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January 2018
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Hey Let’s Form a Guild

Guild is such a funny word.  Historically the term was used by craftsmen of a particular genre and they formed together to basically work as a cohesive unit to make sure no one got cheated, etc.  I just imagine how it started was one guy or gal going around and saying “Hey, let’s form a guild!”.

Of course, when it comes to growing our own food a guild is a collection of plants that not only don’t compete but work together and/or benefit each other.  So guild is a pretty good description of what we are trying to do.  Now I’m not overly fond (and I’ve stated so in the past) of just spitting out lists and saying “plant A and B and all will be right with the universe”.  I think the person who takes such advice does so with good intentions but not understanding that every application is different.  I think the person giving such advice is a fool.  That being said, one almost has to give examples of successful guilds but it doesn’t mean we follow blindly.

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I give examples with the disclaimer that I’m giving examples to back it up.  Use the thought of what works together to build your own.

The first one is a good example of a backcountry guild and one I’ve utilized in the past.  The first thing you need is a pine tree.  I’ve actually got some Korean Nut Pines on order so those are going to be awesome in this guild because I’ll get food out of them. 

Most pines have a natural habit of growing in slightly acidic soil.  They are evolved to actually grow in it and the needles are acidic BUT only in the green state.  Pines don’t make soil acidic but they do help maintain and balance its acidity.  They do this by utilizing the radical hydrogen atoms in the soil that occur as minerals and other things break down.  The needles give off a certain amount of terpenes thus dissipating the amount of acidity the pines pull up.  Now if that is confusing I completely understand.  Let me simplify.  Pines grow in acidic soil and by being in a spot they keep the soil in a slightly acidic state but balanced.  The pine doesn’t change the soil it only maintains it.

Now there is a common myth that nothing grows under a pine because of the acidity of the needles.  The truth however is a little more complex.  It involves a heavy layer of mulch (such as pine needles) and year round shade from say a coniferous tree (such as a pine!).  I personally have raked the needles out and cut the lower limbs of pines and had immediate growth of plant matter underneath that wasn’t pine. 

Pines also grow shallow roots.  I know this from nothing other than sheer observation.  When I dig around a pine I hit roots that are basically just covered by soil.  By dropping so many needles they create their own mulch and are able to spread just below the soil surface (not to mention a big taproot for pulling up minerals). 

Pines also do not like wet soil.  Wet soil makes it hard to utilize the acidity of the soil – it dilutes it. 

Knowing these three things I have to pick a plant that works with a pine tree.  Now I already know what to choose because I did it and it worked but how did I do this?

Acidity – I had to find a plant to work in the same soil as the pine which is stable and slightly acidic. 

Mulch – My plant has to tolerate a thick layer of mulch all year round. 

Roots – My plant’s roots have to be able to work with the shallow nature of pine roots. 

Dry – I had to find a plant that would tolerance dry conditions fairly well.

The plants I chose were blueberries and strawberries.  Now let’s analyze why.

1.  Blueberries and strawberries not only want the soil a little acidic they can’t stand soil that’s too akaline (ask my brother who killed a blueberry with agricultural lime!).

2.  Both plants like mulch.  Blueberries hate weed competition and strawberries are a plant literally named for the mulch used on them.  In the winter as strawberries die back the needle mulch can protect them.

 3.  Roots are the only caveat I had.  Would the roots work together or compete?  Well I didn’t know but they seemed to work together.  I didn’t put the blueberry or strawberries directly under the pine’s limbs just a little offset. 

4. Would the strawberry and blueberry like the dry nature of where pines grow.  The blueberry certainly would.  I wasn’t sure about the strawberry but figured the offset would work.

Well I’m happy to say all worked out well.  The blueberry bloomed and produced fruit the first year I had it in the ground (it was a 2 year shrub).  The strawberries bloomed and fruited as well.  Unfortunately the deer got to the berries before me!

To follow, a podcast talking about guilds but I wanted to leave you with a consideration list in what you need to think about when you create YOUR own guild.

  • Roots – What they take and what they exude.  What level they inhabit.  Do we want them to mingle?  Do they mingle?
  • What gets left behind – leaves, needles, etc.
  • Driplines and water concern.
  • Insect relations – can the plants work together to pull in what we want and block what we don’t?
  • Disease – will the plants work together to create a healthy system.



2 comments to Hey Let’s Form a Guild

  • Please excuse the tardy comment (just catching up on some reading)  Interesting detailed explanation of acidity under pine trees, never heard it described that way before, usually just as an effect of rainfall through the acidic green pine needles.  I’ve got a guild started under / around 5 short leaf pines that includes 2 blueberry bushes, and a variety of herbs – comfrey, sage, lemon balm, mullein, yarrow, echinacea and hyssop.  Most were planted late summer / fall of last year.  Glad you mentioned strawberries, I have extra plants that can be added this spring.  Will be interesting to observe how it all develops.

  • Jason

    No problem.  Yeah I admit the more I learn about pines the more I learn how complex they really are.  The green needles are acidic but they are wax covered but the ones that fall are brown which aren’t acidic.  Then they let off compounds into the air.  CONFUSING!

    I like your guild though, seems to take care of most things.  Echinacea will spread and that’s going to look nice with the purple on green.  Cool!