How To Garden With Success Using An Index Guild

An index guild of plants can help you observe details about plants as they grow, but how do these observations translate to growing success in the field? Let's take a look.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: images courtesy of Zach Loeks

In my previous article, we looked at how to establish index guilds to plant perennials and learn from the resulting growth. Over the years, though, you should properly maintain your index guilds to showcase proper management.

If you neglect to manage a guild entirely, the resulting trial will showcase rewilding potential of plants, not perennial agriculture. Certainly an interesting topic to study, but not the one at hand today.  

Make sure the following happens over the first three years to maximize your index guild’s utility:

  1. Keep it decently watered, weeded and fertilized. 
  2. Observe/manage for pests.
  3. Make observations about any stresses that seem to particularly tax a specific a plant—especially pests. If a plant succumbs to pests readily, you may consider it less favorable for perennial agriculture without a thorough pest management strategy.
  4. Keep the mulch topped up and give only moderate fertilizer, so you can see yields under normal conditions. Note that a garden guild near a house can get way more compost and liquid fertilizer than a plant out in a field.
  5. Make notes on when a plant begins to bear fruit or edible parts.
  6. Make notes on how well plants interact as a guild. Are they in a healthy competition/companionship, or is one plant completely dominating another? For instance, you may observe that a fast-growing, sun-loving plant doesn’t share space well with a slow-growing, sun-loving plant.
  7. Observe other signs of disease or successes, and conduct research based on observations.

Read more: Here’s how you can develop an index guild of your own for perennial agriculture.

Success Defined

Ultimately an index guild is a living testimony of success.This is because the plants that do well will ultimately be the ones that survive and thrive.

If some plants die, you can replace them with others. A sun-loving ground cover didn’t work? Try a shade-loving ground cover. 

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If a plant gets really sick, consider (after a few years) cutting it out and replacing it. Then note that this particular plant is not suitable to your conditions. 

At the end of the day, the more research and care you put in, the more suitable a plant might be under the conditions you provide. And if a plant doesn’t thrive under the management care you’re able to provide, you can also evaluate its potential based on that metric. 

So what an index guild shows over the years is suitability to its site and conditions: environment, ecology and management.You’ll evaluate a wide range of factors, including climate, soil, chosen companions, weed competition and your role as a steward to your plants.

index guild guilds success

Beyond Success

If a guild or a variation of a guild (swapping out one ground cover for another type, for example) is successful, then you end up with the following advantages for further perennial agriculture transition:

  1. Knowledge of a selection of site-suitable species/cultivars that are successful
  2. Knowledge of a mix of companionable plants under your management that succeed
  3. Access to propagation material to spread more of these plants in your property’s seeds, suckers and scion wood
  4. A near-to-home and much-more-mature guild helps you forecast management for future, further-out-to-field plantings of a similar guild. This can be very beneficial for understanding future management needs—a plum variety has weak roots and requires trellis support, for example. You’ll make observations for seasonal management, too, such as this plum tree is susceptible to wasp infestation of the fruit, so you will need to harvest early. 

In this way the near-to-home guild’s location is a window into needs out in the field as seasonal management progresses. And the much more mature nature of the guild is a window into management needs field planting will require in coming years.

Read more: You can (and should) grow perennial natives from seed in your garden.

What Is an Index Guild Really?

Even an old, wild apple tree on a fence line can be part of an index guild if you choose to see it as such. Observe the traits of this tree. Does it have good-tasting fruit? It obviously likes the climate. Does it have any disease? How much management has it required?

When you observe the traits and growth of a planting, you can use it as an index guild to further design more guilds, propagate successful species and help forecast management.

In essence, index guilds help increase the rate and success of transition of land to perennial agriculture. By using them, you gain:

  • site-suitable knowledge
  • plant material and seeds for propagation
  • actual management forecasting through guild location and maturity  

So get planting, trialing and spreading success!  

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