Don’t Plant a Garden – Build a Guild

A Permaculture Guild at Never Ending Food

A ‘guild’ is generally defined as an association of people who work together towards a common goal. In Permaculture, a guild is considered to be an association of living organisms which also strive towards a common goal. When Bill Mollison was first developing the concept of Permaculture, he spent a great deal of time studying forest systems. He tried to understand what makes these ecosystems so highly productive, on their own, without the need for human intervention.

According to the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia:

  • Forests are home to approximately 50-90% of all the world’s terrestrial (land-living) biodiversity — including the pollinators and wild relatives of many agricultural crops (Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2010)
  • Tropical forests alone are estimated to contain between 10-50 million species – over 50% of species on the planet.
  • Rainforests cover 2% of the Earth’s surface and 6% of its land mass, yet they are home to over half of the world’s plant and animal species.

Taking a lesson from nature, Mollison gradually developed the concept of a Permaculture Guild. He realized that despite the seemingly chaotic state of a forest, they are actually harmonious webs of interconnected functions. When we understand how these functions work, we can apply the lessons to the design of our own sustainable systems of living.

By thinking in terms of ‘functions’ rather than species, it helps to make the concept of Permaculture guilds a tool which can be applied to any situation in just about any place on earth. A good guild should contain food for people, climbers & supporters, diggers & miners, protectors & attractors, things that feed the soil, and groundcovers.

The Functions of a Permaculture Guild

The job of a good Permaculture Designer is to choose the best resource to serve a specific function for the considerations of each unique site. For instance, in the picture above, we have used nitrogen-fixers to feed the soil. In this guild, we have leguminous plants such as local lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), wild cassia (Senna singueana), and River tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala). These are all great species for this guild, but may not be right for other guilds on our site. Fortunately, nature has blessed the world with an abundance of nitrogen-fixers. We also feed the soil through the return of organic matter, compost, mulching, worm castings, eco-san compost, liquid manure, etc. These are all parts of a successful guild.

This guild is only about 4 meters long by two meters wide, but at last count it contains over 25 foods. Many of these foods help to serve various functions, such as a ginger plant, which has strong smelling leaves which act as a ‘protector’ and tubers that act as ‘diggers’. The flowers of various food plants go to seed throughout the seasons and serve to ‘attract’ beneficial organisms (e.g. ladybugs, spiders, birds, lacewings, etc.)

Robert Hart, a pioneer of ‘forest gardening’ in the UK and author of many books on the topic, identified seven layers of a natural forest:

  • A ‘canopy’ layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
  • A ‘low-tree’ layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
  • A ‘shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  • A ‘herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
  • A ‘ground cover’ layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
  • A ‘rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
  • A ‘vertical’ layer of vines and climbers.
Layers of a Forest Garden (Wikimedia Commons image, File:Forgard2-003.gif)

A Permaculture Guild tries to build these layers into its design. In the guild featured in the photos, our mango tree serves as the ‘canopy’; peaches, lemons, and monkey oranges are the ‘low-tree’ layer; tree-tomatoes, cape gooseberries, and peppers are the ‘shrub’ layer; various leafy green vegetables make up the ‘herbaceous layer’; sweet potato vines, strawberries, and oxalis are ‘groundcovers’; coco yams, ginger, and yams are the ‘rhizosphere’; and beans, air potatoes, and yam vines make up the ‘vertical’ layer.

This guild is situated in ‘zone one‘ and offers us highly-nutritious foods throughout the entire year. When we learn the lessons of nature we find that these solutions are no further than a step outside the door. As Bill Mollison once said, “The solutions are embarrassingly simple.”

For more information on guilds, visit our page: Permaculture Guilds. You can even download a free handout to help teach about guilds from the link below:

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Mushroom Season

Mushrooms in Malawi

Rainy season in Malawi is also mushroom season, but only when we take care of the natural environment. Many mushrooms depend upon the diverse ecosystems of forested areas to propagate, grow, and thrive. Unfortunately, many of Malawi’s forested areas are becoming extremely depleted. It has been estimated that deforestation is now responsible for the loss of 33,000 hectares per year, and is mainly attributed to agriculture expansion, tobacco growing, and excessive use of biomass. This deforestation leads to many problems, including the loss of habitat for mushrooms, making them harder to find and more expensive to buy.

