The inspiration of summer gardening is upon us. Walk into just about any store and you’ll find an abundant array of plants to inspire your weekend activities. But if you’re like me, you may find that what you plant one summer doesn’t live long enough to make it to the next summer. We may forget to water (or forget to water enough). Once the novelty of summer wears off, we forget about the plants - they get covered up, stepped on or lawn-mowed over. Or maybe pests chomp them up before they have a chance to establish themselves.

There is a better way to plant: a way that will help your garden continue to prosper and grow. A guild is a simple concept, and you don’t need to live on a farm or have a big green thumb to plant one. A guild is simply a group of plants that come together to support each other. Guild planting is a method that helps reduce how much watering you need to do and how much protection you need to provide your plants. Guilds also decrease the likelihood of pest invasions and increase soil fertility. In other words, guilds are great for lazy gardeners (like myself) because they are somewhat self-maintaining.

Why do plant guilds work? When we group plants together in a guild, the plants help to protect each other (think about how a clump of plants is more likely to be noticed whereas single plants are more likely to get stepped on or cut down). Guilds can also help create a habitat for bees (which help pollinate) and beneficial insects (to help eat up pest insects, such as aphids); and they can help generate compost (which, in turns, increases soil health and fertility). Instead of planting random plants here and there, we plant guilds with the intention that the plants in a guild will help each other grow.

The first known guild planting comes from various Native American groups in North America and is called “The Three Sisters” guild. The Three Sisters is made up 3 plants: corn, beans and squash. Corn is used as a trellis and for food; beans are used to add nitrogen to the soil and for food; squash is used to create mulch and for food. The Three Sisters guild actually produces more food, with less water and fertilizer, than a similar area planted to any one of these three crops in isolation.

The Three Sisters is an easy guild to create. Choose a full sun spot and prepare your soil for planting. Mark out a series of planting holes about 5 feet apart. This is going to be your guild location and these are the holes that you will plant your corn in. You can make your guild as big or small as you want, but use at least a 10’x10’ area. Place 3-4 corn kernels into each hole, cover with an inch of soil. After the corn sprouts, start mounding the soil up around the young stalks. Don’t cover the sprouts; rather, just build up earth around the base. Don’t thin the corn either; you want two or three stalks per mound. After 2 weeks, plant the pole beans (not a bush variety) and the squash or pumpkins. Plant 2-3 bean seeds into each corn mound. In between each corn/bean mound, create another mound (see diagram) and plant 3-4 squash seeds in each new mound. The Three Sisters guild will need to be watered regularly. After harvests, leave the stalks, vines, and other organic debris on the ground to compost. Doing this “quick compost” returns some of the extracted fertility back into the soil and protects the ground from erosion.

Go wild with guilds! There are many themes and ideas you can come up with in designing your guild. You can do a “Spaghetti Sauce Guild”. Central plants will be tomatoes and peppers and around them plant basil, oregano, parsley and chives. From this guild you can harvest everything you need to make a yummy tomato sauce. Or do a “A Bee & Tea Guild”. Central plant will be a Linden tree and around it plant echinacea, mint, lovage, rosa rugosa, and fennel. This guild will provide you with a wonderful bee habitat and produce many fine herbs that you can make tea with.
One last tip: we plant guilds not just because of beauty but because of beneficial relationships. There are 2 staple plants that add to the complexity and health of every guild, which I recommend adding no matter the type. These plants are: comfrey and crimson clover. Comfrey leaves can be cut down a few times each summer and are used to mulch the ground. Crimson clover is a ground cover that attracts beneficial insects and is cut down and used to mulch the ground after it flowers.

Gea Bassett is the founder and owner of Green Cleaning Seattle - Otium-Maid Services™ (GCS), an eco-safe home cleaning company in Seattle. She has an MA in Sustainable Education from Goddard College, a permaculture design certificate from PermacultureNOW. Her company’s mission is to continually expand and improve on what it means to be a “green business” by injecting a sustainable mission into every element, including using natural products, reducing carbon footprint, growing local, providing continuing education for her employees, and beyond - by being “Greener Than Just the Products we Use”™