Planting in Guilds: Permaculture Guild Combos

WHAT IS A PLANT GUILD — A plant guild is a specific permaculture method that focuses on a group of specific plants that are chosen and planted together for mutual benefits. The goal of a planting guild is to create a sustainable, mini ecosystem that mimics the relationships found in nature. This permaculture technique is also a great way to provide food (ie. edible plants in a “food forest”) and other resources.

Each plant in a planting guild serves a specific purpose and contributes to the health and productivity of the system as a whole. Guilds can be used in a wide range of settings, from small backyard gardens to large-scale commercial farms, and can be adapted to different climates, soil types and crops.

In her book: The Edible Backyard, gardening expert Kath Irvine explains permaculture principles and organic gardening tips simply for both experienced and novice gardeners looking to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables. Below is an excerpt from the book about planting in guilds…

Words by Kath Irvine, The Edible Backyard


A guild is a team of specific plants that support, protect and nourish each other, working together for the benefit of all (my dream for the world), and it’s taken right out of nature’s book. A guild creates stability and best health because the variety of plants above brings a variety of roots and soil life below. The carefree, wild look belies a carefully crafted, low maintenance, smart garden.

Mutually beneficial relationships bring out the best in us. We are better, stronger when we team up. Same goes for plants. Fruit trees team up with pollinator seducers and dynamic accumulator herbs for best production and health, groundcovers hold moisture and build soil at the top floor and everyone benefits when a nitrogen fixer is thrown in the mix.

Don’t be tripped up by the new word: a guild is nothing fancy, just a way to cobble a garden together and in fact very similar to companion planting. Make your new gardens based on guild thinking, and keep improving existing gardens by adding new plants to them.

A guild is a work in progress. If any plants die or struggle, the site obviously wasn’t suited to them, so I let them go. If it’s a plant I really love and want (you know the feeling) I might try it again, but choose the spot with a bit more care. Some plants get overtaken by others and on the whole, I let that happen — it makes for an easier life. Once again if the overtaken one is something I love I’ll put it amongst more gentle companions. The plants that box their way front and centre and hold their space win. They’re covering the ground and flourishing without needing too much attention from me. Exactly how I like it.

When a crop does well, and equally when it doesn’t, pay attention to who it’s living with. A plant’s companions make a big difference to the quality of its life. Bear in mind, plant combos that work for other gardeners may not work for you — especially advice from completely different climates and soils, because your garden is its own unique little ecosystem. Trust what your plants tell you.


Benefits of a fruit tree guild: A healthy, stable system around a fruit tree. In this example of an apple tree guild, many of the tree’s nutritional needs are met by the understory plants like dynamic accumulators, moisture is retained with the living mulch, nitrogen is added, soil life is encouraged, pollinators are fed and hang around to work the blossoms, the soil is aerated and nourished, and Umbelliferae flowers feed the parasitic wasps that manage caterpillar pests. A little corner of the world is healed and made beautiful.


To create a guild, choose one or two plants from a few — or all — of the categories below to accompany your food plants. Bring as much diversity to each garden as you can. Choose the plants you use and the plants you love.

A guild is generally centred around a food plant or a tree, but don’t be limited by this. It can be food for humans, beneficial insects, bees, chooks or stock.

The lists below are by no means definitive — and there are no rules here! The combinations and options are endless, so have a play.


Deep roots are important for the minerals they mine and the improvement in soil structure they bring.

  • alder
  • avocado tree
  • burdock
  • carrot
  • chicory
  • dandelion
  • dill
  • elecampane
  • fennel
  • mallow
  • parsley
  • parsnip
  • Queen Anne’s lace


Deter pests with strong scents that waft from punchy herbs such as these. Include pest repellent plants around the edges and dotted throughout your food gardens.

  • basil
  • bunching onions
  • chives
  • garlic
  • horseradish
  • marigold
  • mint
  • pennyroyal
  • rosemary
  • sage
  • southernwood
  • tansy
  • wormwood

It’s a good idea to avoid a pest problem with strong scented plants, for example — herbaceous plants.


Nitrogen fixers are one of the most useful plants in the edible garden. They magically harvest unusable nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it with the help of rhizobia bacteria so it’s available for the plant to use. Perennials are the best at this game. They use a bit themselves and share a bit with close neighbours. For annuals the main dose hits the soil when pre seed development, the tops are cut and the plant material is recycled as mulch for the following crop.

