I think the most beautiful thing you can grow in your yard is a vegetable garden. Some people prefer well-behaved roses or hydrangea, or neatly clipped hedges, but that’s not for me. A vegetable garden can be as beautiful as the fanciest of landscape designs. And, it has the added benefit of actually being useful. Imagine that.
I’d like to show you how to design a small garden, permaculture style! This particular type of garden is quite popular in permaculture circles, and can be built in a multitude of ways. It all depends on what your preferences are.
In the permaculture world, this is called a Herb Spiral. You can see a vast array of different sizes and styles of herb spirals online. Just Google ‘herb spiral’, click ‘images’, and take a look. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Beautiful, right? There are as many different ways to build a herb spiral as there are people building them. You can build it all tidy and neat, with bricks or stones neatly laid out. Or you can plant a little pile of jungle. It’s all good.
If you’re interested in growing some of your own food, but are intimidated by the idea of a larger garden, this is the place to start. A small, easily maintained garden such as this will get you off to a good start.
The basics of a herb spiral
In essence, a herb spiral is a mini herb garden, set up in a way that makes it very accessible, creates micro climates for different plants, and takes up very little space.
You can plant your herb spiral with anything. It doesn’t have to be just herbs. In my herb spiral pictured above, I planted rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, basil, lemon balm, and parsley.
But I also planted a couple of tomato plants on the sunny side, and lettuces on the cooler shady side. There’s also some kale in there; and the year before, I had a zucchini plant.
So, basically this is a small kitchen garden, that was about 8 feet from my front door. Super convenient, right? That’s the idea. A herb spiral is designed to make accessing fresh herbs (or veggies!) in a convenient little mound, close to your door to entice you to use it.
The herb spiral will have a sunny side and a shady side; and a dry area (the top) and a moister area (the bottom). This creates micro climates that different plants might prefer.
At the very top of the herb spiral above is a rosemary plant, and slightly lower down on the sunny side is thyme. Below that, on the sunny side, is oregano. These three herbs are Mediterranean herbs, so they prefer sun and tolerate a dryer soil better.
Lower down, where it is generally moister, grow the tomatoes (or zucchini, if you decide to go that route). At the back of the spiral, where they get some shade, lettuces are happy to grow. They don’t like the heat as much.
So you see, there are little micro climates within this small garden that should enable you to plant a wide variety of herbs and vegetables.
Building a herb spiral
Choosing a site
Your herb spiral, or mini kitchen garden, should be somewhere that is convenient to get to. Somewhere that you walk past every day, and is quick to access from your kitchen, or maybe close to where you BBQ. You’ll be wanting to run out and pick some herbs for dinner most nights. And maybe some tomatoes for the salad.
Try to find a spot that doesn’t get shaded by any tall trees or buildings. If you can’t, that’s fine – things will still grow if they get at least 6-8 hours of sun. But the ideal spot is full sun. And make sure you can easily walk all the way around it.
As for building material, well, the sky’s the limit. My herb spiral was built by putting organic matter – wood chips, grass clippings, compost – and our sandy soil over top of some large stumps and logs, to build a mound. And it was built on the side of a slight slope, so this spiral didn’t have much of a shady side at the back.
You can build your herb spiral just by piling soil up into a mound, defining the spiral with stones, bricks, or whatever you have on hand, and planting it out. (It does work well to pile that soil over some old stumps or logs, or whatever you can find. It really helps to hold water, and adds nutrients.)
Or you can get fancy, like some of those you see on Google search, with neatly stacked bricks or stones. Whatever suits your style and your landscape. It’s all good. The main idea is to create an accessible small kitchen garden that you will use.
So go out side, walk around the yard, and find a place that you think will be just the perfect spot. Then we’ll build it.
It’s really not difficult the build, if you’re just going for functional. If you want a more elegant look, then you’ll probably have to invest a little into the project. But keep this in mind: once the plants are all grown up and take over, you’ll barely see the ‘spiral’ itself.
Many of the herb spiral images you’ll see if you do a Google search have tall sides made of stone or brick. They might look nice in the yard, but they’re not really practical, and do not offer as much planting space. Something like the one I did, shown below, has much more planting space to utilize, and there is no wasted space.
How big should my herb spiral be?
Sorry, but you’re the only one who can answer that. How big is your yard? How much stuff do you want to plant? But there’s a rule of thumb that will help.
You should be able to reach the center of your herb spiral from all sides. If you want one a little bigger, then you will need to put some ‘stepping stones’ in place so you can step up and reach everything.
