Piecing Together a Guild of Your Own

Photo: Panorama (Courtesy of hardworkinghippy)

In the scheme of permaculture food production, harnessing the most out of nature whilst using its own attributes, creating plant guilds ranks pretty high up there. Most of us know them in simplified forms such as the three sisters—corn, beans and squash—or companion plantings like carrots and onions or tomatoes and basil. While these combinations are great things to be familiar with, the larger lesson is learning to create more systemic guilds on our own.

Obviously, it is much more beneficial to us, as growers of food and designers of edible landscapes, to recognize the pattern of plants that group together nicely as opposed to learning a few complimentary sets. In essence, wouldn’t it be great to simply know how to make our own, personalized guilds, to be able to effectively combine plants suitable to our respective environments rather than trying to plant an apple tree guild in the tropics or bananas in Canada?

Well, I’m quite certain that Big Bill and Dapper Dave, the co-originators of permaculture, would shout enthusiastic “yeas” in response to this question. The idea has always been to take what works—the guilding system—and translate that around the globe. Let’s leave bananas to the tropics and apples to the temperate, but we can find them climate appropriate plants with which to mingle. So, then, from that perspective, what makes a good guild?

The Centerpiece

Mango Tree (Courtesy of Alden Cornell)
Mango Tree (Courtesy of Alden Cornell)

In the largest scale of things, a guild starts with a centerpiece, a tall and often widespread overstory tree. These are enormous trees that tower of everything. Though it may take several years, perhaps a decade or more, they produce food on an equally massive scale. They are the very trees that, in the end, will be the ceiling of the food forest, and it is with their success in mind that the guild is being created.

In smaller scale guilds, there should still be a centerpiece to represent the main yield of the system. In the case of the three sisters, corn—the food staple—represents this centerpiece, while beans and squash find respective roles that will aid the system as a whole and particularly the production of corn. In other cases, such as a suburban lawn, the centerpiece could be a small fruit or nut tree, from which the rest of the guild will fall into place.

10 Potential Centerpieces: apple, mango, macadamia, pears, pecan, mulberry, chestnuts, carob, avocadoes, date palms

The Seconds

Orange Tree (Courtesy of David Spender)
Orange Tree (Courtesy of David Spender)

Many suburban and urban systems will only be able to support one large centerpiece tree, if any, or for larger spaces, guilds will need to be spaced appropriately, perhaps with centerpieces sharing the elements betwixt them. Either way, there should be space in which to grow an understory. Filling this area, these swaths of sunlight, will be smaller trees, the understory, which can provide yet more valuable crops.

Understory trees are those that won’t grow as high or spread out quite so luxuriously as the overstory pieces. Typically, there can be several understory elements for each centerpiece. Citrus trees often fill this bill well, as do hazelnuts, dwarfed soft fruit varieties, and tropical fruits, like carambola and papaya. One thing to certainly keep in mind with the seconds is that they ideally would have a different rooting system than the centerpiece so that they won’t be competing for resources.

10 Possible Understory Trees: papaya, hazelnut, dwarf apple, guava, coffee, citrus (anything), almonds, nectarine, peach, cacao

The Lifeblood

 Ice Cream Bean (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Ice Cream Bean (Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)

Amongst all of this, especially at the beginning, there will likely need to be an abundance of nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees. These trees are a natural way of fertilizing the ground from both above (via chop-and-drop mulching) and below (sloughing of nitrogen nodules from the their roots) the surface. For constructing food forests, it’s often suggested that nitrogen fixers make up a large percentage of what is being planted.

Throughout time, these trees, bushes and groundcovers will either be thinned or shaded out. The general idea will be to, in the long run, keep only about ten percent of what is planted in this group. This might be productive, longer living varieties like ice cream bean or moringa. In the interim, short-term legumes like pigeon pea or peanut will provide some quick food production, as well as great fodder for the other plants. An initial crop of annual beans, such as with the three sisters, works well in this capacity also.

10 Forms of Nitrogen-fixing Foliage: pigeon pea, ice cream bean, Siberian pea, lupin, clover, vetch, groundnut, kudzu, honey locust, carob (Here’s a massive list)

The Accumulators

Borage (Courtesy of Dominic Alves)
Borage (Courtesy of Dominic Alves)

Plants with deep-tapping roots tend to be great accumulators of nutrients that have sunk too far for other plants to reach. The taproot spikes down into the earth, below the reach of neighboring roots, and taps into its own supply of vitamins and minerals. This is good mainly in two distinct ways: The plants, which can add to the overall production, aren’t competing with other yielders, and even better, they are harvesting otherwise inaccessible nutrients.

