Permaculture Guilds

What is a Permaculture Guild and how exactly do you build one? Read this article for guild examples and build one yourself!

9/18/202312 min read

Permaculture Guilds:
Examples, How-Tos, and a Step-by-Step Guide


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Building a Permaculture Guild using our SAGE app

Permaculture Guilds

An Introduction

The concept of permaculture guilds involves having some background knowledge about permaculture as well as familiarity with the plant and animal world. The process outlined below is by no means complete but rather meant to help you get out of analysis paralysis and actually start building a guild instead of thinking that it’s too complicated.

  1. What is a Permaculture Guild

  2. How to Build a Permaculture Guild

  3. Permaculture Guild Examples

1. What is a Permaculture Guild?

An example of permaculture guilds designed at Beacon Food Forest, an urban food forest in Seattle, Washington

Beacon Food Forest
Beacon Food Forest

A Brief Definition

In permaculture, we call a collection of plants that work well together and support each other's growth a "Permaculture Guild." You can call it other things like:

  • A Polyculture

  • A Plant Grouping

  • Companion Planting

A guild's collection of plants works together to benefit the whole, and they especially support the growth of a "star player" (usually, a perennial. But not always).

Think of a guild like the players in an orchestra creating a symphony!

What is a Permaculture Guild Made of?

A permaculture guild is made of many elements. Each element should provide at least three functions to your system.

Think of how in nature a specific medicinal plant like chamomile serves not only as a thing of beauty, a pollinator, and an aromatic pest deterrent but also aids in soil regeneration and serves as a medicinal herb to calm the nerves and helps one go to sleep. That's at least six functions from one plant!

When choosing the players of your guild, make sure that they are multi-faceted

  • Beneficial Plants

  • Beneficial Animals

  • Soil Microorganisms

intentionally designed to create a multi-functional, ecologically sound system.



Why Build a Permaculture Guild?

At first, It may seem efficient to plant a monoculture of crops when you have a factory model of production in mind. However, the problem with that model is that agriculture deals with living things that are not machines.

Living things cannot reach their fullest potential in a system that treats them as objects.

Monoculture vs. Polyculture
Monoculture vs. Polyculture

A monoculture planting vs. a polyculture planting

Before we jump into building our guilds, let's examine why we need to go through the trouble of building one in the first place.

Why not plant rows and rows of corn or soybeans like commercial growers do? Isn't that the more efficient way to do agriculture?

Our first goal is the same as that of the conventional agricultural model: maximum output of food.

Our second goal is efficiency. We want to use the least amount of input for the most amount of gain.

Our third goal looks to the future. As we carry out our first and second goals, we care for the ecology we work with for the generations to come. In this way, we can continue to have resources in the future to perpetuate this spiral of growth.

Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture Guilds

As Bill Mollison once said,
"Sustainability is when your output exceeds your input."

And the Results?

As a result of building permaculture guilds, our yields turn out to be far greater and far more diverse than simply food.

Our yields include:

  • Clothing

  • Material for shelter

  • Food for people, plants, and animals

  • Medicine

  • Peace of mind

  • Areas to meditate in

  • Pollinator and wildlife habitats

  • Stabilized climates

  • Ecosystem rehabilitation

  • The passing on of knowledge to the next generation and so much more.

Permaculture Guilds Lazy Gardeners
Permaculture Guilds Lazy Gardeners

We build something bigger and better than our wildest dreams.
We become "lazy gardeners."

This is why, permaculture guilds are better than monoculture plantings.

Guilds are the “perma” in permaculture.

Bill Mollison would say permaculture was building "permanent systems for persistent human existence."

An example of permaculture guilds in Sherret Food Forest, a permaculture property in Portland, Oregon

Permaculture GuildsPermaculture Guilds

Three Considerations in Guild Building

2. How to Build a Permaculture Guild

Now that you know why you need to build a permaculture guild, let's design a guild step-by-step. There are three things to consider when building a guild:

  1. Niches in Time: Knowing the seasonality of your plants

  2. Niches in Space: Knowing how to use the horizontal and vertical spacing of your plants to create optimal growth and maximum harvest

  3. Niches in Functional: Knowing the beneficial relationships between plants you are grouping together

  4. Ecosystem Diversity - Knowing to select for diversity and even redundancy in your system.

1. Filling Niches in Time

Unlike architectural design or engineering. Permaculture design deals with elements that grow and change over time.

