Companion planting and plant guilds are two garden planning methods to master if growing more food with minimal effort is a goal you’re working towards.
Since I started using this permaculture system of growing food, I have had many fewer problems with pests and sickly plants.
Let me show you how these two techniques can help you reach your food growing goals!
What are Plant Guilds and Companion Planting?
A traditional garden layout typically consists of rows or mounds of a single plant variety. You might have all of your tomatoes in one row, peas in the next row followed by corn and so on.
There’s nothing wrong with this layout. You can grow a very successful garden this way.
But for those interested in turning their growing space into a more self-sufficient ecosystem, then learning how to create plant guilds with companion plants is an excellent place to start.
Simply put, a plant guild is a mini-ecosystem made up of plants that work together. These plants benefit one another in various ways. A common example is a fruit tree guild.
At the center of the guild is your fruit tree. And around the fruit tree, you’ll have plants providing various nutritional and protective benefits that create an interdependent system.
For example, you might plant garlic chives to repel pests and bee balm to attract beneficial insects around the tree’s base. You could also plant comfrey or white clover to fertilize the soil.
Plant guilds require you to think a little differently about gardening. You’ll need to make observations about your specific growing space and consider which combination of plants will be best suited for your area. (More on that a little later!)
The important thing to remember is that each plant typically provides more than one service that benefits the group as a whole.
Through years of observation and experimentation, gardeners noticed that some plants make good companions in the garden while others don’t.
Many gardeners use companion planting charts (like the one I created for you below) to help them arrange plants in a traditional garden layout. But this isn’t the same as creating a plant guild.
When you use a companion planting guide to plan your garden, you aren’t focused on creating a self-sufficient ecosystem. Instead, you’ll follow general rules that result in one or two benefits—for example, grow tomatoes next to basil to enhance flavor.
Companion planting and plant guilds are both excellent tools to use when planning your garden. But if your goal is to increase yields with less work, utilizing companion planting knowledge to design plant guilds is the way to go!
Benefits of Companion Planting and Plant Guilds
Whether you start experimenting with companion planting in a traditional garden layout or dive right into creating plant guilds, your garden will benefit in various ways!
Here are a few reasons these garden techniques are growing in popularity:
- Use Space Wisely—Vining beans grown next to tall, sturdy corn stalks allows you to grow more in a small space. The beans benefit from having a structure to vine up while helping to protect corn from critters looking for an easy meal.
- Cut Down on Weeds and Watering—When soil is left bare, two things happen. The soil dries out quickly, and weeds take over easily. Growing vining plants like pumpkins and sweet potatoes around others will cover the ground, preventing both of these problems.
- Ward Off Pests and Disease—Companion planting and plant guilds are excellent ways to strengthen your garden’s overall health and resilience. Certain plants growing side-by-side can attract predatory bugs, repel pests, and provide anti-fungal properties.
- Improve Soil Health—Growing a healthy garden starts with healthy soil. To avoid depleting your soil, grow various plants together that supply and take up different nutrients.
- Aesthetics—Companion planting and plant guilds make beautiful growing spaces. Intermixing flowers like nasturtiums and calendula with vegetables will add lovely color on top of other benefits.
There are a few additional benefits worth mentioning for plant guilds. These include:
- Creating Wildlife Habitats—Companion planting can attract beneficial bugs into your yard. But the purpose of the guild is to create a self-sufficient ecosystem. There is usually an added emphasis on including plants that provide habitats for wildlife, encouraging them to play a role in that ecosystem.
- Planting with Perennials—Plant guilds often include perennial vegetables and plants that require very little maintenance and offer their own set of benefits.
- Requiring Less Maintenance—A plant guild creates a self-sustaining garden that requires less weeding, watering, pest control, and overall up-keep. You’ll have spare time to enjoy your garden or maybe for trying out other homestead skills you’ve wanted to learn.
That’s quite a list of reasons to get started experimenting with plant guilds and companion plants. Figuring out where to begin is what I’ll be covering next!
How to Companion Plant
Companion planting is a broad topic. The rules are simple, but every garden is different, which means you’ll need to experiment to find out what works best for you.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Start small and focused. Don’t worry about growing your entire garden in the perfect combination of companion plants. Especially if you are a beginner gardener, choose one or two sets of combinations and focus on those.
- Choose a goal. What is the result you hope to achieve with companion planting? Do you want to attract beneficial insects to your garden? Or are you more interested in companions that impact the size and flavor of their produce when grown together?
- Be willing to experiment. If a plant combination doesn’t give you the results you were hoping for, don’t think of it as a failure and throw in the towel. Experiment with spacing and different plant varieties to find ones that work better than others in your particular area.
- Keep a garden journal. Keep notes on what’s working and what isn’t. Each season you can build upon what you’ve had success doing in the past and avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
You’re sure to get overwhelmed if you try to follow every companion planting rule you come across. The best thing to do is start small and observe what’s working for you.
Companion Planting Chart
I created a companion planting chart and plant guild planning Spreadsheet that you can use to get started in your own garden.
Here you’ll find a thorough list of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, along with the plants they’ll grow well with and those they don’t.
Remember not to get overwhelmed by all of the options. Start small and grow as you gain more experience with companion planting.
Grab it below:
How to Create a Plant Guild
Plant guilds are a step up from companion planting. Rather than just looking at one or two plant combinations, the goal is to create a diverse ecosystem of multifunctional plants. Follow these steps to get started:
- Choose a central focus. In the fruit tree guild example above, the fruit tree was the main focus. But you can create a plant guild with traditional garden vegetables, too. Choose a larger vegetable or one that offers a great deal of value to you and your family.
- Think about pest control. Next, decide which plants you will grow around your main plant to ward off pests and attract beneficial insects. Aromatic herbs and flowers work well.
- Consider a living mulch. Are there any plants you could include in your guild that will create a living mulch as the season progresses? Nasturtiums are a common example. They can both help to deter pests and provide a lovely ground cover.
- Replenish the soil. What nutrients does your main plant need? If it is a heavy feeder, think about which plants you can add to your guild to add those nutrients back into the soil. Clover, comfrey, and borage are excellent at feeding the soil.
- Add perennials. If your plant guild primarily contains annuals, consider adding perennials to help keep your soil structure intact and provide permanent habitats for bugs and other soil organisms.
Creating a plant guild is a bit more complex than companion planting. There’s more to consider, but more benefits to reap, too!
Practice Over Perfection
Whether you are just getting started with companion planting or looking to create your own plant guild, remember that the best way to master these skills is trial and error.
You could spend hours planning a seemingly perfect garden on paper. But nature can have a mind of its own, making it challenging to prepare for every obstacle.
Don’t worry about creating the perfect garden. Instead, get outside and start learning today!
Will you be gardening with companion plants or plant guilds this season? Do you have a favorite plant combination that has worked well in your area? I’d love to know!