with Tao Orion
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
Permaculture design is all about mimicking natural systems. It is possible to work with ecological succession to create biodiverse and functional landscapes. In order to go about this, it’s helpful to understand the ways that natural systems organize themselves. This mini class will explore the details that will help you to make the best decisions.
Mimicking the forest at home: guilds and forest gardening
When we’re designing the home landscape, we can think of fruit and nut trees as the late successional species in our garden ecosystems. In natural ecosystems, there are generally many types of species assemblages that lay the groundwork, allowing for these larger, longer-lived species to thrive.
Using the permaculture principle of working with and enhancing succession, we can mimic this process by planting different types of plants that enhance the ecosystem that the trees will grow in. This type of planting is known as a guild, which refers to an association of plants that are all working together toward a common purpose: In this case, enhancing the growth of the fruit or nut tree. In permaculture we are always looking to maximize yields, so these support species always have their own intrinsic value and yields.
In the pear tree guild pictured above, the pear tree is the central element. It is surrounded by fruiting shrubs including gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) and currants (Ribes sativum). Nitrogen-fixing plants including autumn olive (Eleaganus umbellata) and Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) add fertility to the soil, and provide nectar for pollinators. Autumn olives are edible (and delicious!), and Siberian peashrub pods are great forage for chickens.
Underneath the straw mulch, comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and rhizomes are planted. Comfrey makes an excellent perennial living mulch that can be chopped and laid down around the base of the plantings. Over time, this aids fertility and keep grasses and weeds at bay. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is also planted under the mulch. With its deep taproots, horseradish helps penetrate compacted and heavy soils, allowing water and organic matter to move deep into the soil, right where the pear roots need it most. Horseradish is also delicious!
In summary, this guild consists of pear, gooseberry, autumn olive, Siberian peashrub, comfrey, and horseradish.
Each of these plants is multifunctional, and all together they create a very diverse ecosystem centered around the pear tree. Eventually, many of these species will die or become less productive as the pear tree canopy grows and the leaf shade deepens. But in the meantime, there are plenty of yields!
Guild plantings are part of the concept of forest gardening, which mimics the layers of a natural forest ecosystem with species people want in their home garden spaces.
Layers of a guild:
Another key element of forest gardening is keeping the soil covered at all times. In a natural forest ecosystem, there is a deep layer of mulch laid down over time from decomposing leaves and needles. This mulch layer maintains fertility and moisture, and provides habitat for microorganisms that contribute to the health of the forest.
Many permaculture-based gardens employ this deep mulch strategy in beds designated for annual production. Pioneering gardener Ruth Stout popularized the deep mulch system for annual gardens, which eliminate the need for tilling or otherwise exposing the soil.
A permaculture-based approach to food production seeks to meet our needs for food, medicine, fiber, and building materials, without diminishing the natural world. Planting guilds and forest gardens are part of the solution, but examining how annual crops are grown is also important.
Identify three or more plants you would like to include in a guild or forest garden section of your permaculture design. What are their functions and / or level in this section. How do these plants support each other and the broader system around them?
This miniclass is excerpted from the Plants, Forests and Cultivated Ecologies module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Tao Orion.
Tao Orion is the author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. She teaches permaculture design at Oregon State University and at Aprovecho, a 40-acre nonprofit sustainable-living educational organization. Tao consults on holistic farm, forest, and restoration planning through Resilience Permaculture Design, LLC. She holds a degree in agroecology and sustainable agriculture from UC Santa Cruz, and grows organic fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and animals on her southern Willamette Valley homestead, Viriditas Farm. She teaches the “Plants, Forests and Cultivated Ecologies” module in the online permaculture course offered by Permaculture Women’s Guild.
Further reading on this topic:
Orion, Tao. Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
Stout, Ruth, and Richard V. Clemence. The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Rodale Press, 1975.
Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources University of California Press, 2013.
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