It’s possible to find accumulators that produce both medicinal benefits (comfrey, for one), as well as edible harvests (dandelions). But, for sure, look for accumulators that make good chop-and-drop mulch. The big idea here is to pull nutrients up from below the reach of other plants and deposit those nutrients in a more accessible location. While the soil around taproots will provide some of this wicking action, most of those nutrients will be transferred via mulching with leaves and branches.

10 Dynamic Accumulators: borage, comfrey, chickweed, yarrow, nettles, chicory, amaranth, moringa, lamb’s quarters, mulberry

The Ground Cover

Butterfly on Red Clover (Courtesy of Joshua Mayer)
Butterfly on Red Clover (Courtesy of Joshua Mayer)

After quite some time of silly agriculture in which soils are stripped of weeds and left bare, we have discovered the folly of our ways. In fact, healthy soils are soils thick with plant-life, covered over so that they retain moisture and support an immense host of organisms and life. It seems that the long, raging battle with weeds might be nigh to an ending. These days we plant ground covers rather than turning the soil bare, as bare soil actually encourages weeds to grow.

Not unlike the no-till beds, ground covers are more effective than constantly turning soil because they harness the power of weeds. They render the problematic plants moot by cutting off their supply of sunlight and gobbling up their patch of ground. This preserves all that good accumulated energy and beneficial effort performed by weeds (essential weeds grow to supply something important that’s missing in the soil) without having to destroy the soil structure. Ground covers are especially important for young guilds in which the sun reaches the earth and where weeds and grasses are true competition for trees.

10 Useful Ground Covers: sweet potato, red clover, salad vegetables, parsley, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, rhubarb, strawberries

The Pest Control & Pollination

Mint (Courtesy of Edsel Little)
Mint (Courtesy of Edsel Little)

Other helpful additions to any guild are those plants that insects hate and/or absolutely love. These tend to be aromatic varieties such as repelling stuff from the mint family or bug distractors like sunflowers and dill. These plants exemplify one of the major aspects of why poly-cultures work better than monocultures: They confuse the hell out of damaging insects, as well as attract predatory and pollinating (helpful) ones.

Here we are aiming to protect the buds, leaves, roots and trunks of our primarily productive plants—the fruit and nut trees, the big harvest yielders—by deterring the bugs that might otherwise prey on them. What’s more is that, in doing so, we can produce yet more useful plants for our guild. Who doesn’t want the addition of homegrown sunflower seeds, fresh dill and basil in their culinary repertoire?

10 Pest Control Plants: mint, peppermint, basil, dill, marigold, sunflower, lemongrass, citronella, lavender, coriander

Other Important Considerations

Success (Courtesy of hardworkinghippy)
Success (Courtesy of hardworkinghippy)

To say that this is the whole thing summed up would be a gross understatement. Rather, this is a means by which to begin the contemplation of what someone might want to include in a guild. There is much more to think about, so much actually that it can be quite bewildering. In other words, at some point, we must simply plant what we’ve designed, certain that we’ve missed out on something or chosen incorrectly somewhere. It’s no big deal if a support plant fails. It just means we’re one step closer to finding what will work.

Before getting that guild in the ground, here are some other useful things to consider:

• Landscape: How does the water hold across the land? Is there a good spot to put a swale, which will keep our plants and trees hydrated and happy? In general, how can the landscape play a helpful role in what we are planting and where we are planting it? What will grow well in wet spots? Dry spots? Sunny spots? On a slope?

• Climate: What are the weather elements to consider? Does wind whip through the area such that some breaks might help? How can we be sure to keep the system vibrant in cold weather as well as the warm summer months? Or, the obvious climatic element is which zone we are working in. The tropics versus temperate makes a massive difference as to what we can plant.

• Layers: Forest, i.e. Mother Nature’s guilds, occur in layers, which include overstory trees, understory trees, bushes/shrubs, herbaceous plants, ground covers, vines, and roots. Often people like to add fungi into this mix. Our guilds should strive to include all of these elements, maximizing the production of the space by creating plenty of edges for the layers.

• Arrangement: For each component of the guild, there is an appropriate place. Vines need something to grow on. Deep tapping plants can be very beneficial underneath most fruit trees as they won’t compete for nutrients with the shallow root system (of most fruit trees) but will actually add valuable nutrients. Puzzle together the most sensible arrangement possible.

