The inspiration of summer gardening is upon us. Walk into just about any store and you’ll find an abundant array of plants to inspire your weekend activities, but you may find that what you plant one summer doesn’t live long enough to make it to the next summer. Once the novelty of summer wears off, you may forget about the plants—they get covered up, stepped on or mowed over; or maybe pests chomp them up before they have a chance to establish themselves.
There is a better way to plant—a way that will help your garden continue to prosper and grow. A guild is a simple concept, and you don’t need to live on a farm or have a big green thumb to plant one. A guild is simply a group of plants that come together to support each other. Guild planting is a method that helps reduce how much watering you need to do and how much protection you need to provide for your plants. Guilds also decrease the likelihood of pest invasions and increase soil fertility. In other words, guilds are great for lazy gardeners because they are somewhat self-maintaining.
Why do plant guilds work? When we group plants together in a guild, the plants help to protect each other (think about how a clump of plants is more likely to be noticed whereas single plants are more likely to get stepped on or cut down). Guilds can also help create a habitat for bees and beneficial insects; and they can help generate compost—which increases soil health and fertility. Instead of planting random plants here and there, we plant guilds with the intention that the plants in a guild will help each other grow.
The first known guild planting comes from various Native American groups in North America and is called “The Three Sisters” guild. The Three Sisters is made up of 3 plants: corn, beans, and squash. Corn is used as a trellis; beans are used to add nitrogen to the soil; and squash is used to create mulch. The Three Sisters guild actually produces more food, with less water and fertilizer, than a similar area planted to any one of these three crops in isolation.
The Three Sisters is an easy guild to create. Choose a full sun spot and prepare your soil for planting. Mark out a series of planting holes about 5 feet apart. This is going to be your guild location and these are the holes in which you will plant your corn. You can make your guild as big or small as you want, but use at least a 10’x10’ area. Place 3-4 corn kernels into each hole, cover with an inch of soil. After the corn sprouts, start mounding the soil up around the young stalks. Don’t cover the sprouts; rather, just build up earth around the base. Don’t thin the corn either; you want two or three stalks per mound. After 2 weeks, plant the pole beans (not a bush variety) and the squash. Plant 2-3 bean seeds into each corn mound. In between each corn/bean mound, create another mound (see diagram) and plant 3-4 squash seeds in each new mound. The Three Sisters guild will need to be watered regularly. After harvests, leave the stalks, vines, and other organic debris on the ground to compost. Doing this “quick compost” returns some of the extracted fertility back into the soil and protects the ground from erosion.
Go wild with guilds! There are many themes and ideas you can implement when designing your guild. You can do a “Spaghetti Sauce Guild” where central plants will be tomatoes and peppers, and around them grow basil, oregano, parsley, and chives. From this guild you can harvest everything you need to make a yummy tomato sauce. Or do a “A Bee & Tea Guild” where the central plant is a linden tree and around it are echinacea, mint, lovage, rosa rugosa, and fennel. This guild will provide you with a wonderful bee habitat and produce many fine herbs with which you can make tea.
One last tip: you should plant guilds not just because of beauty but because of beneficial relationships. Every guild should include two staple plants—comfrey and crimson clover. Comfrey leaves can be cut down a few times each summer and are used to mulch the ground, while crimson clover is a ground cover that attracts beneficial insects.
About Green Cleaning Seattle
Gea Bassett is the founder and owner of Green Cleaning Seattle - Otium-Maid Services (GCS), an eco-safe home cleaning company in Seattle. She has an MA in Sustainable Education from Goddard College, a permaculture design certificate from PermacultureNOW. Her company’s mission is to continually expand and improve on what it means to be a “green business” by injecting a sustainable mission into every element, including using natural products, reducing carbon footprint, growing local, providing continuing education for her employees, and beyond - by being “Greener Than Just the Products [They] Use.”