the magic and mystery of constructing a herb spiral and why every suburban lawn should have one feat

The Magic and Mystery of Constructing a Herb Spiral and Why Every Suburban Lawn Should Have One

Herb-Spiral-(Panama)

Herb Spiral (Panama)

One of the first permaculture projects I did was building an herb spiral, and to be honest, the design has never ceased to delight me. Undoubtedly, that one and the few spirals that followed are amongst the most beautiful garden beds I’ve made. More importantly, they are also amazingly productive and a great way of getting into the mindset choosing the right spot to plant stuff, both in the sense of permaculture zoning and climatic considerations.

These are some of reasons why everyone who can should have an herb spiral, and there are many more. Herbs make meals more flavorful, used for creating sauces and marinades, infusing oils, or simply sprinkling them freshly julienned over virtually anything. Culinary herbs also have heaps of medicinal benefits, both for preventing and treating chronic conditions like heart disease and dealing with everyday ailments like headaches. They are also amongst the easiest and quickest things to grow, something that can almost instantly end up in the kitchen.

For those looking to get into permaculture, an herb spiral can be a fantastic first project. For those already in the know but still developing their plot, the spiral will undoubtedly be a feature to include for its beauty, practicality and ease. Or, for those with well-established zone ones, abundant with plant life, herbs included, the spiral can be an eye-opening way to demonstrate principles to interested friends, family and neighbors, a fun project to help them get into the idea.

Where the magic happens

Herb-Spiral-(Day-1)-

Herb Spiral (Day 1)

First things first, permaculture design calls for developing our spaces as sensibly as possible, putting those items that require the most attention or provide the most regular use nearest to our living space. This area is called zone one. A spiral is most definitely something to put near the kitchen because herbs are a crop used daily if not multiple times a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can all be enhanced with herbs, so we want them close at hand. Look for a good spot near the kitchen door.

Secondly, the spiral design is not without purpose. It’s most certainly a beautiful shape to find in the garden, but it also has practical reasons. By having the spiral raised in the center, spiraling down to ground level, lots of microclimates are created. Some spots of the spiral will get more sunlight, others more shade. Some areas will be hold moisture better while the more raised parts offer the chance for better drained, drier soil. By having all of these differences, the spiral enables us to grow plants with different needs in a smaller space.

Another consideration for locating a spiral is that it’ll need sun. Most herbs like a lot of light, so be aware when putting the bed next to a wall or beneath a tree. In the same breath, having a somewhat sheltered spot, protected from the wind or heavy rains might help with the more delicate herbs. The more of these factors that can be accounted for, the more likely the plants will be successful.

Constructing the spiral

Constructing-an-Herb-Spiral

Constructing an Herb Spiral

Like any structure, a spiral starts with a foundation. A two-meter diameter provides ample space to wind around a couple of times. The design works best on relatively level ground and maybe even consider layering the bottom with cardboard to prevent weeds from sprouting up in the lower levels. Make a cone of soil and rubble reaching about sixty centimeter at center. Atop this, lay out the spiral design with whatever material is on hand. Stones work great for spiral walls, as do reclaimed bricks, cinderblocks or bottles. (Check out Bill Mollison’s take on it.)

Next, we’ll need to fill the spiral. The obvious first ingredient is soil. A good idea here is to treat the space as if its being sheet mulched. Layer ingredients to provide weed protection, compost fertilizing, moisture retention, and airiness. After that, it’s all about the plants. When placing them in the spiral, consider not just the individual needs of each but how they might affect the rest of the spiral. Some herbs don’t like each other. Some grow tall and might shade its neighbors. Again, the more of these factors taken into account, the better the results will be. Lastly, as always, mulch the bed.

Another common feature to herb spirals in a pond near the mouth, where the spiral opens out onto the ground. This will provide a good habitat for lizards and frogs, which will help to keep the area and plants pest-free. It will also provide a space for moisture to collect to help those herbs that are into that sort of thing. And, aesthetically, it also adds a nice visual feature to the garden, with the possibility of a solar-powered fountain to provide a soothing sound for evenings on the porch, keep the water oxygenated, and maybe even house some fish.