• Combinations: Realize that accumulators, nitrogen-fixers, fruit trees and so on can come in all shapes and sizes. Piece them together in a way that is appropriate, where each shape and size niche is fulfilled, as well as each component listed above is tended to. Sometimes plants can form multiple functions on the list of requirements, and we should strive to provide multiple plants for each component when possible. The goal is to have good systematic reasons for each plant and have a plant for each systemic purpose.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I’d love to do this in the desert but our water is crap–full of arsenic and the stuff they use to leach it out of the water supply which comes from 3000 feet below surface. Also top 1.5 feet are mine dust–any suggestions to remedy?

    1. Hi! try researching hugelkultur and other methods of retaining, catching/storing rain or reusing your gray water – plants can thrive on water from your sink, tub, and shower- even your laundry if you dilute it and use biodegradable soap.

    2. Biochar is alkaline. Bokashi is acidic. Also, you might try an artificial wetlands with plants that purify and chelate the metals from your water. You can read Art Ludwig’s Creating an Oasis with Greywater.

    3. Yes! Look up “greening the desert” on YouTube. The answer to your question is swales and nitrogen fixer native species. ❤️❤️❤️ Much luck to you!

  2. I am a bit disappointed with the guild plants, hazelnuts are for instance temperate plants and will not produce any fruit unless they get enough chilling hours (700 to 1500 hours). Ice cream bean is a weed in my local area (mid north coast NSW, Australia).

  3. Are there particular plants that grow well as a support species for the Lichi (Lychee). Have a beautiful one growing where I work with a small natural guild occurring but would like to maximise on this, with edibles of course. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated :D

  4. Our neighbor keeps bees. As I am beginning to realize just how important they are to our food supply, I would like to see more tips on how to incorporate them into our gardens without using pesticides. As it so happens, modern monoculture farming that uses pesticides is actually killing the creatures that make farms possible! We need to figure out how to farm in a sustainable way on a large scale before we all starve.

    1. Honeybees are doing fine and are making a comeback, thanks to beekeepers. However, it is the solitary bees, the wild bees that don’t live in hives, that are becoming endangered now. While a honeybee keeps most of the pollen it comes across and only pollinates about 5% of the flowers she visits, the solitary bees pollinate about 95% of the flowers they visit. Keeping solitary bee species is easy and greatly increases fruite and nut yield. Check out for information on how you can keep solitary bees. So easy!

  5. I have a 10m x 12m yard beside my house. Its cornered on three sides by concrete walls.

    I want to know if i got this right.

    Mango as centerpiece
    Guava And moringa around it
    Sweet potato and herbs below it

    Also i want to put raised beds for veggies and a 12hen chicken coop.

    Is this possible?

  6. Bev – fresh water and good soil are your concerns. It may take some time to make a dent (depends on finances you want to throw at it, or what you can scrounge) – My suggestions:
    1. Start composting. Everything. Anything. ask neighbors for their scraps, grocery stores for any produce they are throwing away, of course your own from home, school lunch cafeterias have a great deal. Throw shredded paper into the mix, add soil, hay, straw, mulch, leaves, tree limbs – anything that will eventually be dirt/soil.
    Water stations: harness those desert monsoons! set up small stations (basically, a runoff roof, with a gutter that goes to a large capacity drum (55+ gal). The more of these you have, the better for your watering needs.
    Keep doing #1, #2
    when you have enough compost to work with, start a small garden (4×12 = 48 sq ft) and look into intensive gardening (you get more bang for the buck). I would suggest finding plastic bins, at first. Your “native” (existing) soil may not be suitable to grow on (let alone “IN” – you might consider a soil test, which can usually be done very reasonably through your County Extension Agent.
    Use 4 – 3’x4′ plastic bins with holes drilled at the bottom, laid end to end (or whatever configuration works for you) and see how this works for you.
    You can buy compost/garden soil/potting mix – you do not Have to make compost…but I do recommend it.
    Good Luck!

  7. Hello everyone!
    Hoping that someone can help me with some advice, I live on the far north coast NSW. I have an amazing mango tree (around 40 years old) that is currently being decimated by red shouldered leaf beetles. It is on a slope of around 20 degrees. Would planting a guild under this tree help to improve its likely hood of surviving? I have read there is no control of these beetles except manual removal (tree is too tall) and that they come back every year. Any help on the subject is greatly appreciated as I am new to the subtropics! Vanessa

    1. Do you have a place to buy beneficial nematodes in your area? They eat bad guys in the soil. Beetles live part of their lives in or on the ground, yes? Beneficial nematode s will eat larva and eggs in the soil.

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