There is a certain species of edible mushroom which is found throughout Malawi, called ‘termitomyces‘ (basically ‘termite mushroom’). This unique species has developed a symbiotic relationship with a type of termite found throughout the region, known as macrotermes. These termites actually ‘farm’ the termitomyces fungi, which helps them to break down the cellulose and lignin in organic matter. In return, these fungi erupt into large crops of mushrooms each year throughout the country. Many varieties of termitomyces mushrooms are edible, and contain medicinal properties. There are currently 47 recognized species of termitomyces found throughout the world, and 20 edible species have been found throughout Africa and Asia.

Termite Mound

Here at Never Ending Food, we have found that by restoring natural ecosystems and soil health through the use of mulch, compost, and Permaculture Guilds, we are also seeing the return of mushrooms. This week, we had an eruption of hundreds of a small edible mushrooms called Termitomyces microcarpus. A study conducted in China on 13 edible wild mushrooms found that Termitomyces microcarpus had the largest amount of essential amino acids. Amino acids are molecules that form proteins, which are the building blocks of life. Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and therefore must come from plants. It’s a very rewarding feeling when the ‘building blocks of life’ spring up from healthy soil for free!

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Liquid Manure

Never Ending Food Team Members Applying Liquid Manure

The Never Ending Food team was applying liquid manure to the fields this week. We make this liquid manure on-site from whatever we have available at the time. Generally, we choose high-nitrogen resources, such as manure from our rabbits and chickens, or leaves from leguminous trees (e.g. Senna spectabilis ‘cassia’, Tephrosia, Gliricidia, Crotalaria, Leucaena, etc.).

We fill metal drums half way full with nitrogen-rich materials and then fill the drum up the rest of the way with water. The drums are then covered with a piece of poly tarpaulin (or similar material) to keep down unpleasant odors and protect from flies. Sometimes, we also add strong-smelling plants to the drums (e.g. wild basil, mint, hot peppers, geranium leaves, etc.) to help with integrated pest management during the application process. The drums are stirred with a stick once every couple of days and then they are generally ready for use within 20-30 days.

When applying, we usually dilute the liquid manure with water (1:1). This helps to ensure that the manure doesn’t burn the plants, and it also extends the application coverage area. This easy-to-make liquid manure is a free solution to the high cost of synthetic fertilizers, while also providing beneficial microorganisms to the plants and the soil. We often do 2-3 applications to our fields during a typical rainy season, and can adjust the levels according to the growth of the plants. Give it a try!

The following is a short video on making liquid manure as explained by Never Ending Food‘s former interns, Bright and Moses (in Chichewa):

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Don’t Wait to Eat!

The definition of ‘conventional’ means “conforming or adhering to accepted standards.” The time has come for us to examine the standards which we are accepting.

As another rainy season is getting underway here in Malawi, many people have just planted large fields of maize. Unfortunately, this maize won’t be realized as ‘food’ until the April/May harvest season. Each year we see the same over-emphasis on one crop to provide year-round access to food. This is a problem for several reasons: 1.) Maize alone does not provide the diversified nutrition that humans need for proper growth and development. 2.) Fluctuations in climate make maize susceptible to poor yields. 3.) Maize harvests often don’t last the entirety of the year, leading to chronic ‘hungry seasons’. 4.) Maize was introduced to Malawi from the Americas and has overshadowed (and even stigmatized) the use of traditional food crops. 5.) Millions of dollars are spent on farm inputs (seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, etc.) 6.) Millions of dollars are spent on nutritional fortification and supplementation programs to compensate for a lack of nutritional diversity.

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to these problems. Permaculture aims to provide people with access to diverse and highly-nutritious foods on a daily basis. By mimicking nature through the integration of perennial food crops, it helps to ensure that food production becomes local, seasonal, and organic. A walk around our Permaculture site this morning demonstrates some of the foods that are already available to us. This is one of the reasons we named our site ‘Never Ending Food‘…the food never ends!

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Another Graduation!

Lyton and Isaac receiving their Certificates in Permaculture Design!

Never Ending Food has two more interns who were certified in Permaculture Design! Lyton Dimba and Isaac Frackson both completed their 72-hours of theory, classroom, and practical coursework. Today they presented their maps and designs to the rest of the Never Ending Food team and received their certificates.

Stacia and I have been out of the country for several months, but in our absence the Never Ending Food team kept things running smoothly. Our manager, Peter Kaniye, has continued to facilitate tours, conduct outreach, care for the plants and animals, and teach about Permaculture Design. It is a wonderful feeling to know that Permaculture has taken on a life of its own here in Malawi.

Trainings are now taking place throughout the country on an annual basis. Almost every district in Malawi has good demonstration sites, and there are several training centers which have been established. These trainings range from 1-5 day introduction courses, all they way up to 12-day design courses. It seems that Permaculture is here to stay!

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!