Deep Relationships | SustenanceNW
Recording Guild Basics Three E's of Guild Design Guild Roles Wild Ecology Assessment
31 gardening plant communities slides.pdf PNW-Wild-Ecology-Analysis.pdf

A guild is a mutually-supporting community of plants, and with some basic principles they are easy to create. Gardening with guilds of plants has enormous benefits. Humanity has always worked with plants like this, and you have the knowledge in your bones to do it, too.


Guild Basics

A guild is a mutually-supporting community of plants. In the garden we can learn from healthy ecosystems and arrange plants according to some basic concepts, then mostly allow them to figure out the details. Because we are letting the plants and other share the responsibility, there is a lot less work for us. Not only that, but exchange for relinquishing our micro-management we get profound benefits - here are a few things a guild can accomplish:

  • Build soil fertility without us adding compost or anything else
  • Increase resistance to pests and diseases
  • Significantly reduce or eliminate weeding
  • Avoid having to plant most of the garden every year
  • Pull CO2 out of the air and sequester it in the soil

Indigenous and traditional peoples all over the world engage with plants at the level of community, in the present and throughout time. Tending the land like this is in our bones - we all have the instincts inside us do it, and our souls stir when we see healthy, diverse abundance of plants.

Growing plant communities can be done just about anywhere - a tiny version can be grown in a planter, a larger version can grow in a little garden bed, or an entire garden can be planted into various kinds of plant communities.

The Three E’s


The spread of turf grass (and other creeping plants, like buttercups) is a universal force in the garden. Not specifically planning for this force is one of the most common reasons why guilds fail. We have three choices, and a single garden may use all of these in different beds.

When planning a guild, pick one of these options:

  • Option 1: Plan for routine labor-intensive weeding.
  • Option 2: Make a wall of Castle Plants to block encroachment of grass and buttercups, and maintain a thick cover of mulch to prevent germination of grass seeds.
  • Option 3: Choose plants that can thrive amidst grass and buttercups.


When planning a guild, note the following:

  1. An area of the garden that is a size you can commit to getting well-established.
  2. Which no-till technique you will use to get the area ready for planting. See this video for all the possibilities. Spoiler alert… having some kind of thick mulch is super helpful!

The most labor intensive time in the life of a guild is when it is first planted and tended while the first perennials mature. It is crucial that we invest the time and resources necessary at this stage, so that our work is not wasted. By wisely selecting how much to take on at once, and solidifying it, we make sure that we are truly investing in something that will give returns for years to come.

Key Thoughts

  • Work one area at a time, at a scale you can handle. Once it is established and mostly self-maintaining you’ll have time to move to another area, and eventually you’ll get everything planted! If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, scale back to a comfortable place.
  • Use many different kinds of plants that fill many roles. The more useful diverse the guild is, the more stable it will be.
  • Obtain A Yield: guilds should include many plants that will start giving a yield in year one, so that we don’t burn out waiting years for our investment to begin rewarding us.

Choose at least a few plants to fill each of the guild roles. Pay close attention to the ABC’s: Allstar plants, Biomass plants, and Castle plants. Write down your list!

Scroll to Plant list


When designing a guild, have it in mind that you will need to keep an eye on it.

Plant communities naturally shift and change. With some exception for tightly controlled high maintenance guilds, we should expect that our guilds will undergo changes we do not plan or predict. We can certainly predict that perennials and trees will change as they mature, and the conditions underneath and around them will change, too. We should expect that some of the initial diversity of the guild will disappear, as some plants will die off, so we should make sure to not skip on diversity at the start!

Key thoughts:

  • We should hold our plan loosely, and observe what changes naturally come as the guild becomes established. As bushes, trees, and perennials grow up we will see the process of succession play out on a small scale.

  • A guild will give us feedback as certain plants thrive, others struggle, and some disappear. We can embrace this feedback and make gentle changes to maintain diversity and health in the guild.

  • Because the diversity we start with is almost certain to decrease during the early life of the guild, we should highly value getting as much diversity as we can at the start. As the guild evolves over time we can plug in additional diversity.

Guild Roles

Choose at least a few plants to fill each of the guild roles - some examples are listed here. It may seem daunting, but really it is easy! Just pick a few plants from each category.

A common reason for guilds to fail is getting overrun by grass or other plants, and another common reason is that they don’t grow things we will use so we abandon them! To help our guilds survive and provide for us, it is especially important to focus on the ABC’s: Allstar Plants, Biomass Plants, and Castle Plants.

Allstar Plants

Also called Matrix Plants, these are easy to grow, easy to propagate, and highly useful - plants you can’t kill, and can use in unlimited quantities. Plant these in large quantities to take up the bulk of the space in your guild.

Garlic • Walking Onions • Chives • Green onions • Mints • Strawberries • Useful weeds • Sunchokes • Daylillies • Sorrel • Sweet Cicely • Nettles

Biomass Plants

Also called Mulchmakers Plants, these produce abundant biomass to chop-and-dropped right inside the guild. Keeping a good 4" layer of mulch is crucial to building soil fertility and preventing weed seeds from sprouting.

Cardoon • Sorrels • Pokeweed • Sunchokes • Squash family plants • Rye • Potatoes • Yarrow • Marshmallow • Comfrey • Dock

Castle Plants

Also called Fortress Plants, these are plants that can outcompete turfgrass. When planted thickly around a guild they help stop grasses and other creeping weeds from getting in and taking over.

Thymes • Oregano • Comfrey • Woody perennial herbs • Sorrels • Pennyroyal • Valerian • Walking Onions • Turkish and Sweet Rocket • Chives • Daffodils

Dynamic Accumulators gather nutrients and minerals from the subsoil with their deep roots, eventually making those resources available in the topsoil.

Red Clover • Comfrey • Sorrels • Chicory • Fennel • Yarrow • Valerian • Thistles • Sunflowers • Parsley • Borage • Lambsquarters • Mullein

Ephemeral nutrient cyclers come to life in the winter and then die back in Spring, but in the meantime they provide habitat and hold water-soluble nitrogen in their tissues, keeping them from washing out of the garden.

Walking Onions • Ramps • Miner’s Lettuce • Wild Cresses • Sweet Rocket • Chickweed • Daffodils

nitrogen Fixers rely on a beneficial relationship with microbes that take nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the soil.

Clovers • Goumi • Lupines • Autumn Olive • Sea Buckthorn • Ground Nut • Perennial Pea • Buffaloberry • Beans & Peas • Black Locust • Legumes • Red Alder

Groundcovers protect the soil and help crowd out weeds.

Thymes • Strawberry • Perennial Chamomile • White Clover • Miner’s Lettuce • Wild Cresses

Headache repellants have a strong smell, and can repel headaches like moles, voles, and pest insects.

Nasturtium • Alliums • Wild Marigolds • Elderberry • Daffodils

Insectary plants attract beneficial insects such as pollinators and predatory insects.

Native Plants • Bee Balm • Carrot Family • Most Asters/Sunflowers • Most Mints • Yarrow • Fennel • Dill • Oregano • Thyme

Wild Ecology Assessment

Download the Wild Ecology Assessment worksheet, and explore the structure of local ecologies around you. The more we can load our mind and intuition with understanding of how plants work together, the better we can garden.

Pay attention to spacing, the angle of sunlight, the type of soil… and see if you can piece together the history of the ecology you are looking at. When was the last disturbance? What human and animal influences are there on the land?

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Nothing on this site should be taken as advice for treating or diagnosing any medical condition, and is only shared for educational purposes.