Herb Spirals and Herb Circles

Fresh herbs right outside the kitchen door

The herb spiral is more or less an ubiquitous installment at the permaculture farm, so when we came to work on a property in Panama, building a spiral as near to the kitchen as possible was a top priority. Not only would it supply us with fresh and flavorful meals, but it wouldn’t take long to establish a useable system, a harvestable, sustainable crop. At least, with a herb spiral, we could start eating sooner rather than later.

Luckily for us, there was a collection of herbs from which to start. We had three types of basil, three types of oregano, lemongrass, mint, tarragon, a local sage-like plant, and culantro (a weedy cousin of cilantro) already growing. Conveniently, there was also an errant pile of slate stone, the result of a property owner keen to invest in any material deal he stumbles across. Lastly, though we didn’t have lots of rich soil, we did have a plethora of useful debris, like fallen leaves, water milfoil from the nearby lake, and a scrape of topsoil to build up the interior to something acceptable.

In week one of our six month stay, despite sporadic downpours and a formidable hill to conquer, we could wait no longer. We’d gone around taking clippings from all the existing plants, and they’d all taken root without problem. Here’s what we did:

  • Cleared out and leveled a space about a meter and a half across.
  • Stacked stones in a spiral pattern, gradually building from ground level to about waist high (lots of microclimates this way).
  • Layered the interior with leaves and twigs, milfoil, and soil.
  • Planted the herb clippings, paying attention to what grows well where.

Building the walls of the herb spiral
(Tip: building from the inside out is probably easier)

The idea behind herb spirals is fairly simple: Building a circular bed with spiraled walls creates an insane collection of microclimates, with varying degrees of sun exposure, drainage, and the opportunity to separate bad companions and neighbor friendly plants. In a tiny space, less than six square meters, it’s possible to grow a variety of herbs that might otherwise have to be spread throughout a property. The herb spiral lets gardeners do it in one spot, where it is most needed, near to the kitchen.

Though beds often have upwards of fifteen different herbs in them, we were happy to start with what we had, so we planned our bed accordingly: Mint can’t take the sunlight here, so we planted it in the shadiest part of the bed. Basil loves the sun, so we planted the three types of it in sunnier spots. Oregano doesn’t like too much water, so we tried to give it adequate drainage. Lemongrass is tall, so we put it where it wouldn’t interfere with other herbs. And, so on. We added some garlic and chives from our last groceries as well.

The newly planted spiral: day one

Within the next couple of weeks, our spiral exploded. The clippings outgrew the original plants, and we were using fresh herbs every day. At first, we were trimming the plants for leaves, taking off just what we needed, but we soon realized we could have more. Every time we harvested basil for the next pesto, we’d snip enough to get leaves and root the stem. Every time we used oregano, we’d eat the leaves and root the stem. Soon enough, we had a whole army of plants prepped for the soil.

Not really in need of a second spiral, we spread these new plants about the property. We learned that basil is a great companion plant for tomatoes and peppers. We planted lemongrass all around the house to help with mosquitoes. Oregano serves cucumbers well and is a friend to most plants, as is tarragon. Then, we also shared out clippings with neighbors, and most recently, we’ve planted a new, multi-level herb bed next to our pizza oven in progress. (Just check out this great companion planting list.)

And, this is what we call the herb circle. Of course, the rooting can be done with or without a spiral, but the point is that, every time breakfast, lunch, or dinner contains fresh herbs, it’s an opportunity to grow a new plant. We’ve been in Panama for less than three months now, and we are already working on our fourth generation of plants, with the first generation still providing plenty of flavor.

Fourth generation herbs waiting for their roots

The project was a blast to put together and has created something really pleasing to look at while we eat. Honestly, we’ve felt major health benefits, especially in the achy joint category, from eating so much raw herbage. We’ve discovered that adding them to beans, potatoes, or whatever after it is cooked makes for much more flavorful dishes. Frankly put, we use fresh, healthful herbs more regularly than we ever have. In short, the herb spiral has changed the way we live.

Our plan is to slowly begin diversifying what the spiral holds (we’ve recently acquired thyme and several naturally growing medicinal herbs), and using our ever-growing collection of clippings to build herb corridors leading down to the vegetable garden and mini fruit forest. We’ve offered to build a spiral for a neighbor who shares coconuts, mangoes, and sweet potatoes with us. And, thus, the herb circle continues to…circle. All from one little spiral.