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Building Better Plant Guilds with Dan Halsey: GLPPodcast

Dan Halsey, director of PRI-USA, Head Designer at Southwoods Permaculture, and co-author of Integrated Forest Gardening, sat down with us to talk about designing guilds and the Natural Capital™ Plant Database, a useful resource he manages with design partner Paula Westmoreland.

Highlights from the podcast can be found in the abridged article below.

 Designing Guilds

There are a lot of polycultures and guilds that we’ve designed, I’ve designed, that are really easily duplicated in other places because they are using plants that aren’t that site specific. The classic one I use is the Honeycrisp apple, or any kind of semi-dwarf apple tree polyculture. That’s an apple tree guild where we put in the nitrogen fixers, we put in the nutrient accumulators, we put all the plants that will feed the trees.

In the classes and the design work, I don’t want to know what your favorite plants are, because it’s all about the structure. The structure of the polyculture. What is the canopy? What are the shade plants, the smaller plants? How many nitrogen fixers do you need? Is it a forest garden? What are the 7 layers? Then construct that. We know how big it is, what the soil is, where this is going: now go find the plants that fit that.

basic fruit tree guild designWe have a backyard design that we use. You’re in Minneapolis, or Chicago, or Detroit. What can you plant here? Then you take that exact same design, say it’s a suburban lot, and you take it to Reno or Tuscan or Anchorage. It’s just different plants. You might have to move some things around, but the basic structure is there.

For the fruit tree polyculture, my apple trees and pear trees all have the same nitrogen fixer, wild blue indigo. Great perennial, beautiful plant, we try to put at least 2 of those around the tree somewhere. My dynamic accumulator of choice is comfrey, which is really popular. It’s my ground cover, my dynamic accumulator, and there are usually 5 of those around the tree somewhere.

Because these designs are dynamic, we have a lot of smaller plants. I like alpine strawberries to fill the soil, they make good mulch. We plant daffodils in a circle around all our fruit trees because the exo from daffodils keeps away rodents. We usually put in clover, I really like bachelor button, yarrow, and chicory. Chicory is something I spread all over the place, it has a really long tap root that brings up minerals and nutrients from the ground.

The Natural Capital™ Plant Database

In 2003 or 04, Paula started this thing, got some money and hired people. She wanted to do permaculture design, landscape design, but none of the conventional services or databases give us what we want. There are a lot of online plant databases if you want to put in conventional ornamentals, but if you want to put ecologically functioning plants, they don’t even care them, they don’t even know what they are.

The Natural Capital™ Plant Database was built for function. There are no pictures on it. Once you’ve defined your site conditions you plug them in, do a search, and all the plants that will grow on your site will come out in a list.

the natural capital plant database is a great tool for guild design

example info from the Natural Capital Plant Database

There are three levels to the database:

Free: Full plant list

$20/year: Search by plant characteristics. Additional lists including cultivated polycultures, natural plant associates, and plant companions.

$50/year: Designer level allows lists to be exported to an excel spreadsheet, so you can sort them as you like and print them out.

What we’re supplying are tools for people to get things done. We learn all the theory, we read all the books, but then we have to get organized. You have to specify what you need, get a list, do your design, count up all the plants you’re going to put in. Now you have a place to put the numbers, then you need a column for how much they cost. After that you start hitting the nurseries, or you have a list you have on the wall until things go on sale.

Check out the Natural Capital Plant Database. Integrated Forest Gardening, which Dan co-authored, and This Perennial Land, which Paula co-authored, are both available.

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