Guilds are more or less just a step beyond well-established companion planting arrangements, moving from useful pairings onto functionally, ideally self-sustaining polyculture systems. In guilds, many plants are serving one another en route to a stable co-existence in which the garden is mulched, the soil fertilized, the pests controlled, the pollinators attracted, the nutrients accumulated and the cultivators feed.
Basically, to guild a classic combo like carrots and onion, we’ll look at what else we might supply for this mutually beneficial relationship, as well as what’s missing. In this case, both carrots and onions like to grow along side lettuces, which could supply a great ground cover to the mix, which would help keep the soil moist and the soil life safe and provide a steady harvest in the meantime.
Peas work really well with carrots but not so favorably with the onion family, so vining peas could be trellised near carrots but separated from onions for nitrogen-fixing and to add a vertical element to the combination.
Rosemary is a great perennial herb that helps deter pests and could act as another taller element in the mix, perhaps the centerpiece. Now we’ve got a pest deterring upper layer, root crops, edible ground covers, and nitrogen-fixing vines to provide shade for the lettuce. We’ve added a lot more diversity with a lot of function.
Corn, beans, and squash are the classic example, and while these three work great together and could be considered a guild as is, we might be able to improve it. Corn is already providing a stalk for the beans to climb, beans are provided nitrogen to feed the others, and the big leaves of clambering squash plants are creating a moisture-retaining ground cover.
In this combination, comfrey might be another great addition, adding a deep-rooting nutrient accumulator, an attractant for pollinators, and chop-and-drop mulch.
Sunflowers might work well as productive deterrents to pest, sources of nutrient-rich seeds to eat, but their allelopathic characteristics don’t mix well with beans (so be aware). Amaranth might work better. Traditionally, the three sisters would often also be accompanied by chilis, sweet potatoes and more
Creating garden guilds just takes a little guile. Do some research. Find out what likely makes good companions. From there, start considering the characteristics of the individual plants and how they might interact. Use this checklist to help you consider what’s going on:
• Compatible water needs: If everything likes water, no worries. If everything is drought-tolerant, wonderful. Start mixing it up and that might be a problem.
• Different root systems: Try to vary root systems such that plants aren’t competing, and try to think about including a root crop in the mix. Carrots also work well with tomatoes.
• Plant arrangement: Piece together plants of different sizes and shapes, envisioning how they might work in close proximity. What’s that vine going to grow up? Stuff like that. Think of the vertical spacing.
• Insects, good and bad: Plants for attracting beneficial insects and deterring pest need to be in the mix. Often, as in the case above, many additions are performing this function.
• The soil: Something needs to always be covering it. Something needs to always be feeding it new nutrients. Get a ground cover. Get something to chop and drop. Hopefully, a nitrogen-fixer is in the cards.
• Use the rule of three: Have at least three reasons for including a plant in the mix. It attracts bees, provides food, accumulates trace minerals in the soil,