In the Veggie Patch

  • pair with heavy feeders
  • grow before heavy feeders
  • grow around the edges

In the Orchard

  • grow as groundcovers
  • use trees/shrubs for windshelter and dotted throughout


Alfalfa, vetch and clover (red, white or black)


Lupin, broadbeans, peas, beans, soya beans

Perennial Plants and Shrubs

Ceanothus (California lilac), carmichaelia and other broom, kākā beak, dyer’s greenweed, gorse!

Small Trees (5–7m)

Tree lucerne, kōwhai, sea buckthorn, silk tree, Siberian pea shrub, Amur maackia and eleagnus

Big Trees

Robinia, golden rain tree, Italian alder


Dynamic accumulators mine minerals. They’re sometimes called compost plants, companion plants, nutrient accumulators or compost activators, but I call them herbs, and quite frankly they rule. They are medicine for us and for the soil in the minerals they accumulate, fodder for the beneficial insects, and mineral rich biomass for compost and mulch.

Dynamic accumulators include:

  • borage — potassium, silica
  • bracken — potassium, phosphorus, manganese, iron
  • chamomile — calcium, potassium, phosphorus
  • chickweed — potassium, manganese, phosphorus
  • chicory — calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulphur
  • clover (ie. white clover) — nitrogen, potassium
  • comfrey — phosphorus, silica, calcium, iron, magnesium, nitrogen
  • dandelion — silica, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium
  • fennel — nitrogen, potassium
  • gorse — nitrogen
  • inkweed — potassium
  • plantain — calcium, sulphur, magnesium, manganese, iron, silica
  • stinging nettle —nitrogen, sulphur, iron, phosphorus, copper, calcium
  • tansy — potassium
  • thistle — phosphorus, potassium, iron
  • thyme — copper, manganese, iron
  • yarrow — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, copper

Bumble bees love artichoke flowers and other flowering perennial herbs and perennial vegetables.


Bring pollinators in with plenty of nectar/pollen rich flowers. Aim to have them flowering year round.

Kath’s Favourite Perennials

  • summer flowering — lavender, echinacea, golden rod, rudbeckia, thyme, marjoram, oregano, Shasta daisy, bergamot, yarrow, lemon balm, buddleia, anise hyssop, sage, comfrey
  • autumn flowering — sedum, caryopteris, rudbeckia, thyme, marjoram, oregano, sage, yarrow, lemon balm, anise hyssop, salvia, echinops, chicory
  • winter flowering — hellebore, wallflower, rosemary, sage, hebe, pineapple sage, clematis, anise hyssop
  • spring flowering — California lilac, lavender, hellebore, wallflower, poppy, sweet William, dianthus, New Zealand flax, bergamot, yarrow, clematis, anise hyssop, mānuka.

Kath’s Favourite Annuals

  • alyssum
  • borage
  • buckwheat
  • calendula
  • chamomile
  • cornflower
  • cosmos
  • marigold
  • nasturtium
  • phacelia
  • poppy
  • Verbena bonaresis

Borage and phacelia are high in nectar. They’ll flower nearly all year from a succession of self sown plants.

A varied grouping of plants to create a forest garden – citrus trees with sedums, narsturtium as surrounding plants and groundcovers as a natural mulch.


Nature leaves no bare dirt — she swoops in and colonises an entire area of empty soil as part of her health policy. Go her way and cover your soil completely with plants. While you wait for plants to grow and fill the space, keep the soil covered with mulch.

  • catmint
  • chamomile
  • chives
  • clover
  • comfrey
  • lady’s mantle
  • marjoram
  • nasturtium
  • New Zealand spinach
  • oregano
  • perennial cornflower
  • plantain
  • pratia
  • sedum
  • thyme
  • violets
  • yarrow

The Edible Backyard is gardening and permaculture expert Kath Irvine’s guide to everything you need to know to grow organic vegetables, fruit and herbs in your own garden, all through the year. Her practical step-by-step guide shares Kath’s wealth of knowledge from more than 20 years of helping Kiwi gardeners design, build, grow and maintain productive edible gardens.
Edible Backyard Book | Kath Irvine

Words extracted from The Edible Backyard by Kath Irvine

(Photos by Kath Irvine, Amber-Jayne Bain and Catherine Cattanach. Published by Random House New Zealand.)

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