Every now and then I encounter some committed permaculturist who earnestly wishes to educate me about planning guilds (functional plant groups) in my garden. I just don’t think this way. It seems to me that, if you love to grow food, have a fairly high chaos tolerance, and live somwhere long enough, you will naturally and accidentally discover what thrives in groups in your area, as well as what you really like to eat. Take the large pot above, which has been next to my back patio for four years. It is a microcosm, or micro-cosmos, of my interests over the time since it was placed. In it you can spot the gorgeous leaf lettuce Merlot that I’m growing this year, chickweed that I planted three years ago and which is self-seeding nicely, moringa that I started experimenting with last year (which, incidentally, wintered over in a pot that isn’t watered in the winter and survived a very cold winter,) Shirley poppies from four years ago when this pot was placed, and wild lettuce which seeds itself all over at my house and which I tolerate because I like it in cooked greens. My planned combinations haven’t come out nearly so well. Everything in this pot is edible; yes, even Shirley poppy leaves are fine in cooked greens. But it all happened through planting things, not weeding too assiduously, and seeing what happened. If you have a poor memory and are prone to planting things in spots where you already planted something else and then forgot about it, some further felicitous combinations will occur.
A linden planted for its edible leaves has a bird-sown wax current bush growing in its shade, bearing more heavily than its siblings in full sun. Bladder campion seeds itself into the shady north corner under the linden. Siberian elms, self-sown all over, can be coppiced for free goat feed. A bird-sown mulberry nearby can be coppiced for tender edible green shoots to use in cooked greens. Stinging nettles, struggling in the baking desert sun, root their way into the shade of the elm and mulberry coppices and begin to flourish. Stems of oyster mushrooms, dug into garden beds in the fall, produce a few nice oyster mushrooms in the shade of lettuce the following year. A single lambs-quarters is allowed to seed, and late-spring crops of mild and nutritious greens show up all around your intentional plantings for years. A Russian olive that grows smack in the middle of a garden bed despite years of cutting it back and cursing it, can be pruned into a support for climbing snow peas. A really poor clump of garlic at the base of a tree, left by the last owner, turns out to be indestructible through baking summers and perfect for green garlic. Scorzonera and wolfberries make some good food out of baking unimproved spots where you can’t get anything else to grow. A local non-edible legume, the desert bird-of-paradise, springs up and offers light shade to the wolfberry, giving it a new lease on life and more tender leaves that you can toss into greens mixtures. None of this is especially tidy, and the straight-row sort of gardener would never tolerate it. But for those of us who love a bit of natural mess and take our vegetables and our epiphanies where we can find them, it works.