Herb spirals are a fun and easy way to fit your favorite herbs into a small planting area. I learned about this technique from a book on Permaculture called Gaia’s Garden. Check it out from your local library or get your own copy using my Amazon Affiliate link below:
The idea behind a herb spiral is that circular patterns in nature are innately space-conserving. You can minimize how much pathway vs. planting area you’ll need by organizing your herbs into a spiral pattern and also utilizing vertical space. Here are a few examples of what they can look like:
So you want to make one? Great! Here are the steps to build your very own herb spiral:
1. Pick Your Planting Location
Your herb spiral should be as close to your home as possible. In Permaculture, this is called Zone 0 or Zone 1. You can think of zones as a bulls-eye mapped over your property, where Zone 0 is your home and larger number Zones radiate out from that center point). The closer your herbs are to where you’ll be preparing food, the more likely you are to actually use them!
2. Add Some Rocks or Pavers in a Spiral Pattern
Add football to fist sized rocks or pavers, creating a spiral pattern from the base upwards. Essentially you’re delineating the planting area for each layer. If you’ve got leftover pavers, bricks or something similar, that will work fine, too. The goal is to make it ~3ft tall and 5ft wide. In the Northern Hemisphere, build it clockwise, with the opening on the North side.
3. Fill with Soil/Compost
Pile up some good garden soil/compost into the open gaps between your pavers/stones. You can save some money by making this a hugelkultur bed (using sticks and twigs at the base, then filling in with soil – the twigs will eventually break down into compost).
4. Plant Some Herbs (and Other Garden Goodies)!
You’ve created a garden structure that has microclimates! Lay out your herbs on the spiral, taking advantage of each herb’s preferred growing conditions. You don’t have to limit it to just herbs, either. Here are some general ideas of where to put things based on whether they like more or less sun and drier or wetter conditions:
Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Bottom (wetter)
Mint (in a sunken container so it doesn’t escape into the rest of the spiral)
Plant in the Middle (East or West side)
Plant Middle, East side
Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near bottom (wetter)
Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near top (drier)
Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Top (drier)
Dill (likes the heat, but gets pretty tall so you don’t want it to block sunlight for other herbs)
Here’s an example of a layout that could work for most gardens in the Northern Hemisphere:
Water your herb spiral or install irrigation tubing for automatic watering.
Here are a few additional resources explaining how to construct the spiral and where to place your favorite herbs and plants:
If you don’t already have a permanent solution for your herbs, I hope you’ll give this a try! Do you have a herb spiral in your garden? What do you like/dislike about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
Sunday: Why so much garden imagery in the Bible?
Next Wednesday: Weedling vs. Seedling – How to Tell the Difference
Have you heard of Square Foot Gardening before? No, it’s not about people who have really angular feet gardening. But for a minute, let’s just imagine someone with cartoonish, block-like feet attempting to garden – the mental picture is hilarious!
What is Square Foot Gardening?
Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is all about maxing out what you can grow in a square foot (12” x 12”) planting area. Most SFGs are no more than 4 ft wide (to allow for easy reaching into the bed without stepping into the planting area) and can be any length. If you don’t have a copy already, I highly recommend purchasing the creator, Mel Bartholmew’s, book. I use it as a reference every single growing season. This book never collects dust at my house.
(This is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you choose to purchase using this link, I’ll get the world’s tiniest commission ever).
SFG: AN Answer to Inefficiency
SFG eliminates gardening inefficiencies that are carryovers from traditional row farming. Here are some of the issues with traditional row gardening/farming that SFG solves:
Eliminates wasted space (i.e. huge aisles and footpaths in farming or traditional row growing methods)
Reduces weed competition by growing densely and shading out weeds
Conserves water by utilizing a smaller planting area
Reduces seed waste (no thinning seedlings)
Spaces out harvests through succession planting and planting reasonable numbers of plants
Starts with healthy soil – a soil recipe so light, airy, and nutrient-dense that plants have a healthy start from day 1
The late, great Mel Bartholomew invented this method of gardening in 1976, and with it, revolutionized home gardening. With the common-sense ideas listed above, can you guess what Mel’s background was prior to developing SFG? If you guessed engineer, you’re a winner! Mel was a civil engineer, specializing in eliminating inefficiencies in construction and manufacturing prior to his foray into gardening.