A little help with the herbs

Herb-Spiral-in-Spain

Herb Spiral in Spain

The list of culinary herbs can be quite exhaustive, but with the amount of planting space and microclimates created by an herb spiral, lots and lots can be grown. To help, here’s a list of a dozen or so common herbs and what they are like. For a little more information and a lot more options to include in the spiral, follow this link. For now, however, here are some immediate, logical additions, stuff found in just about any reasonable cook’s kitchen.

Basil enjoys full sun and moist soil. It is the crux of pesto sauce and is included in many other dishes, such as Thai curry. It’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, as well as promotes good cardiovascular health. Plant it mid-way up on the sunny side of the space.

Chives like the sun but can withstand a little shade. They are great sprinkled over beans, soups, omelets, and baked potatoes. Chives have cancer-preventing antioxidants and help the heart and bones. Plant them mid-way up the spiral on the east or west side of the structure.

Coriander/Cilantro digs the morning sun then cooling down in the afternoon and wants for well-drained, rich soil. It’s a must in Mexican cuisine and makes a salsa sparkle. It’s very good for the blood and has antibiotic properties. Stick it on middle rung on the sunrise side of the spiral.

Dill is another fan of morning sun with a healthy tolerance for afternoon shade and does well with a decent dose of water. It goes great with beans, anything creamy, and of course pickles. It’s a good source of calcium and helps prevent bone loss. It grows pretty tall, so place somewhere where it will not block sun for other plants.

Lemon grass wants for plenty of sun and less water. It makes a dandy tea, goes well in soups and Asian cooking, and is mosquito deterrent. It helps with stomach issues, arthritis, aches, and fevers. Plant it on a higher along the sunny side of the spiral, mindful of it not blocking out the light for other plants.

Mint, for those who can grow it, is a wildly successful and invasive, water-loving plant. It pairs well with peas, makes fantastic drinks, and produces a nice jelly. Medicinally, it’s a magical plant for battling nausea, headaches, and respiratory ailments of all sorts, including asthma. This one goes low, near the pond.

Oregano likes things on the drier, sunnier side of life. It is well-versed herb, with experience in cuisines the world over, and the health benefits of oregano are multiple in its strengthening of the immune system. Place it high on the spiral, where the water can drain and there is plenty of sun.

Parsley prefers things a bit cool, so might do well on the shadier side of the spiral. While it is usually just a garnish, it actually makes some fantastic salads and really adds a fresh punch to sauces. It freshens breath and provides important nutrients like vitamin C and iron. Put it away from the sun to keep it cooler.

Rosemary can tolerate a little cold and does best in sandy, well-draining soil. It is another classic herb for most, very strong in flavor and fantastic for roasting. It boosts memories, brightens moods, relieves pain, and improves circulation. Plant on the less sunny side of the spiral, high enough for the soil to drain.

Sage is an accommodating herb to grow, with the ability to handle diverse soil and climate. Its uses are many, including great stuffing, delicious tea, and the spiritual cleansing of spaces. It prevents chronic diseases, powers the immune system, and stimulates the brain. It likes well-drained soil and oregano, so these two would make great spiral neighbors.

Tarragon wants sunlight and dry feet. It is great for salad and salad dressings, as well as infusing vinegars, oil or butter. Great for sufferers of rheumatism or arthritis, great at stimulating the appetite, and the oil works on worms that enter the body. This another one to put high in the spiral but in the shelter of other plants.

Thyme is another herb that can take lower temperatures and sandy soil, and it can deal with a little shade as well. It’s kind of like a subdued rosemary, with a similarly evergreen taste but a little more subtlety in its flavor. The same old, same old—it helps the respiratory system, circulatory system, and prevents chronic disease. Plant it near the rosemary, give them both a little sandy soil and shade to play in.

Just a note: The photo of me constructing an herb spiral is slightly different than how I describe doing it in the article. I later discover the Bill Mollison video linked within and described his method, as I would assume he knows better than I.

