed reducing weed incidences, while the smell of rocket and oregano repel most pests away from the pomegranate.
So! Are you ready to get your hands dirty putting together some plant guilds? Have you tried some common or unusual plant combinations in your garden? Please do share your experiences with me in the article comments. If you haven’t tried using plant guilds, have a go with some of the combinations mentioned below.
You can use as few as three species to as many as possible.
*Cuttings are the best to consider for these herbs.
Happy growing and plant guilding!