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Plant guilds and site design with Bryce Ruddock GLPPodcast #2

Bryce Ruddock in his Forest GardenBryce Ruddock, co-author of the forthcoming Integrated Forest Gardening: the Complete Guide to Polycultures and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Systems, due out in August, sat down with Milton Dixon for an extended interview.

In this this segment, Bryce talks about different definitions of what a plant guild is, providing examples from his mature 1/6 of an acre forest garden in South Milwaukee, WI, as well as discussing his approach to site design.

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Milton Dixon: What is a plant guild?

Bryce Ruddock: Basically they’re just associations of living organisms, grouping of species that coexist in an environment and they share resources or act as resources for one another. Sometimes it works for the benefit of the entire system, some times not so much. Whether the system’s in balance or not is usually just a matter of how we look at it. The systems may be in balance, but they might not be in balance from a human perspective.

You can kind of watch the animals to determine how they are moving things back and forth across that system and between that system and another system. You can gain a few other insights that way about how to improve that system.

What they’re doing is moving things. They’re the agents of movement. That’s them, the wind and the water. Whether its in balance or not, it nothing that’s ever at an equilibrium. Everything’s always in flux. There’s a general flow of materials back and forth.

plant guild including black walnut as dominant species

Wildlife, wind and water, were the primary agents of movement for this black walnut guild.

For purposes of environmental studies a guild can be defined as being, “composed of species that are closest related to one another in their use of a resource gradient in a given community.” The first use ever of of the word guild in the context of plants was by a German Botanist. His word was “genossenschaften.”

[Ed: Schimper’s work was an important early usage of plant guilds and may represent the first German work using “Genossenschaft” to be translated as “guild”¬† in English, however, other contemporary German botanists were using that term at the time as well.]

I’m assuming at some point in time Bill Mollison ran across some of these early works. This was 1898 when this guy did his work. There were some folks in the 1930s that were defining guilds as communities of organisms. Basically they were talking about animals in a lot of those guilds. There were shared characteristics, or feeding patterns.

That was what we first considered. That there were shared characteristics, not necessarily sharing the same resource or being interdependent on one another, but these are ideas that were developed as time went on and they were further popularized by permaculture…

MD: Are there other benefits to guilds, being the gardener?

BR: Well, they benefit other species too. It’s not necessarily that those species are necessarily gardening. A chipmunk can’t just walk away and go to the grocery store or somewhere. They’re foraging, same with the birds. This is their world, whereas we have this option of going and buying some chemical laden food to the grocery store. They do not. It’s the real world.

Another way of defining a guild as “a functional assemblage of groupings of species.” Functional structures being “non-random distribution of species on the functional space of interest for example the trophic or food temperal or spacial niche access. Which simply means things that function together, at some point in the environment.

So there are all these definitions that can be used, and they’re all of them essentially saying the same thing. I think a true definition of what is a plant guild would probably take a chapter in a book all by itself. You can’t put stuff in a nutshell without missing all the peripherals that make something greater than itself.

MD: What place do wild plants have in a plant guild?

BR: It depends on the wild species and how there’s brought in. I have hazels that the squirrels planted, and they’re a cross of the two varieties of two varieties of hazel that I had, which was a trazel, a turkish tree x hazel and a filazel a filbert x hazel. These are not the bush hazels, these are tree sized hazels, 20 feet and up. The squirrels, by harvesting one of these nuts and burying it elsewhere in the yard, have come up with one that branches closer to the ground and is rather spreading.

Mulberries come in that way quite often too. Mulberry tree is a good foil for black walnut since they can buffer the juglone, the poison the walnut sends out, and then you can plant something on the other side of that that might not otherwise work, like an apple.

plant guilds are designed around canopy species

Black walnuts produce juglone that can be toxic to many plants.

On the west side of our porch we had a forsythia bush. Nice short little, well behaved forsythia bush. Never got taller than 3 maybe 4 feet tall. Well, we decided it’d be a lot prettier on the other end of the yard. So we put it midway along the east side of the yard. The house and the basement are blocking the juglone. All the sudden this thing is about 15 feet tall.

Some species are inhibited by juglone. You can actually use black walnut to inhibit the growth of a species that might otherwise be rampant. A natural dwarfing effect. It will kill other things. Flowering almond, it kills that. Wisteria, it doesn’t do much for that. Honeysuckle vines, it kills those. Anything which is a perennial deep rooting woody plant, those are iffy, unless you find the one that it grows well with. Universities have entire lists of plants [PDF] that will grow well with black walnut. A lot of it, like the forsythia, that’s just observation.

MD: How much have you moved your perennials around?

BR: Significantly. We’ve moved one rose bush I think 3 or 4 times. For instance, originally things were set with a lot more grass in the yard, because you know, we had little children. We needed a place for them to play. Where the pond is right now used to be where we had a little volleyball and badminton set up for the kids.

In the early 2000s we had gone a vacation down south to the Smokey Mountains. We came back thinking, “You know with this global warming thing and all, we want to make sure that the butterfly species that are down there as they move forward are going to find food that they require.” we came back with the intention of putting the equivalent of an Appalachian forest right here in South Milwaukee.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but we do have tulip poplar, pawpaws, and persimmon trees on site now. Those are all essential species for swallowtail butterfly diet and life cycle. As well as pipe vines. Some stuff we brought back from a cottage in northern Wisconsin was native to the Appalachians. We found out that many of these species are native to Wisconsin, but it’s near their zone of comfort, where it’s almost pushing it.

MD: It sounds like your design and guilds don’t have static equilibrium.

BR: Oh heavens no. As time goes on you change what you do. For instance one of the garden beds. I think it was 2009 we redid the rear gardens. They were basically going uphill and they were raised beds framed with timbers. We took the timbers out and made a planter box at the end of the deck with that. Then we went on contour, and made swales on contour with varying width beds across the contours and berms to grow on. We walk in the swales and grow on the berms.

For further discussion of the many definitions of guild, [PDF] this review discusses the subject well. To learn more about plant guilds, pre-order Integrated Forest Gardening from Chelsea Green! The first segment of the interview is available here.


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