5 second T.O. (Time Out): Isn’t it amazing how our God-given gifts and talents can be utilized in such different and cool ways? I find that fascinating. Anyway, I digress.
Back on topic now.
Here’s what I love about SFG:
It’s accessible. The small size of square foot gardens (as small as 3×3 or 4×4 ft), makes it an approachable start for beginning gardeners.
It’s easy and efficient. Less weeding (plants in SFG grow so closely together that they effectively shade out most weeds), few tools needed, less hauling hoses around a gigantic garden, no digging, no fooling with trying to improve your native soil.
It’s tidy and compact. You can fit a SFG just about anywhere. If you only have a tiny bit of land, you can still probably fit a 4×4 ft bed. Heck, you can even make SFG raised bed tables that can go on a deck or patio.
It’s adaptable. Building the beds can be a pain if you’re not confident with tools, but I’ve learned that you really don’t have to make a border if you don’t want to or it’s not in your budget. You could make a 4×4 ft patch of soil with no border (just watch out for erosion) or you could make a border out of large tree branches (hello pruning upcycling!), bricks, pavers, large rocks, cinder blocks, or whatever other random things you have lying around. You can also make the SFG any size you want, for any types of plants you want to grow. You can do all vegetables, all herbs, all flowers, all perennials, or a combination of any of those. The world is your oyster!
It doesn’t require a ton of maintenance. Unlike row gardening, you don’t have to till the soil every year. You just top up the beds with a little bit of compost in the fall, and you’re good to go in the spring!
So how do you make a square foot garden?
Step 1: Decide on whereyou want your SFG to go.
Consider what areas of your property get the most light during the day (best for most vegetables) and how far you’ll have to haul water. Don’t forget to think about things that might cast a shadow on your planting area or cause a microclimate where things get too hot or cold (buildings, trees, fences).
Step 2: Determine the size of your SFG.
Start small! For your first year, I recommend going with one 4×4 ft bed or 4×8 ft bed if you’re feeling ambitious.
This was our first SFG bed, back in 2017. We made 2- 4×4 beds and put them side-by-side to make it 4×8. I ultimately didn’t like having a bed that long and 4 ft across was too wide for me. I’m glad we only made one bed that year so I could easily make changes to the layout.
You can supplement with container gardening (pots) if you think you need more space, but it’s best to start small when you’re building any sort of garden structure. It gives you a growing season or two to decide if you like the orientation, make changes, and decide how you might like to expand (or if you even need to expand).
If you’re short like me, having one of the sides be 3 ft instead of 4 is helpful – it can be hard to reach all the way across a 4 ft bed without stepping in it if you’re small (and stepping in a SFG is a big no-no!).
An example of how you might lay out your SFG beds. This was back in 2019 when we added 2- 3×4 ft beds to our SFG setup.
Step 3: Choose your material.
You’ve got some options here:
Sloping edges on a mound of soil can work as an SFG! You’ll need to stay on top of weeding, but it can work. Check out Charles Dowding’s method.
If you’re using lumber, untreated or heat-treated pine is fine and cheap! Thicker stock is better (1 in is great). Some sites will say you need to use cedar, but it can get cost-prohibitive. We initially got 1/2in cedar boards and they warped and fell apart at the joints within 3 years, probably due to the thinness of the wood and the way we fastened the edges together. Thick pine should last you at least 5 years. Cedar has longevity (some claim 20 years), but think about the reality of whether you’ll even be living in the same place then. Thick cedar boards can also be difficult to source – the Home Depot and Lowes near us don’t carry them.
A note about wood/logs/natural edging for SFG beds: they attract roly polies, slugs, and other detrivore pests that make their living decomposing things for us. They’re just trying to do their job, but here’s your warning that using this material could introduce some pests to your garden that you weren’t counting on.
Bricks, pavers, and cinder blocks have the best longevity, but can be expensive and require some heavy-duty labor at the outset to move everything to the site and get things level.
Pre-made SFG kits are available, but they’re mostly a rip-off.
Materials to avoid: rubber tires, railroad ties, chemically treated lumber, some types of cinder blocks that contain fly ash. Basically, avoid anything that could possibly leach harmful chemicals or heavy metals into the soil.
Step 4: Lay down plain cardboard to kill grass and weeds and assemble your bed edges.
Step 5: Add soil.
