My first food forest guild.

One of the reasons I find permaculture so useful is because it provides a systematic framework for what I have already instinctively been doing in a hit-or-miss fashion for years.  For example, my husband used to think it was kind of weird that I mulched in all my flower and vegetable beds with grass clippings all summer; neither of us had heard of other people doing that, but it just seemed instinctively right to me.  Lo and behold, I find lots of permies do this too!

However, there are many novel growing techniques that I’m learning from permaculture, and the one that fascinates me the most is the idea of planting a food forest in guilds.

Here is a good explanation of what polyculture food forest guilds are:

Permaculture is based on natural systems like those that we see in forests.  In a forest system, there are mulitple layers of vegetation growing together in a very diverse setting.  We see many types of trees, shrubs, plants, insects, animals, and various other things all living together in a system that continually strengthens itself.  All of these components of a natural ecosystem serve a function (or several functions) that support each other like the strands of a web.  One strand on its own may be weak, but the combination of all the strands together add to the overall strength and usefulness of the web.

In order to mimic these natural systems and to provide for human needs (i.e. food, building supplies, fuel, fibers, etc.) we must learn to identify and work with the various functions of our natural resources.  This is where the concept of the “Permaculture Guild” comes from.  A guild is usually defined as an association of people working toward a common goal.  In Permaculture, a guild is a grouping a plants, animals, insects, and other natural components that also work together to help ensure their survival.  Instead of planting gardens, Permaculture teaches us how to “build guilds”.  Instead of teaching about specific plants, we teach about the plant’s functions.  This is why Permaculture can work throughout the whole world.  It is a guide for design rather than a “how-to” type of agriculture.

The basic design of a guild generally follows some variation on this theme:

I’ve put together the beginnings of my first guild and I thought I’d share it.  Behind our house is a mature full-size pear tree, which is currently loaded with baby pears:

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I did not add a dwarf fruit tree because the area is rather shady and prone to deer visits.  Instead I put in red currant and gooseberry shrubs because they like partial shade:

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I was thrilled to find the currant shrubs; when I lived in Russia one summer, I learned to love red and black currants as Russians are crazy about them.  They go into the forests and gather large pails of them, and you can buy them in all the open-air markets.  I always wondered why we don’t have currant bushes in Michigan as our climate is not dissimilar to some parts of Russia, so I did a little investigating, and it turns out that for many years, it was actually illegal to grow currants in the U.S. due to a fungal infection they can carry which completes part of its life cycle on White Pines.  The fungus does not seriously harm the currants, but it causes a “rust” on the pines that eventually kills them (you can read more about this here).

However, several varieties of red currants and gooseberries have been bred that are resistant to White Pine Blister Rust, and it is once again legal in some states to grow them.  In Michigan, black currants can only be grown with a special license, but red currants and gooseberries can be grown without a permit in certain counties provided they are the resistant cultivars:

Under the currants, I planted rhubarb:

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Rabbits, deer, and other critters do not much care for rhubarb, and the leaves are toxic (we only eat the stalks), so there was no need to fence around these.  Rhubarb is one of the few perennial vegetables (yes, it is actually a veggie and not a fruit), so I think it’s a natural fit in a permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) guild.

I then mulched everything heavily with grass clippings to keep down weeds, keep the soil moist, and to nourish the rhubarb, which is a heavy feeder.

So here’s my guild thus far:

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I still want to add a “ground cover” layer which may end up being strawberries if I can’t figure out something better to plant, though strawberries may not love the partial shade here.

The only harvest I’ll get from the guild this year is pears, but next year I hope I’ll be making and canning lots of pectin-free strawberry rhubarb jam!

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The gift of wild food plants.

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (Genesis 1:29)

Wandering around on our property recently, I found a little patch of asparagus growing wild, probably one of the old heirloom varieties like Mary Washington, a gift from a bird whose droppings planted the seeds.  I weeded around it and put a marker down:

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I love asparagus, but everyone else in my family hates it, so I didn’t plan to put in an asparagus bed since everything I’ve read online about growing it makes it seem like a fussy plant that requires constant weeding and mulching.  So it’s funny that as I wandered around our property, I found even more asparagus growing wild!  Here’s one that popped up behind a tree and is already beginning to flower:

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We’ve also got no end of wild strawberries everywhere:

imageI’ve decided to mark off a few sections to let the wild strawberries spread in that we’ll only mow at the end of the summer.  It’s also time to start hunting morel mushrooms in the boggy section of our woods.  Wild strawberries, wild asparagus, and morel mushrooms are three things that grow very well all by themselves in Michigan.  Finding them growing on our property is quite thrilling and takes me back to childhood, when less of our state was covered in subdivisions filled with Chem-lawns.

Now if only I could find a few Sassafras trees growing on our land, my trip down memory lane back to childhood would be complete!  I remember spending hours playing in the woods and fields of West Michigan with my friends as a child, picking Sassafras leaves and sucking on the stems, and I now find even the smell of Sassafras to be evocative.  I think I shall try to find a nursery that sells them if I can, for what could be nicer than hot Sassafras tea by the fire next winter?