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8 thoughts on “The Magic and Mystery of Constructing a Herb Spiral and Why Every Suburban Lawn Should Have One

  1. The article and video says to put in the mound of dirt first and then build the borders, but your photograph shows the opposite.

    1. Hi Gil,

      The author did raise this in his correspondence. “Just a note: The photo of me constructing an herb spiral is slightly different than how I describe doing it in the article. I later discover the Bill Mollison video linked within and described his method, as I would assume he knows better than I.”

      Jonathon is a very knowledgeable person and in his work gives credit where it is appropriate. The passage not being in the article is our fault and has been inserted.

      Regards – Web Team

  2. Thank you for the article, Jonathon! I wonder if you could shed some light on something that’s always confused me about herb spirals… given that the sun appears to move clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern, and that ground sloping toward the western afternoon sun will dry out faster than ground sloping away from it, and that one of the benefits given for herb spirals is to provide microclimates for sensitive herbs, one would expect that designs for herb spirals would always indicate whether they are intended for the northern or southern hemisphere, but I have never found such an indication on a published design. Can you please explain the reasoning behind why the Spain spiral is shown going clockwise (from bottom to top) and the Panama one counterclockwise? Thank you again!

    1. Truthfully, I don’t have a very definitive answer for you, but I’ll tell you my line of thinking on the situation. In both of the herb spirals pictured in the article, they turn the way they do based on the interplay of the other variable around them. In Panama, I was wedged between a house and an avocado tree so I positioned the spiral in such a way that more of the levels got the sun, with the back–lemongrass, which stuck up high enough, and mint, which struggled in the heat–providing a bit of protection. In Spain, the problem was too much sun and not enough moisture, so I played with the height of the wall and morning shade from a carob tree, trying to provide some relief for the plants. For me, the localized position of the spiral seems more relevant than the hemisphere. I hope this helps.

  3. So I was right to start with a herb spiral in my garden just now!
    I wrote about it in the forum. I started a ‘Garden Journal’ too, with sketches in it.

  4. Honestly, I never understood the point of herb spirals. Yeah, they can look pretty, but to me they seem impractical and a waste of space. Firstly, the two dozen different herbs I grow have vastly different needs in terms of nutrition, warmth and sunlight. I understand that you’re supposed to plant the shade-tolerant species in the shady side of the spiral, but in my eyes plants like ground elder, wood garlic, mint, marjoram or lovage, which tolerate shade well or even need it, are much more useful for putting in places where nothing else useful will grow, like the full shade beside a north-facing wall. Besides, I use far more ground elder (spinach) and mint (tea) than would ever fit into that design (and they both have a tendency to spread like wildfire), and both need very nutrient-rich, moist soil, which would probably kill things like chamomile or thyme because of the high water-retention of compost. I’ve never needed to grow chives, because the previous owner of the plot left me a heritage of perennial, wild chives spread throughout the lawn. Then there’s things like parsley, which I can’t plant on the ground because the slugs will eat it all, or basil, which needs so much warmth and light that it only survives in a pot on a south-facing balcony in my latitude. Also, you can’t plant certain species together in a single bed, like parsley and mint. There’s also the fact that I want to be able to reach my kitchen herbs even on a rainy day, so it’s better to grow them right beside the door, not halfway across the lawn. It’s good, then, that most of them do perfectly well in a small pot (which can stand on the stairs or patio) – why waste space and soil that could be used to grow vegetables that actually need the root-space? And lastly, some herbs are far too useful for companion planting together with vegetables to keep them isolated in a dedicated herb bed, no matter how cleverly designed. (borage / dill + cucumbers / squash; savory + beans; basil / celery + tomatoes; chives / onions + carrots / fruit trees; marjoram / nasturtium + anything that needs insect pollination; etc.)

    By the way, my tarragon does perfectly well underneath a low, shade-throwing chestnut tree, between a bunch of dense, short flowers that it has to overcome every spring. So it can’t be all that sun-hungry.

  5. VIVI-
    I’m interested in learning more about companion planting of herbs & vegetables. Do you have a good site you can recommend?

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