Matt and I have been getting a lot of questions and comments regarding our the herb spiral we recently built. I want to assure everyone, this is NOT just a pretty thing! Herb spirals are a staple of permaculture, which infuses design with function to make your yard both a beautiful haven and a forest that will feed you for minimal effort. The herb spiral is one component of this, and probably the most attainable for the permaculture novice or suburban dweller.
To build an herb spiral, first look for a spot in your yard that gets a lot of consistent sunlight. The point of the spiral is that all of your herbs are easily accessible, so it really should be close to the house, but it’s really up to you. You’re looking for a spot that is AT LEAST 5’x5′.
Once you find your spot, you want to make a mound of healthy dirt that is circular, five feet in diameter and about 3 feet high. Don’t worry about making it spiral shaped just yet- just get the dimensions right. If you compost, this is a great time to work that in. For our spiral, we layered healthy soil from the yard with bunny droppings compost- one of the best natural fertilizers you can find. It took many wheelbarrow runs, but we finally had our mound.
Next, shape the mound into a spiral. Gather as many rocks as you can find, ranging for large ones that you could sit on (for the base) to smaller ones that will decoratively form the top of the spiral. Start by building the outer circle with larger stones, packing the soil down tightly to the rocks as you build. As you close the circle, start the spiral, working with medium- sized rocks as you move up and around as evenly as possible, until you reach the top of the mound. Don’t worry about packing dirt yet, just get the general shape. You want to leave 12-18″ between each ring for ample planting space.
Once you have your basic spiral down in stones, start forming a sloping planting bed between the rings. This is the hardest part- you have to be diligent to make sure everything will slope downwards to the end of the spiral, but that the planting beds are even and water won’t just run down the sides, but will stay in the spiral bed. You’ll be moving a lot of dirt around, perhaps from the top to the bottom, or from one side to another, until your spiral is balanced and even. Putting in extra time here is well worth it- if you rush, your water flow won’t be as effective and this will result in more work for you later.
As you finish spiralling the planting beds, you may notice that you need to build up the rock part of the spiral to keep the dirt in place- we had to build up significantly. You want the rocks to hold the dirt in place, but also form a ‘lip’ over the outer edge of the planting beds to help with water flow. To be honest, building the rock walls up makes everything look great, so go for it!
Once you’ve finished forming your spiral and building up your rock walls, you can think about planting. We let out spiral sit for a few days and get rained on, which compounded the dirt a bit and give the nutrients in the soil and compost a chance to begin working together. You don’t have to do this, but it’s nice for your plants.
I recommend putting a nice, inch-deep layer of organic compost or potting soil over the entire spiral just before planting. Not only does this give the spiral a finished look, but it gives your new plants a healthy foundation. Notice the difference in the rock walls from the previous photo.
Now that you’ve constructed your spiral and prepped your soil, you can get ready to plant! Herb spirals require a bit of homework, but that’s what makes them so effective. I started by listing out the different herbs that’s wanted to include- things that I liked and used frequently, and others that I wanted to become familiar with. While a true permaculture spiral will focus on perennials, you can do whatever you like in your garden. We have a mix of both.
Here is where your research begins. Plants that need a lot of sunlight will need to be planted on the sides of the spiral that get the most sun. Plants that tolerate or need shade can go on the other side. In addition, you’ll want to place plants that need well-drained soil near the top of the spiral, where the water will run off quickly, while plants that need consistent soaking all be placed near the bottom. Examples from my garden-
Lavender- placed at the very top of the spiral. Lavender needs extremely well drained soil to thrive- in native France, lavender is often found planted in limestone shale. In addition, lavender requires a place with full sunlight- as much as possible.
Pineapple sage- a new favorite of mine, this versatile sage smells exactly of pineapple when the leaves are bruised. Great for teas, mixed drinks, fruit salad, desserts. Can tolerate a bit of shade and is indiscriminate with water content, so I plopped it in a free space in the middle of the spiral.
Peppermint- easy and generous, peppermint is very shade tolerant, but loves to be soaking wet. We placed peppermint directly at the bottom, where the runoff frm the entire spiral will pool. This is also perfect mint placement due to mint’s tendency to spread- it’s surrounded by stone on three sides.
Once you’ve got your list of herbs (feel free to include flowers, too, it’s your spiral after all) begin researching each one and grouping them together according to their needs or where you will place them. I bought my herbs, researched on my phone/with a book right next to the spiral, and placed them in the appropriate place on the planting beds as I went. Once it was time to plant, I dug my hole, nestled them into place, and covered with a bit of soil. All done!
Feel free to leave space in the spiral to add more plants at a later time. You don’t have to pack out your spiral all at once! It will still be effective and beautiful. I’ve got some great sweet basil, lemon balm, and chocolate mint that I plan to transplant over when I get the time. Don’t stress over everything being perfect- it will all come together.
Variations on the spiral- some people choose to make a small pond at the end of the spiral, rather than closing it off, and cultivate aqua plants such as watercress, or event small fish. I’d love to move towards this someday, but it’s a bit of an undertaking right now. In addition, some people will run an irrigation system up the center of the spiral when building the mound- also awesome, but we like to feel a connection to our plants 🙂
If you decide to give this a go, be sure to post some pictures!