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The Symbiotic work of Plant guilds in a food forest


Volunteers and community members on site during the training.

“To know is power” Let us then use our brains with every good intent that at the end we come with tired eyes and give to nature more than what she lent”. (Cheire)

I was motivated to learn Permaculture after a one week training on Natural medicines which changed my eating habits. When I learned that permaculture has non rigid guidelines that can meet different needs at different times to achieve a green planet. I got the explanation that permaculture uses simple practical solutions which are achievable by ordinary people. Energy efficiency, organic growing, community finances; making do with the resources one has. Thus permaculture reduces the need to earn.

My initial permaculture experiences led to my involvement in a project to develop a food forest at Umoja Orphanage in Diani Kenya after training in April 2014.

Why Food forest?

The 2% of rain forests in the earth support 50% of all life. Forests fed human beings sufficiently for many years. Our forefathers were hunters and gathers. People are losing reference to Mother Nature. A forest has trees, bushes/shrubs, herbs, tubers, thus stacking to utilize all available space. Nature has forest plant guilds which work to benefit each other.

Once the food forest is established, the animals come in. Everything is in a relationship – the needs of one element are easily met by the produce of another element.

Example: The animals provide manure for the garden and the garden provides food for the animals. The chicken feed as they forage and fertilize the soil and keep pests away.

Picture 1 - Umoja gate

The Umoja Orphanage in Diani Food Forest

Umoja needs a food forest to supply all its needs in diverse food that it desperately needed to attain self sustainability at the end.

A food forest is a gardening technique or land management system, which mimics a woodland ecosystem by substituting edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Fruit and nut trees make up the upper level, while berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals make up the lower levels. The Umoja Food Forest will combine aspects of native habitat rehabilitation with edible forest gardening.

The goal of the Umoja Food Forest will be to bring the richly diverse community together by fostering a Permaculture Tree Guild approach to urban farming and land stewardship. By building a community around sharing food with the public we hope to be inclusive to all in need of food. A total of 164 seedlings that included citrus (oranges, lemons), pawpaw’s, guava and coconut were planted during the training to start off the food forest. There is sufficient space to hold many more different plants including squash, tubers like cassava and sweet potatoes, and groundnuts also since planting materials for these are available locally.

Everything is in a relationship– the needs of one element are easily met by the produce of another element. For example, the animals provide manure for the garden and the garden provides food for the animals. The chicken feed as they forage and fertilize the soil and keep pests away. The food forest aims to work with nature not against it. By observing nature and copying her ways of recycling wastes and creating ‘closed loop systems’ it has helped us create sustainable systems.

We have used plant guilds in the Orphanage food forest to maximize the use of space (niche) besides the plants benefiting each other symbiotically. Three guilds have been used: maize, bean and squash. There is a maximum use of space and nutrients while the nitrogen fixers replenish used nutrients in the soil. Maize is trellis for bean, bean is nitrogen fixer and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are fed by special sugars from the corn root, squash provides ground cover. In some places we have added insect attracting plants.


This article is part of an initiative by FoodWaterShelter to promote permaculture networks in East Africa, and to support the hosting of PDCs in Tanzania. This and other articles are written by PDC students in exchange for PDC scholarships.


    1. I’m also really keen to find Food Forest books written for Australian gardeners, and working with Australian flora as well as exotic edibles. Is there such a title out there, please? I have seen quite a few based in the US or UK, and they look great, in fact I own one, but there seems a real lack of Australian-based food forest resources. Can anyone please point us in the right direction? Thank you :-)

      1. Hi Linnie, forgive me I have very little knowledge of Oz vegetation, however the first publication by Tagari is jam-packed with plants and guild formations which I imagine can be suitable for your climate and can be a good starting point. The book is called ‘Permaculture One – A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements’ by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

        Yes indeed – it is written in reference to US Climates, but Toby Hemenway’s ‘Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Homescale Permaculture’ has some great lists of plants, they are listed by climatic zone too – so you can select the ones most suited to your climate zone. Also, he describes very clearly the principles behind guild formation from a single tree to a woodland scale – the book generalizes with the plant functions, such as ‘insectary’ ‘mulch creating’ or ‘nitrogen fixing’ and also proposes some plants to use, both in the diagrams and in the lists.

        Also speak with people/friends in your locality, ask them what they find grows really well, you will start to see a pattern of plants that do well, and perhaps combinations of plants that do well – look in gardens, farms and veg plots to see what people are growing and what appears to be doing well, and ask advice from people who manage these systems. Go walking in the wilderness to get a feel for the native/local vegetaion – ideally undisturbed forests, bush etc and begin to identify/recognise plants (and plant pallettes – groups or categories of plants) – then you can look them up in a reference book, find out their properties – then see how they can fit into your guild design.

