Back in March of 2010, we went to a Transition Town Peterborough Permaculture presentation. At one point, the presenter was talking about plant guilds and was drawing on the blackboard a garden with a fruit tree at the centre of it. That sparked some thinking on my part about the orchard. I’ve never been really comfortable with the aesthetics of it. It seemed very open, sparse and lonely. And the grass/weed combination was pretty ratty. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that despite the variety of fruit trees, the orchard was a monoculture of fruit trees. Insects would feast on all of the trees more or less equally. Additionally, while the flowering period was wonderful for pollinators, there was nothing for pollinators for the rest of the growing season.
A guild is a harmonious assembly of plants (but it could be plants and animals) the essential characteristic being a diverse mixture (polyculture) whose elements all have a purpose. The plants are chosen to be beneficial to each other, and so it is similar to companion planting.
As with the forest garden, the design of guilds makes use of the advantages that the natural world provides such as below ground the nitrogen fixation and mycorrhizal fungi, and the dynamic accumulators such as comfrey. Above ground are flowers and berries that attract insects and birds – our natural allies in pest control. The physical structure of the guild may also allow it to provide shelter from winds and frost. It may also throw shade that could serve a purpose.
We had already decided to add another row in the orchard with mulberries, crab apples, and hazel nuts. We decided that we would polyculture the row. After some discussion, we decided to lightly rototill to kill the surface weeds and then put down cardboard to prevent anything coming up. We then alternated layers of mulched leaves, straw, and mature compost.
We didn’t have any grass clippings to add but weren’t too concerned that the garden might be lacking in nitrogen since the beans that we were planting fixed nitrogen from the air.
We capped off the planting area with a 4″ layer of pure mature green waste compost. The red mulberry in the picture to the right was planted into a pocket of pure mature compost. By the time its roots start to spread out, the surrounding less composted plant material will have rotted down. We planted the mulberry high and surrounded it by a moat to retain water. We will continue to add compost material to the surrounding area and build it up in height over time. As we do, the mulberry will no longer be sitting high.
In the back of the garden, we planted a number of bush varieties of winter squash – Golden Nugget, Table Queen, Delicata, Sweet Reba, and Sweet Dumpling. We wanted to see how compact they were. We also planted two summer squashes – Black Beauty Zucchini and Yellow Zucchini. In front of them, we planted bush beans – Jacob’s Cattle, Golden Rocky, Provider, and Royal Burgundy. Because they would be ready before the winter squash, we could easily reach them by putting them in front of the winter squash.
By July the garden was doing well, much better than we could have hope for although we were beginning to see the first surprise of the season. The vine that is escaping from the garden to the right is a volunteer from seeds that over-wintered in our compost. Since it was growing away from the garden into an untended area, we decided to leave it.
A less benign surprise was a critter which began digging in the garden. When some of the maturing squash showed claw marks, we concluded that we had a raccoon who was digging for treats under the grass clipping mulch. A bit of research into natural animal repellents and I came across human urine. A bit more digging and I discovered that it was also a good fertiliser. Since it was the right price and I had an endless supply, I got out a 2 litre Coke bottle and started to stock up. Exchanging the Coke bottle top for a dish detergent top and I had a dispenser. After a couple of days of application, we had no more digging in the garden!
One of our plant volunteers turned out to be a pumpkin which was welcome. These unrecognisable volunteers required a bit of research to figure out what we were looking at. We determined which of the squash that we grew last year were capable of crossing. It turns out that these are a cross between a Table Queen Acorn squash and a Black Beauty zucchini squash. Unfortunately, it had none of the characteristics of either. It has very hard and had no taste.
Looking back at the experiment, it was an unqualified success. We got a huge garden area for very little effort and material in an area that had rocks and subsoil before we started. The heavy use of grass clippings as a mulch made for virtually no weeding and not much watering. We were pleased with the beans and squash that we grew although we’ll give the squash a lot more room this year even though they are a bush variety. The mulberries, crab apples, and hazel nuts all thrived. Having these kinds of beds means that we’ll be able to dedicate our more formal raised beds to crops that can be planted very intensely and/or need depth such as carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic, etc. And these guild gardens will be home to nitrogen building legumes such as bush beans, bush peas, soybeans, and fava beans as well as bush squash and tomatoes. The space will allow us to isolate the tomatoes from each other which will increase the probability of harvested seeds coming true. The isolation should also reduce the chance of an outbreak of blight affecting all of the tomato plants.
We were pleased enough and learned enough that we’re going to do another guild garden in the orchard while also growing more in this one.
The complete pictorial story of the 2010 guild garden is here.