by John Carr

You could think of guilds as companion planting taken to the next level, companion planting plus. Companion plants assist each other and work together to promote each other’s health. A guild does this in terms of a entire ecosystem, in fact it’s an ecosystem in miniature. In a natural ecosystem each of its parts e.g. a tree, shrub, vine, ground cover plant or fungus plays many roles, and is linked to other parts in multiple ways. Microbes, animals, spiders, birds, soil chemistry and so on are all essential to the vitality of the ecosystem and the multiple linkages between the elements make for a system that is more robust and that can adapt to challenges and changes. The guild is a human attempt to replicate this, at the same time swaying it to our needs and wishes.

At Lyneham Commons guilds form part of the way we go about designing the food forest. Commonly guilds are identified in terms of the largest element, e.g. a fruit tree, so apple guild, plum guild, pomegranate guild etc. In the design process we firstly make decisions about what functions or products we would like from the guild, food obviously but also ‘ecosystem services’ such habitat for wildlife, nitrogen fixing, food for bees, things that repel disease and predatory insects. And in our case providing social activities that are fun, educational and community building could also be considered as ecosystem services. Other possible products include timber, fibre for weaving and medicinal plants. The identified functions are what make the guild design a living, breathing, evolving network. A natural ecosystem doesn’t import pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers to maintain its members’ health, and ideally a good guild design will do the same, producing a system that is resilient, low/no maintenance and self-sustaining, including in such things as water and nutrients.

Again by contrast to companion planting, a guild is something that acts in four dimensions. Some guild designers include seven or even nine vertical layers in space: canopy/tall trees, sub-canopy/large shrubs, shrubs, herbs, groundcovers/creepers, underground layer e.g. root crops, wetlands, fungi. It’s by no means necessary to have all these layers present in a design, but it provides a useful way to structure the design process and look for possible gaps in the system. And generally speaking the more layers the greater the variety and so the greater the resilience of the system, provided they are well selected to integrate with each other. The fourth dimension, time, is also present as we consider how the balance of selected species will evolve during the life of the project e.g. nitrogen fixing and breaking up compacted soil might be important in the early stages, or we might consider how guild elements function in different seasons e.g. species that flower at different times to attract and feed bees for an extended period, or provide berries, fruit and nuts in a staggered sequence so we don’t get all our gluts at once.

At Lyneham Commons guilds are also a way of managing the site and our human resources, as we use them as small islands or centres of growth which in time will run together to form larger continuous strips of ‘forest’.