By Peggy Doerschuk
Don’t you wish you could spend less time weeding, feeding and mulching your gardens? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could minimize the effort but maximize the yield? That is the promise of Permaculture Guilds and the dream of lazy gardeners like me.
Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison introduced “Permanent Agriculture” in 1978 in Holmgren’s graduate student thesis in Environmental Design. Permaculture uses observations from nature to develop ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. Permaculture has three core ethical principles:
- care of the earth – reduce our consumption;
- care of people – without consuming unnecessary resources; and
- fair share – balance what we take and what we give.
Permaculture now stands for “Permanent Culture” because its principles have been extended to encompass many other areas, including designing farms, woodlands, sustainable communities, towns and cities.
A Permaculture Guild is a community of mutually beneficial plants that reduces the gardener’s work and also helps wildlife and the environment. Guilds can be incorporated in the home garden. The guild provides disease control, fertilizer, and pollination, which makes the guild healthy and low maintenance.
An apple tree guild is illustrated in Figure 1. An apple tree is at the center of the guild. Circled around the tree is a collection of multi-function plants that will nurture the tree and reduce the need for maintenance, producing more food and flowers and letting Mother Nature do the chores of the gardener.
Figure 1. A typical apple tree guild with: (1) an apple tree; (2) grass-suppressing bulbs; (3) insectary plants; (4) nutrient accumulators; and (5) mulch plants. Adapted from 
Bulbs are planted in a circle around the trunk of the apple tree and at the mature drip line. Bulbs such as daffodils, perennial garlic chives, and fennel will keep grass from growing close to the tree, which reduces the competition for nutrients. This will reduce the need for fertilizer and encourage growth of the apple tree. The bulbs should be spring flowering and ideally have an additional function beyond grass suppression. Daffodils keep deer away, and fennel provides food for the gardener.
Inside the outer ring are plants like dill, fennel, and coriander that attract pollinators and predators that eat pests. They also provide edible herbs for the gardener. Soft-leafed plants like comfrey, clovers, nasturtiums, and others are included to provide natural mulch. These can be slashed and left to compost in place, providing nutrients, attracting worms, and suppressing disease. Nasturtiums also repel pests. Also included are plants that accumulate nutrients, such as chicory, dandelions, and yarrow. Nitrogen fixers like clover, alfalfa, beans, and peas can also be planted inside the ring, and nitrogen fixing shrubs can be planted just outside the edge of the dripline.
Each of the elements in the guild performs one or more tasks. Working together, the guild is a system that produces a healthy apple tree, increasing yield and reducing the need for the gardener to water, spray, fertilize, pollinate, and mulch.
A mature apple tree guild is pictured in Figure 2. It includes currants, fennel, mint and comfrey. I would love to have such a healthy and beautiful apple tree! Now if only this lazy gardener could find someone to plant the guild for me…
Figure 2. A mature apple tree. From .
- Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition, 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing, Kindle Edition.
- Permaculture One, Holmgren and Mollison (1978).
- Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Mollison (1988).
- David Holmgren’s website: https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/
- Urban Harvest in Houston offers a series of permaculture classes and hands-on training http://urbanharvest.org/permaculture/