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Unlocking the Secrets of Plant Guilds for Native Gardening, Food Forests, and Reforestation Efforts

Gardening and reforestation efforts are not just about planting trees and flowers; they're about creating ecosystems. One of the concepts that has gained traction in permaculture, native gardening, and reforestation is the use of Plant Guilds. In this blog post, we’ll delve into what plant guilds are, and how they can be an invaluable tool for both native gardening and reforestation efforts.


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What are Plant Guilds?

Imagine a group of plants that support each other in growth, much like a group of friends. That's essentially what a plant guild is – a thoughtfully chosen community of plants that beneficially interact, providing each other with nutrients, shade, root space, and other needs.

Plant guilds emulate natural ecosystems. In nature, plants don’t grow in isolation. They are part of complex communities, where different species affect each other’s growth and survival. By understanding and using plant guilds, gardeners and reforesters can create more resilient and self-sustaining plantings.


diverse native forest

Benefits of Using Plant Guilds

  • Supporting Growth: Some plants enrich the soil, providing essential nutrients for neighboring plants.

  • Pest Control: Certain plants can deter pests, reducing the need for chemical interventions.

  • Maximizing Space: Combining deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants ensures efficient use of space and nutrients.

  • Preserving Soil: Ground covers in a guild can help prevent soil erosion.

  • Increasing Biodiversity: A variety of plants means a variety of wildlife, promoting a balanced ecosystem.

Building a Plant Guild: The Layers

When creating a plant guild, think of it as building layers. These layers are often based on how plants naturally grow in a forest setting:

  1. Canopy Trees: These are the tall trees that make up the upper layer of the planting. In reforestation, native trees that are adapted to local conditions are ideal.

  2. Understory Trees: Shorter trees that thrive in the dappled light beneath the canopy.

  3. Shrubs: These are woody plants, smaller than trees, that help to fill in the space.

  4. Herbaceous Plants: Non-woody plants, such as wildflowers and herbs. These often attract pollinators and can have medicinal properties.

  5. Ground Covers: Low growing plants that cover the soil, helping to retain soil moisture and prevent erosion.

  6. Vines and Climbers: Plants that climb up trees and shrubs, often providing a vertical element to the planting.

  7. Root Crops: Plants that are grown for their roots. These plants can help to break up compacted soil.

Implementing Plant Guilds in Native Gardening and Reforestation


Native Gardening

For native gardening, focus on native species that have evolved to grow together. For example, you might plant a native oak tree as your canopy, with an understory of native dogwood and shrubs such as elderberry. Herbaceous perennials like goldenrod can attract pollinators, while native ground covers such as creeping phlox can keep the soil moist.


Reforestation

In reforestation, plant guilds are essential for creating a forest that is not just a collection of trees but an ecosystem. Focus on native trees that are fast-growing and hardy for your canopy and understory. Integrate shrubs that can stabilize the soil and attract wildlife. Ground covers are particularly important for protecting the soil until the trees grow large enough to provide shade.


Example Plant Guilds

1. Apple Tree Guild

The apple tree guild is designed around an apple tree as the central element.

  • Canopy: Apple Tree

  • Understory Tree: Nitrogen-fixing shrubs such as Goumi or Seaberry

  • Shrubs: Gooseberry or Currant

  • Herbaceous Plants: Comfrey (dynamic accumulator), Yarrow (attracts beneficial insects), Dill (attracts pollinators)

  • Ground Covers: Clovers (nitrogen-fixing)

  • Root Crops: Horseradish (pest deterrent)

  • Vines: Climbing Nasturtiums or Annual Beans

2. Native North American Forest Guild

This guild mimics a natural forest ecosystem in North America.

  • Canopy: White Oak or Northern Red Oak

  • Understory Tree: American Persimmon, or Pawpaw

  • Shrubs: American Hazelnut, Spicebush

  • Herbaceous Plants: Wild Bergamot, Echinacea (both attract pollinators)

  • Ground Covers: Wild Ginger, Ramps

  • Vines: American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)

3. Tropical Food Forest Guild

This guild is designed for tropical climates and focuses on food production.

  • Canopy: Coconut Palm or Mango Tree

  • Understory Tree: Banana or Papaya

  • Shrubs: Pineapple, Chaya (Mexican Tree Spinach)

  • Herbaceous Plants: Taro, Lemongrass

  • Ground Covers: Sweet Potato (edible leaves and tubers)

  • Vines: Passionfruit or Climbing Yam

  • Root Crops: Ginger or Turmeric

4. Mediterranean Climate Guild

This guild is suited for a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters.

  • Canopy: Olive Tree

  • Understory Tree: Pomegranate

  • Shrubs: Lavender (attracts pollinators), Rosemary

  • Herbaceous Plants: Thyme, Oregano

  • Ground Covers: White Clover, Alfalfa (both nitrogen-fixing)

  • Root Crops: Garlic (pest deterrent)

5. Urban Permaculture Guild

This guild is designed for small urban spaces, like a backyard or community garden.

  • Canopy: Dwarf Fruit Trees (such as Apple or Cherry)

  • Understory Tree: Serviceberry

  • Shrubs: Blueberries, Red Currants

  • Herbaceous Plants: Calendula (attracts pollinators), Basil

  • Ground Covers: Strawberry, Dutch White Clover

  • Vines: Grapes or Hops

  • Root Crops: Carrots or Beets

Remember, these are just examples and can be modified according to your specific region, climate, and goals. It's important to choose plants that are well-suited to your local conditions and to observe how they interact with each other.


Conclusion

Plant guilds are a powerful tool for anyone looking to create a thriving, resilient garden or forest. By understanding the relationships between different plants and replicating these natural partnerships, we can work with nature rather than against it. Not only does this approach often result in healthier, more robust plantings, but it also supports a richer web of life, including beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife.


When you start integrating plant guilds into your native garden or reforestation project, patience is key. It might take some time for the plant community to establish and for the benefits to become visible. But as your plant guilds grow and develop, you'll likely find that they require less maintenance and intervention.


Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn. Every piece of land is unique, and finding the perfect combination of plants that support each other can sometimes be a trial and error process.

In conclusion, whether you’re a backyard gardener or involved in large-scale reforestation, employing the concept of plant guilds can yield remarkable results. It allows us to cultivate spaces that are not only beautiful and productive but also regenerative and in harmony with the natural world.

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