Some plants are available to us only during the summer. These are often our favorite backyard vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squashes.

Some plants thrive during the cooler seasons, such as kale, winter radish, and lettuces. Most of these flag during the summer months or cannot be grown in certain parts of the world where there is no cool season.

And some plants thrive in the in-between seasons, such as peas, chamomile and yarrow which bloom in the early spring but fry in the early summer.

seasonlity of crops
seasonlity of crops

A graph showing the seasonality of crops

2. Filling Niches in Space

To maximize our yields, it's important to fill in as many niches in our given space as we can.

Our spaces may seem to have many gaps at the beginning of the growing season. These gaps will fill out as our plants grow and the more we incorporate perennial plants into our design.

When we think of space, we have to consider not only the spaces aboveground but also those belowground.

Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture Guilds

7 Layers of a Food Forest

Aboveground Niches:
The Seven Layers of a Food Forest

What are the Seven Layers of a Food Forest?

The Seven Layers of a Food Forest are the physical niches in 3-dimensional space that we try to optimize to grow the most amount of food in the least amount of land.

We might get into the habit of only thinking of our gardens in 2-dimensions and forget the growth habits of root crops that occupy more of the underground layer or the vining habits of plants that could give us more fruit if trellised.

Are there only seven layers in a Food Forest?

Certainly not. You can have fewer layers if you live in a tiny apartment or more on a farm. But let’s start with seven because that is how this concept of niches in space found its way into permaculture.

Here are the layers:

  1. Overstory Layer

  2. Vining Layer

  3. Ground Cover

  4. Understory Layer

  5. Shrub Layer

  6. Herbaceous Layer

  7. Root Crop Layer

Find a great example of this on our blog, "Shade Gardens."

Soil Food Web
Soil Food Web

Remember to support the life in the ecosystem belowground

Belowground Niches:
The Soil Food Web

What is the Soil Food Web?

The Soil Food Web was popularized by soil scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham. It is the understanding that there is an ecosystem belowground that supports the ecosystem aboveground.

When designing your permaculture guild, make sure that you are growing plants that will regenerate the soil. Here are some ways that plants help support and fill in the Belowground niches so that they are teaming with life

  1. Plant perennials - Perennials provide steady food and often create symbiotic relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. Because they are not likely to be pulled out anytime soon, these plants support the life in the root zone layers (also known as the rhizophagy) for a longer period than annuals would.

  2. Plant legumes - Legumes have a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia and Frankia bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen to nitrates that the plant can uptake. No matter how much Nitrogen we add to the soil using our favorite store-bought brand, this will not help the plant if there are no beneficial microbes to "digest" the N2 so that the plant can "eat" it.

  3. Plant living mulch, do not leave soil bare - Water is essential for the life in the soil to flourish and a living mulch keeps the soil moist.

2.5. Filling Niches in Time and Space

For the next consideration in building guilds, we combine both time and space and take note of the "crown diameters" of the plants, trees, or elements in your design that are bound to change.

Questions to ask of each design element

What is the crown diameter of your tree?

Is your tree a dwarf or full-sized variety?

What is the growth habit of your particular plant?

Will it shade out the plants underneath it?

Crown diameter of trees

3. Fulfill Beneficial Functions

Some Permaculture Functions to Look For

If we were to list all the functions that a plant provides, we may never get done designing. So we are going to highlight certain functions that we look out for initially when designing a guild. Some functions may be relevant to only you, as for instance, "This rose functions as a reminder of my grandmother." That is a legitimate function! But Bill Mollison (the co-coiner of the term permaculture) suggests that we have at least 3 functions per element when we design. So here are the few that are good to have in any guild:

  1. Nitrogen Fixers - These plants enrich the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that other plants can absorb, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

    Examples: Peas, beans, clover, lupines.

  2. Dynamic Accumulators - These deep-rooted plants bring up nutrients from deeper soil layers to the surface, where they become accessible to other plants when the leaves decompose.