You want ⅓ certified organic compost (bulk or bagged), ⅓ perlite or vermiculite, and ⅓ peat moss or coconut coir. Don’t use your native garden soil for this.
Optional: Mark your beds so you have a square foot grid. You can use nails to hold some twine in place or create your own grid from rocks, bamboo canes, or anything that makes a straight line.
Step 6: Plant your seeds or transplants using the guide below.
Here’s a list of the most common vegetables and their spacing in SFG method. If you’re planting something that isn’t listed here, use the “thin to” instructions on your seed packet as a guide and follow the simple calculation I outlined in All About Seeds Part 1: Deciphering Seed Packets.
Have you used the SFG method? What’s your experience been like? What thoughts or recommendations do you have for beginners trying out SFG? Share your wisdom in the comments below!
Sunday: Palm-Waving Groupies
Next Wednesday: Update and Pictures from Our Jubilee Garden
Pruning is both science and art. Last week we looked at the why, when, and what of pruning. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty – howto prune. Here are some thoughts that can help guide your cutting.
Anything diseased or damaged.
Adventitious growth. Look like suckers but are coming from an area that was improperly cut or damaged in a previous pruning session or storm.
Limbs that are criss-crossing or growing towards the center of the plant. The goal is for limbs to go OUT and AWAY from the center so the foliage can get more light for photosynthesis.
Suckers. These are shoots that come up from the base of the plant, trying to be new leaders (primary limbs).
All of these tiny shoots coming up near the base of the plant are suckers. PT Barnum would welcome them, but he’s no gardener.
Determine Desired Height
How tall do you want this to be once you’re done pruning? Choose a height to guide your cuts (ex. I aim for waist- or chest-high for shrubs since that’s easy to approximate).
Look for little buds (AKA lateral meristem/axillary bud) on the limb in question. They might be clearly visible on a naked branch or they might be hidden right where a leaf attaches to the limb. The way these nodes are pointing indicates which way the plant could grow if you chopped right above that point. (Obviously if you chop below, the bud would be gone and couldn’t direct the growth).
Fun with Biology:
A meristemis a plant’s version of stem cells. Stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell that’s needed (sort of like our bone marrow and umbilical cord blood). An apical meristem is just plant stem cell tissue found at the apex, or top, of the plant.
Lateral meristems are stem cells found near a bud or side shoot.
Plant hormones from the apical meristem called auxinssend chemical signals to the lateral meristems that inhibit lateral growth. Cytokinins(another plant hormone) allow for some lateral growth. For more on this, check out this cool article.
Here’s the REALLY cool part: if you chop off the apical meristem (AKA pruning), auxins can’t be delivered and whatever lateral meristem is closest to the top becomes the new apical meristem through cell differentiation. It’s crazy-amazing! Check it out:
Science and pruning are so cool!
Here’s an example of my pruning before & after, using the tips above. Subtle, but effective!
Tree Limbs: 3-Cut Method
Growing a Greener World, one of my favorite gardening shows, has a great episode on pruning. I recommend watching the entire episode. If you just need to know how to best remove a tree limb, check this out:
A Note About Tree-Topping/Crape Murder
Ugh. I hate this so much. I hate that I have to tell people this AND I hate that tree service companies actually suggest this to their customers. Trees SHOULD NOT have their canopies removed. It’s atrociously ugly and it is usually fatal to the tree. At the very minimum it’s extremely damaging (to the tree’s health and to your property when the tree eventually fails and falls on something). Crape Myrtles are frequent victims of this treatment, hence the term “Crape Murder”. If a tree is overgrown, here are your best options:
Remove an entire limb from where it joins up with the trunk or a large branch using the 3-cut method
Cut down the entire tree – it will look better than topping AND prevent you from having a huge insurance claim after it falls down on your or your neighbor’s property
Bonus: this frees up space to plant something better (more appropriate size or native species)
An improperly pruned tree. Tree topping is murder!
For the love of Pete, don’t do this!!!! See how sickly the new growth is? The knots? The decay? It’s awful!
Here are a few other resources if you have more questions about how to prune:
Now you know the why, what, when, and how of pruning! It’s not that hard once you understand the biology going on behind the scenes.
I’d love to hear your stories about pruning (horror or otherwise)! Did you inadvertently kill a plant by pruning at the wrong time (guilty here!)? Have a bumper crop of flowers or fruits after a hard prune? What did you do with the harvest? Let me know in the comments!