Plant Guilds

On the docket this week : plant guilds. This idea builds off of the concept of a forest ecosystem, and is similar in many ways to companion planting.

A guild is a group of plants that work harmoniously together to support a central species. It is made up of plants performing different jobs like fixing nitrogen, bringing up nutrients from depth and re-depositing them at the surface, and providing shade and mulch for water retention. The support species are chosen based on what the central species needs, but must work together to support one another the way that a forest provides for its own needs.

The central species tends to be a larger tree or shrub, fruit or flower-bearing, or a favored main crop (like tomatoes). There are a few candidates on my mind for central species around our property like:

  • Paper birch – we already have many of these around, and I would love to support these beautiful trees (that we also tap for sap) with plants that would thrive in the shady leaf-filled “plant-shadows” at their bases.
  • Honeyberry – these grow well here and and produce many fruits throughout the summer, and would provide fodder for our honeybees. Note that honeyberries must be in proximity to other, unrelated honeyberries to produce. If you use these as a central species, make sure to plant a few, and make sure there are different strains.
  • Chokecherry – these are early flowering shrubs/trees, among the first to pop in the spring, and produce a lot of flowers (which smell like heaven). These are great for early nectar flow for our bees.
  • Amur maple – this ornamental shrub/tree provides some difference in the yard among the predominant spruce, aspen, and birch. The leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall. We actually planted one of these in the front last year, and I’d be happy to provide it with a support system!
  • Apples – some folks around town have been successfully growing apples, grafting hardy fruiting stock with a Siberian root stock (I think). They’re small, but how cool is it to grow apples here?! It takes a bit for them to fruit, but it’s something I’d like to try…
  • European Dwarf Cherry – a shrub producing tart, but tasty cherries in abundance.
  • Saskatoon (serviceberry) – produces many sweet small fruits, and is native to the region.
  • European black currant – a relative of the native Northern black currant, produces berries, and supposedly can be used for dyes.
  • Alaska wild rose – produces beautiful flowers and rose hips high in vitamin C. They are some of my favorites to have around the yard as they bloom for most of the summer and are great for the bees!
  • Raspberry – who wouldn’t want raspberries, really? Flower producer, good berry producer, and you can make tea from their leaves.
  • High bush cranberry – another yummy native species!

Some of the jobs available for support species are:

  • Providing mulch: living ground covers such as nasturtium and clover that help to retain moisture in the soil
  • Hosting predators: many small flowering plants attract beneficial insects that prey on pest species
  • Fixing nitrogen: certain species grab nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, making it available to other plants
  • Dynamic accumulators: deep-rooted plants that loosen the soil and access nutrients unavailable to shallow-rooted plants, and stores these in their leaves. When the leaves drop and break down, the nutrients become available to the shallow-rooted species.

So how to know what plants will work well with others? Observation and experimentation! Luckily, the Alaskan Permaculture Guild (APG) has started to compile a number of plant guilds for our region, though most are populated with species that do well in Southcentral Alaska and is not particularly geared towards the Interior. Fairbanks has a strong gardening community, and I will be inquiring around during my design process to harvest one of our most valuable resources – local knowledge!

Here’s a first stab at creating a plant guild around honeyberries, because I know they will be an integral species in my berry zone, and I have a friend who has volunteered to give me some cuttings of hers to try.

Central species: Honeyberry (haskap) – hardy, drought tolerant, few pest and disease issues, produces edible fruit. Compact 5-foot shrubs that must be planted together, with different species of honeyberry (preferably 4-6 together), to produce fruit. Since it is a fruiting plant requiring cross-pollination, a focus of this guild needs to be attracting pollinators.

Support species:

  • Hyssop: attracts pollinators, especially bees, medicinal
  • Borage: attracts pollinators, especially bees, medicinal, edible
  • Coreopsis: flowering perennial that is a great dye plant!
  • Yarrow: flowering perennial, pest confuser, decent dye plant
  • Fireweed: flowering perennial, attracts pollinators
  • Comfrey: Deep-rooter that works as a dynamic accumulator, medicinal
  • Lupine: attracts pollinators and nitrogen fixer. Also one of my favorite flowers!
  • Strawberries: ground cover and fruit producer
  • Red clover: attracts pollinators, nitrogen fixer

Having both strawberries and clover might be too much, but we’ll see. I like the idea of having a spreading ground cover that produces fruit and attracts pollinators (strawberries), but I’m not sure the lupines will be enough to do all the nitrogen fixing for the area since they will be clustered throughout, not as prevalent as the clover. I like most things I plant to work in multiple ways, which is why I’m focusing on edibles, medicinals, and dye plants.

Can’t wait until gardening season!

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