    Examples: Comfrey, dandelion, chicory.

  3. Pollinator Attractors - These plants attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, ensuring pollination for fruits and seeds.

    Examples: Lavender, borage, calendula

  4. Pest Repellents - By emitting scents or chemicals, these plants repel harmful insects, protecting the guild from pests.

    Examples: Marigolds, garlic, basil

  5. Ground Covers - These plants cover the soil, reducing weed growth, retaining moisture, and preventing erosion.

    Examples: Clover, creeping thyme, sweet alyssum

  6. Wildlife Supporters - Plants that provide food or habitat for beneficial wildlife, aiding in pest control and pollination.

    Examples: Elderberry, sunflower, and berry bushes

  7. Mulchers - Plants that generate a lot of biomass, which can be used as mulch to enrich the soil with organic matter.

    Examples: Comfrey (for its biomass), cardoon, and artichoke leaves

  8. Edible and Medicinal

    Plants that provide direct benefits to humans, offering food, medicine, or other useful products.

    Examples: Most vegetables and herbs, and many medicinal plants.

A selection for an asparagus guild

3. Fulfill Ecosystem Diversity

The more diverse your garden, the more stable it becomes.

Indeed, the diversity of plants is one of the hallmarks of a permaculture guild. Diversity ensures that if one type of crop dies, another one might survive.

Diversity also attracts different animals into the mix. Animals that could contribute to soil fertilization, pollination, and increased vigor in plant growth.

Diversity means "more hands make light work" so instead of doing all the garden work ourselves we are outsourcing it to the ones who do this work full-time.

Doesn't diversity make the garden messy looking?

While this permaculture principle can sometimes clash with the aesthetics of a garden, it is still possible to design a diverse planting of 7-9 crops in a garden bed and place them in a repetitive pattern so that they make a beautiful planting. Think of a cottage garden style, more than a minimalist one.

Permaculture Guilds
Permaculture Guilds

Diversely planted permaculture guild

Build-A-Guild Steps

Finally, here are the steps you need to take to "Build A Permaculture Guild!"

  1. Designate a Space.

    If you're new to building permaculture guilds, start with no more than a 20 ft x 20 ft square.

  2. Choose a "Star Player."

    A guild is typically centered around a "Star Player." A Star Player is a desirable plant that you really want to get a yield from. Usually, this is a perennial, say, for instance, an apple tree.

  3. Choose Your Supporting Players According to Their Function.

    What functions are necessary to create ecological design? What functions support the surrounding plants and animals that are affected by your guild?

    Unlike in monoculture, each element of your guild should provide three or more functions

    Here are but a few examples of functions that permaculturists use when creating guilds. There are many more!

    Functions of "Supporting Players"

    • Food, medicine, or fiber resource

    • Dynamic Accumulator - mines the soil for minerals that it brings up to its leaves and sheds to feed the soil

    • Nitrogen-Fixer - plants that have bacterial associations that promote plant absorption of Nitrogen in the rhyzophagy

    • Pest Deterrent

    • Pollinator Attractant / Native Plant

    • Weed Suppressant

    • Wildlife Habitat

  4. Fill in the Seven Layers of a Food Forest.

    Using our SAGE app or this workbook, fill in the layers of a Food Forest.

    What layers can you use in your space?
    What plants will max out those layers so that they maximize food production?

    How do I know how to space my plants?

    Many times, the spacing requirements on the seed packets are more suited for large agricultural farms. Our permaculture garden app called SAGE makes backyard garden recommendations for the appropriate spacing of many of the common fruit and vegetable plants.

    Test drive it for free HERE!

  5. Ensure Diversity and Know Your Plant Families:

    There are about 9 common plant families that North American vegetable gardeners tend to grow.

    Know which family your crops belong to and make sure you are not creating a monoculture by planting the same family all in one bed.

  6. Draw Your Guild

    Using the SAGE Designer or graph paper on the workbook, draw out your guild using a top view first. This allows you to account for the crown diameters of your plants.

    Follow this drawing with a side-view to help you see the height of your plants.

    How to Draw Your Guild (especially if you don’t know where to begin)

    1. Draw out your permaculture guild area measured to scale.