Living off the land: How to start a permaculture garden
06/09/2021 / By Joanne Washburn / Comments
Living off the land: How to start a permaculture garden

Many home gardeners create their gardens with the goal of growing certain crops or flowers. But have you ever considered what it means to start a garden that can actually give back to the environment? That’s where permaculture comes in.

Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in natural systems, such as that seen in forests. In a forest system, you get many layers of vegetation growing together in a diverse setting. You get various types of trees, shrubs and plants, and with those come insects and animals.

All of these components of an ecosystem serve one or more functions. This enables them to support each other. Think of it as a kind of web. One strand on its own may be weak. But combined, the strands add to the strength and usefulness of the web. This is more or less the same operating principle behind a permaculture garden.

This emphasis on plant diversity and the role of local ecosystems in sustaining plants distinguish permaculture gardens from your typical backyard garden or farm.

How do permaculture guilds work?

The term “permaculture” literally means “permanent agriculture” and refers to the cycling that happens within permaculture guilds.

In permaculture, a guild is a group of plants, trees and shrubs that work together to ensure high yield, ward off pests and enrich the soil, similar to how “guilds” refer to groups of people working toward a common goal.

Permaculture guilds are built to mimic arrangements seen in natural systems. As such, they provide all sorts of resources, such as food, medicinal plants, wood, fibers and clean air.

Here are some of the things permaculture guilds can do for you and the environment:

1. Guilds allow you to diversify your diet.

By building a guild, you help improve the environment for your main or anchor crop and increase its yield. You also get to enjoy a variety of plants for food. Variety is key to a balanced diet.

Guilds work twofold. On the one hand, you increase the amount of food you get back by growing edible or medicinal companions with your anchor crop.

On the other hand, you get to increase the productivity and quality of your anchor crop by growing it alongside supporting species that help enrich the soil or deter pests.

2. Guilds help enrich the soil.

Plants get nutrients from the soil, so soil quality is key to a thriving garden. Unfortunately, planting just one or two crops, as is the case with commercial agriculture, depletes soil nutrients. Too many of the same plant species in one field rob the soil of nutrients, resulting in fewer bacteria and microorganisms that help maintain the fertility of the soil.

This is not a problem with permaculture guilds. Guilds house different plant species that work together, bringing diverse functions to the table in order to regenerate the soil.

For example, legumes, such as peas and beans, absorb nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil. Nitrogen gives plants the energy to grow and produce fruit or vegetables.

Meanwhile, tap-rooted plants, such as borage and dandelion, reach deep into the soil, harvesting minerals that are too deep for short-rooted plants to reach. Tap-rooted plants can then disperse those minerals into the topsoil so that other plants can utilize them.

3. Guilds make good use of both space and time.

Guilds are a great space-saving solution for gardeners with cramped backyards. But even if space isn’t an issue, guilds allow you to use every inch of outdoor space you have to ensure a high yield.

And since plants mature at different rates, you’re guaranteed a steady supply of fruits and vegetables year-round.

4. Guilds eliminate the need for pesticides.

Growing just one species of crop is practically an open invitation for pests to feast on that field. This is why lots of commercial farmers spray pesticides liberally over their fields.

With permaculture guilds, plants keep each other safe from pests. Some plants, when grown together, ward off pests unique to the other. In other words, guilds come with a kind of built-in pest control function. And even if one plant species does get wiped out by a pest, the rest of your guild won’t be affected.

5. Guilds are multi-functional.

Guilds don’t just serve as a source of food and medicinal plants. They also serve as habitats for birds, beneficial insects and small mammals. They also provide shade and wind protection and serve as privacy barriers.

6. Guilds “harvest” rainwater.

When you grow more plants, you cover the soil. This cover helps prevent run-off when it rains. In other words, the plants get to “harvest” rainwater, preventing it from running down slopes in your garden to elsewhere.

When you build a guild, you also need to dig a ditch around the anchor plant and mulch it. This ditch serves as a kind of rain collection point to keep your anchor plant moist. Some gardeners also build fruit tree guilds on slopes to cycle rainwater back into fruit and vegetable guilds, thus preventing water waste and soil erosion.

How to build a permaculture guild

When building a permaculture guild, it’s important to design the guild before planting anything since you need to consider both time and space.

Here’s an easy guide to getting started on your own permaculture guild:

  • Choose an anchor – In a guild, your anchor plant is surrounded by companion species that help or benefit the anchor. An anchor can be a vegetable plant or a fruit tree. The companion species you’ll choose will vary depending on the anchor you have.
  • Grow a variety of plants – Forests have a variety of plants, such as tall trees, short trees, shrubs, flowers, low-level herbs and vines. Guilds aim to mimic natural systems like forests. So, you have to grow a variety of plants as well. Look up which plants go well with which.
  • Prepare for existing problems – Guilds aren’t immune to problems like too little or too much water, too little or too much shade and aggressive weeds, to name a few. So it pays to research what type of plants can address one or more of these problems and integrate them into your guild design accordingly.
  • Make good use of space – With permaculture guilds, you’re not limited to growing plants in perfectly spaced rows. Start from the center with your anchor plant and grow plants outwards from there. Fill negative spaces with ground cover plants or grow shrubs in spaces too small for growing more crops.
  • Mulch the ditch around the anchor – Create a ditch around your anchor plant. This serves as a sunken bed for planting more crops. It also helps hold water. Make sure to mulch this so that the anchor’s roots don’t get exposed.

Permaculture gardening places a lot of emphasis on care – care for plants, the environment and people. Gardeners who cultivate permaculture gardens are extra mindful of their garden’s impact on their local environment. They observe how natural systems work and apply what they learned to their gardens.

At the end of the day, you’ll give a little and gain a lot with permaculture. Start your own guilds today by following the tips above for a thriving, sustainable garden that gives back to the environment.


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