Mine was not a particularly large herb spiral – about 6 or 7 feet across at the bottom – but it held a LOT of herbs and veggies. Enough for the two of us who lived there.
You can build it with steep sides, or more of a gentle slope. You can use stones, bricks, sea shells, bits of pottery, or whatever tickles your fancy, to define your spiral. Have fun with it. Make it unique.
Create a herb spiral planting plan
Of course, what you grow in your herb spiral should reflect what you enjoy eating. But if you are not used to cooking with fresh herbs, I strongly suggest that you try it out. Just the aroma of these herbs is uplifting. And they can be used in so many ways, including medicinally.
I like to make sun tea – a jar stuffed full of herbs, then left out in the sun for a day – and I put EVERYTHING in there. Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, lemon balm, parsley – you name it, in it goes. It’s a great way to get a good variety of nutrients in ya. I add a little ginger honey in there when it’s done steeping. Simply scrumptious.
So, go ahead and grab a few herb plants and seeds that you’d like to try, and let’s get planning your herb spiral/mini kitchen garden.
As I mentioned earlier, there are different areas in your herb spiral that might be better for some plants than others. Let’s break them down:
- hot and dry
- hot and moist
- cool and dry
- cool and moist
- morning sun, afternoon shade
- morning shade, afternoon sun
- full sun
- full shade
Research the plants that you want to grow in your herb spiral, and see what kind of conditions they like best. If you’ve made a very small herb spiral, the differences won’t be as dramatic. But in a larger one, they can be.
A large herb spiral can have a lovely shady side for lettuces, cilantro and chervil to thrive; and plenty of sun for a tomato plant, a pepper plant, and a zucchini plant; or whatever your favorite veggies are. There really aren’t many things that wouldn’t love growing in a herb spiral.
Pick your plants
There are just so many different herbs and veggies you can grow in your herb spiral/mini kitchen garden. It all comes down to what you like to eat. Here are a few suggestions of things to grow.
- Sweet Peppers
- Hot peppers
- Lettuce and other salad greens – arugula, mustard, sorrel, etc.
With these growing in your mini kitchen garden, you’ll have plenty of fresh produce for salads and stir-fries, and fresh herbs to add to any number of delicious meals. Once the herbs are established, you’ll have lots to experiment with fresh; and you can start drying them for use in the winter.
As you can see in the images above, my herb spiral was spiralling out of control! But it was lovely to have it close to the front door; and I could see it out my kitchen window. It got used on a daily basis.
Where to plant what, and what to plant where
So let’s take a look at a few of the plants listed above, and see where we should plant them.
- Rosemary – likes the sun, and likes a free-draining soil that isn’t too wet. So the top of the heap is the place for her.
- Thyme – similar to rosemary, so she goes near the top, on the sunny side as well.
- Sage – same as above
- Parsley – can grow just about anywhere really, but cool and moist is her fave, so on the shadier side, lower down.
- Cilantro and chervil – both of these herbs love cool weather, so they need to go on the shady side, preferably near the bottom where they will get the most shade and moisture.
- Tomatoes – they like the sun, but they also like moisture, so sunny side on the bottom.
- Peppers – same as the tomatoes, but more so. They really like the heat.
- Zucchini – they love the sun, but can handle a little more shade than tomatoes and peppers. Plus they really sprawl, so they should be at the bottom, somewhere they can spread out a bit.
- Lettuce and salad greens – most lettuces and greens will appreciate the cooler and moister side of the spiral.
Do you get the idea? Research each of the plants that you would like to grow, and find the spot that they will like the best.
An important thing to keep in mind: plants grow. And some of them grow quite large. So make sure to give everything some space to grow into. It might look a little bare while you’re waiting for your perennial herbs such as rosemary and thyme to grow up, but you can always plant annuals in the open space until they do.
Here is a very simple planting plan, which incorporates the herbs and vegetables we discussed above. This is a general idea of how to design and plant your herb spiral. Feel free to take out plants you don’t like, and replace them with things you do like to eat. That is, after all, the whole point of planting a garden.
And now you have a garden!
I think that a small kitchen garden like the one we have just designed is one of the sweetest things. It’s just jam packed with healthy foods; and it’s great if you can build it near your doorstep. It’s small, it’s beautiful, it’s useful, and it will make you feel good every time you go rummaging in it for herbs and veggies for dinner.
Now that you know how to design a small garden – permaculture style! – it’s time to build it. You’ll be so happy you did. And once friends and family see your gorgeous creation, they’ll want one too. And that is how we spread permaculture around the world. One friend at a time.
If you have any questions or comments about this type of garden design, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.
Health, Hope & Happiness