The subtitle of the book declares it is "The complete guide to polycultures and plant guilds in permaculture systems", and it comes close to fulfilling that claim. Permaculture is a young discipline and there is much to learn about how plants, animals and humans interact. The authors give a pretty concise account of what we know about polycultures and how we can design them.
The first two chapters explain the basic concepts of ecology, permaculture and forest gardening, with the authors' personal spin. This is useful for those new to these concepts, while also offering more detailed insight to those who are familiar with them. The design process is covered in detail, often illustrated with sketch maps or diagrams.
I was pleased to see a chapter devoted to project management, i.e. the process of establishing and maintaining forest gardens. Sample checklists and budgets are given. I was unsure about the mindmaps – while they can be a useful tool, their presentation in the book makes them quite hard to read. Being American, attention is given to a range of climates from subarctic to subtropical – therefore useful to readers across the temperate world, though plants common in North America may be harder to source and establish in other parts of the globe, and information such as the USDA hardiness scale and the ubiquitous measurements in feet will need getting used to.
Plants are discussed with their needs, functions, growth and reproduction patterns. Sensibly, an entire chapter is dedicated to trees as the key players of most guilds, with detailed analysis of four trees by genus – oak, pine, hickory and maple. I was surprised by this selection and would have appreciated an in depth look at more common fruiting species that people with little available land might employ. Species integration is discussed not only considering plants but also domesticated animals and wildlife.
The authors leave the best till last. In the final chapter, they present 15 designs of specific guilds to suit varius situations. Each example gives a brief summary of location, scale and ecological conditions. Simple sketch drawings and plant lists including ecological functions and human uses complement the descriptive text. Helpfully, an estimate of maturation time is also given – ranging from 120 days for the annual 'salsa guild' to 15-20 years for some of the larger tree-centred ones. However, it was not clear whether these guilds have been implemented and seen through into maturity, or whether they are conceptual – which would explain the lack of photographs to accompany these case studies.
Sometimes the information feels quite condensed, and a layperson with little previous exposure to permaculture may find some of the language of the book hard to follow. A few more illustrations and a glossary might add more clarity. As the authors repeatedly stress, there is no 'one size fits all' in polyculture guild design. They do however succeed in suggesting patterns and examples that readers of the book can build upon and opening the vista on potential edible landscapes in cities and countryside.
Tomas Remiarz is a permaculture teacher.
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