        Hope this helps a bit. I am sure there are a lot of people, farms and projects to contact in Australia and probably close-by to where you are living for on-the-ground experience. Hopefully we can read your findings in an article on this site!

        1. Thank you, Marcus. Permaculture 1 is actually the first book I bought relating to permaculture, some decades ago :-) You’re right… I don’t really need an Australia-specific book, especially when looking at the list if species that I already have contains so few Australian natives, and those I do have tend to be more for their fibres etc. Wherever possible I incorporate native plants, especially those endemic to my area, which is borderline subtropical. I guess I was just looking for someone to do the actual lists for me, but you’re right, they’re already done and I just have to seek out the appropriate ones.

          I planted the bones of my food forest 20 years ago, and have some beautiful mangoes, avicadoes that need replacing, jaboticaba, a bunch of citrus, mulberries, figs, bananas, papaya, a failed to thrive olive that finally seems to have found its feet, plus midyims, a persimmon, tropical apples (which, after the initial delicious ‘Anna’ which was run over by a frenzied bobcat driver :-( all went downhill in terms of flavour and productivity) and a number of more exotic species, plus many others.

          So we are definitely on our way. My vege garden is still modest but is the best I’ve ever managed and is quite productive now, as I’ve been learning each step of the way.

          Most of my time in earlier years was spent in planting a rainforest, as we were high and dry pasture land with just seasonal gully and creek line tempting me with their occasional riverine rainforest species. The gully is almost a rainforest now, intermingled with schlerophyl, with only so many weeds coming through compared to what used to arise, but we’ve lost the grassy gully for good :-) Now that the rainforest is throwing off seedlings of its own, I’m ready to get more serious about the food forest, so thank you for reminding me that the info is all there already! :-)

          Many blessings to you, Marcus and others. :-)

  1. James C Scott describes the reaction of British agricultural extension agents in the nineteenth century to indigenous field crops in tropical West Africa thus:

    Visually, the fields seemed a mess: there were two, three, and sometimes four crops crowded into the field at a time… the assumption was that the cultivators were themselves negligent and careless. The extension agents set about teaching them proper, “modern” agricultural techniques. It was only after roughly thirty years of frustration and failure that a Westerner thought to actually examine, scientifically, the
    relative merits of the two forms of cultivation under West African conditions. It turned out that the “mess” in the West African field was an agricultural system finely tuned to local conditions. The polycropping and relay cropping ensured there was ground cover to prevent erosion and capture rainfall year-round; one crop provided nutrients to another or shaded it; the bunds prevented gully erosion; cultivars were scattered to minimise pest damage and disease. pp. 48-49 Scott, James C. (2012) Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six easy pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton University Press, New Jersey

  2. Great responses. I live in Southern California, that’s planted with a great many Eucalyptus trees. I wanted a list that I could take to the Nursery or Home Depot, and get busy planting.

  3. Edward: I would advise against taking a list of plants to a local nursery and purchasing them if you haven’t yet conducted a thorough site analysis and have a plan for where they will go.

    A site plan doesn’t have to be detailed down to the inch, but at least a basic site analysis and 2-5 year event horizon for the site really should be put together before outlaying the cost to purchase living beings. Their life or death hinges on whoever purchases them. If you don’t yet have a design, however basic it may be, those funds could be directed towards purchasing pioneer species. Pioneer species are adapted to tough conditions and make wonderful partners in the first years.

    There’s nothing that says you have to plant everything you fancy in the first year. Pointing out a native nitrogen fixing shrub to friends and family may not have the same appeal as a pomegranate or fig, but spending the time to shift your local ecosystem towards regeneration through the use of pioneer species is rewarding in itself. I personally believe that instant successions are a poor idea the majority of the time.

    I’m not saying instant successions are wrong or that they don’t work, it is just that they aren’t my style. I personally encourage thoughtful implementation of mainframe design features that allow a gradual immersion into a permaculture system. If the project site is itself degraded and in an ecologically fractured location, I just don’t see the point in trying to get a food forest up all at once and skip the early phases of site remediation. Unless, of course, cost is really of no consequence.

    But I’d have a hard time forgiving myself if I took a tree with a 500 year lifespan, planted it into compacted soil with a top dressing of mulch & compost and it died, all because I wanted that tree now and didn’t want to wait a few years really preparing the ground for it and observing.

    If you design those things well (and there are many ways to design the bones of a permaculture system), by the time you are ready to bring species that come with high expectations, the soil will be ready and the plants should mostly take care of themselves.

    Just my two cents.

    1. My understanding is that eucalyptus puts out a growth inhibitor from it’s roots that strongly discourages most other plants from growing nearby. This can also be a problem when using eucallyptus leaves or chips as mulch or in compost. On the positive side eucalyptus seems to discourage flies around livestock. I have not personally lived with eucalyptus for many years so my knowledge may be outdated or off base, so if anyone knows differently let me know

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