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Guilds

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In permaculture a guild is an co-located assemblage of plants and animals (polyculture) that is designed to increase yields without increasing labor. In a guild elements are positioned for mutual benefit to reduce the need for labor or external inputs. A guild develops over time on a trajectory which increases yields without increasing labor. Guilds may change over time, or require periodic disturbance to maintain desired function. Guilds are frequently patterned off of natural vegetation, as natural vegetation is assumed to reflect the natural potential of a particular bioregion and landscape position. Since every hardiness zone, microclimate within that zone and indigenous flora/fauna create different pressures, almost every single guild will be different and unique in its specifics. A permaculture design may incorporate any number of guilds (depending on the site), which in turn interact with one another. Guilds are similar to companion planting, but much more complex in terms of number of elements, identified interactions, and time scale.

The term "guild" is also sometimes incorporated into the names of local permaculture organizations (ex: Hamilton Permaculture Guild, Sierra Permaculture Guild, etc.)

Structural Attributes of Guilds[edit]

There are annual guilds, herbaceous guilds, shrubland guilds, and tree-based guilds.

A tree-based guild may change subtly or substantially in composition as it shifts to woodland or savannah, so canopy density along with composition is a driver of guild structure. The following categories are not unusual:

  • forest >80* canopy
  • woodland 20-80% canopy
  • savannah <20% canopy

Beyond tree canopy structure, the composition of understory can be described by the relative dominance of woody vs. herbaceous understory vegetation. Tree and shrub communities typically have sparse herbaceous cover (though patches may exist). Browsing or fire can cause understory dominance by herbaceous vegetation.

Each ecoregion supports a range of vegetation patterns native to the climate, soils, and landscape position.

Functional Elements of Guilds[edit]

Each piece of a guild may play one (or preferably more) roles within the guild.

  • soil penetrator - These plants have tap roots and are adapted to tolerating combination of summer drought and winter anoxia common on compacted soils.
  • nitrogen fixer - plants with symbiotic association with fungi and or algae that are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen.
  • dynamic accumulator - plants that accumulate more of a nutrient then necessary for metabolism such that they trap free soil nutrients into organic matter.
  • biomass producer - plants that produce abundant material that serves well as mulch (broadleaved?).
  • competitor plants - plants with such densely competative roots and foliage that spreading species have difficulty penetrating their canopy.
  • fencing plant - plants that can be used to exclude larger herbavores from a planting.
  • nectar supplier - plants that produce abundant nectar for foraging insects.
  • yield - plant harvested by people for our needs and desires.
  • forage - plant which is particularly valuable to associated animal populations
  • disturbance agent - typically an animal that does work that creates vacant niches by browsing, scratching or grubbing.
  • nutrient concentrator - an animal that converts biomass to available nutrients (manure, frass, poop).
  • decomposer - typically insects and fungi that convert carbon rich biomass to stable humus and nutrients.
  • insect habitat - plants that for reasons other than nectar production support desired insect populations.
  • regulator - mediates extremes in temp/water (trees)

There are likely many more subtle functions that elements within a guild can play.

Patterns of Guild Change Over Time[edit]

While a guild may be defined by those parts that remain constant, the whole of a guild will change over time. Different patterns of change over time, perhaps caused by different influences (flooding, animal use, human harvest or disturbance), can create variants.

Change over time is also natural as a new stand of vegetation establishes, closes canopy, and then changes. Elements of a guild can be temporary - facilitating a short term goal like soil improvement, but dropping out of the system as that goal is reached. Guild elements can thus be native to different stages of stand development, such as:

  • stand initiation
  • canopy closure-competative exclusion
  • maturation-layering

Components either change predictably over time:

  • due to changing conditions
  • due to competition from other components

or cycle and flux due to more episodic influences:

  • fire
  • grazing/browsing
  • flooding (scour and deposition)
  • unusual indundation events
  • slashing
  • harvest

These episodic influences can be described in terms of their frequency, intensity, and spatial pattern.

Area-specific Guilds[edit]


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