Herb spiral

Building a permaculture herb spiral

Permaculture is an amazingly deep field of ecological design. The more I read, the more fascinated I become and I have been been keen to try out some of its principles on our property. With a few books from the library and a quick look online [as well as good time invested staring longingly at the $100+ Bill Mollinson’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Guide in a bookshop over the weekend – I’m waiting on someone returning it at library] –> here is our very amateur progress today at building a permaculture herb spiral.

As far as I can determine, the purpose of a herb spiral is to create a climatic microcosm of the surrounding area and to use your understanding of these features in a compact and energy efficient way to grow healthy flourishing herbs.

From my reading, the key aspects seem to be:-

the spiral arrangment of stones to shelter herbs and assist drainage

the use of gravity to feed water down through the soil from the middle height of the spiral

utilising the location of the sun by understanding the needs of each herb when planting

First, we chose our site –> an area in the back garden that had previously been home to some too-large half-dead shrubs. This is near to our kitchen door and I had been eyeing this up as my kitchen herb garden since moving in, particularly because it has existing irrigation. We don’t yet have our own compost [a long story] but last weekend we prepared the soil by adding two bags of mushroom compost. I have no idea if this is a ideal herb spiral location, but the good thing about this small space is that most people probably have one.

Next, we put down some cardboard in the general area of the planned spiral. This is approximately a 1 metre diameter circle. It looks rough, but the idea is that it should help supress any weeds. Most guides say that the cardboard can just be put under the spiral walls, but we just went for the whole area. We of course have no idea what we are doing and this may actually be a bad idea.

Then we got the structure happening. Again, we had no idea what we were doing really, but we have a plentiful supply of stones in a paddock from a once-cow-shelter, so a few trips with the trailer and much bending down later, we had stones a-plenty. Most guides say that in the southern hemisphere you build your spiral so that the water runs down in an anti-clockwise direction to account for the summer and winter locations of the sun, and so that is just what we did. The photograph shows the start of our spiral. You should really block the end off with a stone or a pond as this is where the water will collect as it drains through the spiral.

We positioned our drip irrigation in the centre of the spiral, holding it temporarily in place with a common garden cane and bit o’ string. I must admit, we didn’t read about this anywhere and Richard had this idea as we were building the spiral. We don’t know if this will be useful, but it seemed like logical forward-thinking for the summer. We also put in a load of rubble for drainage which seemed intelligent, but wasn’t specifically referred to anywhere.

We started filling the spiral with soil, building it higher as the spiral wound in. The idea is that at the bottom of your spiral, you plant water loving herbs. The well-drained top of your spiral is for the dryer mediterranean herbs. So, you just build up the height of the soil, whilst building your walls up too.

It’s at this time, when the structure starts to get interesting that you might get one or two interested visitors. This is exactly what happened as one of our chickens came over to have a look. Who knows, maybe she even add a little nutrient to the soil while she was there. [She’s the one on the left next to Richard].

We continued to fill and build until the spiral was complete. The mound is supposed to be 1 metre high, but we had limited soil and our is probably a little lower. Once the soil was in place we removed the garden cane and string, leaving the irrigation dripper poking out of the top of the mound. The photograph shows our finished spiral. I really don’t think this will win any design awards, but our heart has gone into it and it looks kind of cool.

In fact, building this spiral shaped mound made me go all mystical [not a rare event]. I couln’t help taking a little inner thought journey about how ancient the spiral symbol is. Its old meaning is rooted in natural growth so it’s not suprising to find it strongly recurring in the philosophy of permaculture. Even looking at our tiny amateur spiral mound reminded me of Newgrange, an impressive megalithic stone burial chamber in Ireland which we saw a few years ago which is full of spiral patterns, as is celtic mythology in general. Our little herb spiral seems connected to the big patterned cosmos in even the smallest way. Nothing is arbitary.

Back to the practicalities –> finally, we planted out our spiral with the herbs we had, which in fact was not many. We graded the herbs from driest to wettest. Some of this was guesswork, so please don’t use this as your own planting guide – check a reputable permaculture guide. I’ve indicated the direction of north and again, I feel a disclaimer is needed that our plantings are based on the happy ignorance of amateurs. We may or may not be right about this – only growing time will tell. I’ve left room for a bay plant at the top which is good for sheltering the lower herbs. I’ll be adding more herbs to the spiral in future.

In building terms, I’m sure if our structure was the size of Newgrange, it would be condemned. I think we’ll have to watch out for some boulder avalanches over the next week while it settles into place. Also, we can’t protect the spiral from Gandalf, who unlike the wise mature wizard of his namesake, is our mad grey kitten who we have just discovered, has a penchant for climbing spiral herb gardens.

We couldn’t have built this spiral (nor could Gandalf have climbed it) without these sites:

Mitra Ardon’s – How to build a herb spiral

This site, which shows a photograph or a well grown spiral (sometimes drawings aren’t enough):- http://www.gardenguides.com/articles/herbspiral.htm

Australian permaculture: more than organic gardening

There are a huge amount of sites out there and these are just the quickest I found that gave me the groundings to start our herb spiral.

Angela Brown
on 5th June (World Environment Day) 2005


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