Guilds for Bookworms
The most successful guilds are those designed after prolonged observation of a natural community. These guilds have the best chance of clicking into the
dynamic relationships that wild plant communities embody. But gaining enough knowledge to design on the basis of prolonged observation takes special
dedication. For ecological gardeners who haven’t the time or inclination to spend hours—or years—with a natural community, I present a more academic,
armchair method of guild design. Remember, though, that nothing substitutes for observation, and even a brief field trip to a plant community can yield
critical insights that books can’t give.
The armchair method begins with a search for lists of the major plant communities native to your area. This information resides in ecology and plant
field books, forest service websites, and journal articles in university libraries or online databases. This literature is abundant and dense and may require
some digging to extract the relevant nuggets. In my own neck of the woods, I would begin by searching under “Plant Communities, Oregon” in a university
library catalog or database index. In your search, plug in your own state’s name. When the lengthy list of references comes up, watch for titles such as
“Plant Associations of (your state),” or “Vegetation of (your county).” If you know the dominant native tree in your region, you can narrow down the search
by seeking research on that species. I have a handy paper called “The Quercus garryana Forests of the Willamette Valley,” which describes the Oregon
white oak forests that rule the dry hillsides of my region.
Using Natural Plant Communities to Guide Guild Design
Based on the work of Tim Murphy and other guild designers, we can develop some guidelines for creating guilds from local plant communities. Here
are some questions to ask that will help select plants for useful guilds:
1. What is the dominant species of the community? Is it useful for humans, via nuts, fruit, particular beauty, animal feed, or other benefit? Is a related
plant even more useful?
2. Which plants are offering food to wildlife? What wildlife uses them? Are these animals desirable in the yard?
3. Are any plants capable of providing food for humans? Do any plants in the community have domesticated relatives that can provide fruit, berries,
tubers, greens, herbs, or other products for people?
4. Which species are common to more than one community, as opposed to those unique to only one? These may be possible buffer or transition
plants to connect a guild to the rest of the yard.
5. Does any species show exceptional insect damage or have large numbers of harmful insects living on it? This might not be a desirable variety.
6. What species generates most of the leaf litter? Would it make a good mulch plant?
7. How well, and by what mechanisms, does the community withstand drought or flood? Some desert plants shed their leaves in extreme dryness, a
useful quality but not an attractive habit for a major planting.
8. Do any plants have bare ground or stunted vegetation near them? This may simply be due to deep shade, but if sunlight reaches the soil near this
plant, the species might be an allelopath and worthy of caution.
9. Are any plant families heavily represented in the community? If so, domesticated relatives might be successfully substituted.
10. Does the community contain any known nitrogen fixers or other nutrient accumulators? These may be critical members and necessary for a
The answers to these questions will generate a list of species that can form the backbone of a potential guild.
If this research process seems daunting, some legwork can be circumvented by calling the nearest college botany department or USDA Forest Service
office and asking where to find descriptions of the plant communities of your area. Someone in the department will know the name of the best books or
journal articles for you and may even be willing to give an impromptu telephone lecture on local plant communities.
Here’s how I built an armchair guild for my bioregion when we lived in southern Oregon. On my bookshelf sits the bible of plant communities for my
locale, Vegetation of Oregon and Washington, by Jerry Franklin and C. T. Dyrness. Though it’s more than twenty-five years old, the species lists are still
valid. Thumbing through this book, I see that plant communities are listed not only by region but also, bless the authors’ hearts, by climate and soil
preference. Our former home in Oakland hugs the brow of a south-facing hillside that bakes to withering dryness in summer; thus, for that microclimate, I
needed to find a native plant community that tolerates hot, dry, clayey slopes. Franklin and Dyrness suggest that Oregon white oak, Quercus garryana, will
thrive in those conditions. This was no surprise, as both my woods rambles and the paper cited above taught me that Oregon white oak loves it there. It
was reassuring, though, that the professors and I agreed.
White oak communities, Franklin and Dyrness reveal, come in several varieties, each named for the most prevalent understory shrub. These
communities are called white oak/hazelnut, white oak/ serviceberry, and—gulp—white oak/poison oak, which unfortunately is all too common down there.
Each community contains a dozen or more associated plants that are listed in the text or in a table.
Next, I scanned these lists for species that are useful in themselves or have relatives that yield food, habitat, or other gifts. My goal was to use the
original community members or related substitutes to create a guild with a structure similar to the native community but one that provides products for
humans in addition to its many natural functions. The white oak/hazelnut community has excellent potential since it includes several nuts, fruits, berries,
and herbs. The members of the community are shown in Table 9-1.
With a little exploration and fine-tuning, the white oak/hazelnut community can be transformed into a very useful guild. Let’s walk through the species list.
Oregon white oak has subtle virtues. It’s a lovely shade tree, and mature specimens bear abundant acorns cherished by wildlife. Oaks often swarm with
birds probing the bark for insects. The acorns were a major protein source for Native Americans, roasted whole or ground into flour. White oak acorns
contain less bitter tannic acid than others and thus don’t require the complex leaching process that renders many acorns palatable. They also make
excellent animal feed. Will suburban gardeners eat acorns? I confess I’ve only experimented with them, and I’d wager their acceptability as modern food
is limited. The tree also takes a decade or more to bear acorns, so they’re not an ideal human food plant. Oak wood is valuable timber, but unless you’ve
got some acreage, cutting down a major yard tree is potentially disastrous, and it certainly disrupts the guild.