Sometime in the mid-2000s, with rising energy prices and two wars underway and people predicting the peaking of petroleum, the independence bandwagon roared back to life. I say roared back, because there has almost always been an undercurrent of independence in the lives of people in the United States. Whether religious or economic independence, it’s always been there, manifesting in myriad ways, not least of which is people seeking out some land for themselves on which to grow food, maybe run a home-based business.
In recent years, it’s become popular to speak of energy independence and financial freedom. I don’t believe we are ever wholly independent as humans and self-sufficiency is a nice idea, but not logistically possible. Our lives and the quality of our lives depends on the lives and health of those around us, including the health of our air, soil and water. We are all connected, in other words.
That said, there are certain joys you can take in growing your own food. And this does create a kind of independence: You are not depending as much upon your grocery store (where the produce may be trucked from far away) and you don’t have to get in the car to go buy something; you just step outside with your pair of scissors or your colander and clip or pick what you need.
An herb spiral is one way of achieving a little of this sort of independence. A bonus is that, depending on what you plant in the spiral, others (tiny, pollinating wasps, bumblebees or honeybees, even swallowtail larvae) may also benefit.
An herb spiral capitalizes on two hallmarks of permaculture: It takes advantage of the resources that flow through a space, including sun and water, and it draws inspiration from a pattern found in nature (think unfolding ferns and the nautilus).
On July 4, our herb spiral turns three. When we made it, we drew upon other resources—free bricks from the dump and the friendly assistance of able-bodied neighbors (community is certainly another hallmark of permaculture!).
Permaculture, a contraction of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” offers a way to meet the needs of humans while also meeting the needs of the myriad others with whom we share Earth.
In permaculture, spirals are one of many nature-based patterns used for such things as creating beds for plants. A bonus is that when it comes to growing herbs in a small space, an herb spiral is not only attractive—in our south-facing back yard, it’s a visual and structural anchor—it’s also relatively compact and allows you to keep your culinary herbs in one place.
Ideally from a permacultural point of view—again, think resources such as human labor and time—it would be within a few steps of the kitchen, but our kitchen’s on the north side of the house, an area that seemed best suited for elderberries.
Our inspiration came not only from spirals, but also from fellow humans: Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmier in Edible Forest Gardens; Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden; and various kindred spirits who posted videos of their own spiral-making projects on You Tube.
Our spiral runs clockwise. Plants that love sun and dry conditions, such as rosemary, are at the center and top. Those that love moisture and some shade are toward the bottom—cutting celery, flat-leafed parsley and pennyroyal, which, given its minty ways, requires some seasonal pruning.
Our herb spiral cost more in terms of labor than supplies, which we gathered in advance: free bricks recycled from the Millersville, Maryland, convenience center; old twigs, sticks, rocks, and straw for coarse material; soil from the site, plus compost, including composted horse manure and our household compost.
Want to make an herb spiral? Here are the steps:
Decide how large a circumference you’d like the spiral to have. Consider other activities in the yard, plus the ease with which you want to be able to pick your herbs.
Begin setting the bricks in place. You can also use stones or rocks, though given how each stone or rock is unique, that will be more challenging.
Use a level to ensure the ground underneath is even.
Once many rows are stacked, begin to fill in with coarse material to provide for drainage within the spiral.
Set the dry/heat-loving herbs toward the top and the cool/moisture-loving ones toward the bottom. I’ve read that some people even include water cress as their bottommost plant. For us, that would mean creating a small pool, which I’m sure would look lovely, but would have required a lot more work and we are fairly lazy when it comes to gardening.
Take advantage of the herbs! I use a lot of herbs and prefer fresh when I can get them. The spiral ensures that I always have fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano for cooking, plus wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) when I just want to chew on something bitter and jumpstart my digestion.