The most important aspect of planting design?
Right now, this guild matrix idea seems like the most important concept in guild and planting design to me. So it’s worth taking a few minutes to understand. This Spring, I am breaking ground on a few new garden projects, so I’m really thinking about this idea of practically transforming landscapes.
I am pretty confident I will be able to transform about 1/4 acre of land to highly productive, fairly mature ecological garden in the first year with no tiller, very little digging, almost no imported fertility, with only one or two flats of seedlings, and minimal time. How? Allstar plants and the guild matrix.I started using the term matrix while thinking about how most plant communities are defined by a few key interlocking players other plants grow into. It’s like chocolate chip cookies. You have the chips, and the cookie dough matrix that holds the chips together. A really great cookie requires both to be good!
Allstar plants is Jason Padvorac’s clever term for the type of plants that make great guild matrix candidates.
To understand the guild matrix, we’ll compare 3 edible ecosystems.
First, imagine you walk into an ecosystem that is lush with plants, and some of them are edible. The value of this system is going to depend on how many are edible and how much work it all takes to harvest and maintain, right? If it takes more work to maintain than the value you get out of it, it’s not going to be valuable! In a few years, that kind of garden usually fails. For example, people who plant only fruit trees and understory support species, or maybe the whole understory has gone to comfrey, because they’re thinking only of the long term with no year 1 yields.Three years in, the only yield is a burned out gardener!
Second, imagine you walk into a lush forest and all the plants are edible! Thing is – that alone STILL isn’t enough to make the garden truly useful! Perhaps they are low value foods. Perhaps no one you know likes them. Perhaps they take a lot of processing and it isn’t economically viable. Perhaps it’s all one plant, like japanese knot weed, which produces heavily one week of the year, producing a glut too large to harvest, and little else the rest of the season. Or maybe it just takes too much work and cost to maintain.
Last, you walk into a third forest, this one has mostly edible plants. And, here’s where the magic is, this one gives exactly the amount of produce you can reasonably harvest or sell, staggered all season long. And these aren’t just “you can eat that” weeds, it is highly valuable produce, desirable and useful to you in the quantities needed for meals. And because the plants are vigorous, spreading and symbiotic with each other, 90% of the maintenance that is required is just harvesting to thin the plants and keep things in balance.
Clearly, the third one is going to be our goal, yet most people never really set out for that, let alone achieve it. Yes, perfection may be nigh impossible, but we can always move closer to it, and the closer we can get to it, the more valuable the garden will be.
What gets us dramatically closer to that goal is a “guild matrix” of good allstar plants. If you observe natural plant communities, you will see that most are characterized by a “community” or “guild” of players that seem to work well together, fit together in filling in niches, share similar needs, cooperate well and avoid competition. There is usually a basic matrix of a few plants that make up much of the ecosystem, with specimen plants appearing here and there like chocolate chips in a cookie. This is what we are going for.
For example, in much of the Eastern Woodland, especially under maples, you can walk into deep woods and find a matrix of ramps, solomon’s seal, claytonia virginica, ostrich fern, and perhaps may apple, sweet cicely all rambling around together. And sometimes, this understory can look as dense and productive as the most dense, intensive SPIN farm you’ve ever seen on youtube. That is the matrix other things grow into. Here and there tucked into it we may find currants or gooseberries, or elder, or service berries, paw paws, cherries, and mast trees in the overstory.
In moist acidic woods we may find a matrix of wintergreen, ostrich fern and blueberry. Witch hazel, currants, and mast trees may be tucked into that.
But what we also want is to make sure our “matrix” is as useful as possible, producing lots of plants, growing fast enough to handle fairly heavy harvesting, and productive over a long season, and ideally multi-purpose. Walking onions are the most useful plant in my garden, next to garlic. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t use both. I can harvest them both in different forms from the time the snow melts until after the snow is a foot deep, and bring them in for storage even in the winter. And both can be used for mulch, and to create pest and disease repellent sprays. Garlic spray is famously used at Disneyland to repel mosquitos! Both can help repel grasses in the right conditions, and keep weeds away.
It would be hard to imagine having too many of such useful plants. Luckily, they self produce rapidly, too! With careful harvest, it is easy to maintain populations of both by just letting them self sow and divide. Excellent guild matrix candidates.
Sorrels are delicious, productive all season long and provide a green for daily soups or salads and act as fortress plants suppressing weeds in the garden and creating a stable matrix. Alliums can easily grow vertically among sorrels, while sorrels spread and cover the ground to prevent weeds.
A wild and mild mannered mint might ramble around and fill in spaces too, and these have been known to both prevent weeds and encourage net biodiversity in the right conditions. Mints have been shown to be particularly good at eradicating field bind weed. Yet the effects of allelopathy are minimal when the garden is abundant and the soil is healthy. But if a weed is getting out of control, these vigorous allelopaths will crank up their chemical production and keep the system in balance. I know many people who simply can’t grow enough basil, but are afraid of growing mild mannered basil mint in the garden!
Crosnes are a mint that is an amazing fortress plant, useful as tea, and produces a great edible tuber in huge amounts. And the 4 of these plant friends together have a strong likelihood of creating a stable, useful groundcover throughout a garden. And, they provide tons of useful, edible biomass all season long.
Now, when you walk into the garden, everywhere you look, there is food that can be harvested, every single day of the year, and we haven’t even gotten to our “featured plants’ yet. That’s a garden that is guaranteed to be highly valuable