How To Start A Herb Spiral

When I first started learning about permaculture it was quite overwhelming. Even though, yes, I do feel that I need to play my part in helping ‘save the planet’s soils’ so to speak, I am also a ‘domestic cat’ having lived most of my life in urban areas. With manicured lawns and paving, I must admit that I don’t know the first thing about growing anything. The few house plants I’ve had must have been annuals -because that’s about how long they lasted! I do not have green thumbs. I have murderous hands and crippling anxiety that I’ll kill some poor fern…again.

With all this lack of experience aside, the simplicity and logic of permaculture captured my heart, and I knew somehow, I had to practice it. But where to start?

Enter, the herb spiral

Honestly it is the simplest design, but with the most impact. Place your herb spiral as close to your kitchen as possible and you’ll feel like Nigella Lawson as you pop outside to gather herbs for a delicious meal – hip swaying and hair swishing is optional but strongly advised for everyone.

Herb spirals follow the basic principles of permaculture. The point of a herb spiral is to mimick nature and increase your edge (the ‘edge’ of any garden bed is where most plants grow best), in order to create a small ecosystem where herbs that prefer different soil and sun conditions can be grown together in a small area.

For example, rosemary (which loves a Mediterranean climate) doesn’t like ‘wet feet’ so needs soil that drains well and an abundance of sun, whereas mint prefers damp soil and partial shade.

So how is it that we can grow these two very different plants in the same space?

The trick is in the height, and the placement of your herbs over that height.

Let me explain.

Starting your herb spiral

A herb spiral is just that – a spiral. Bricks or rocks are placed in a circle that spirals inward, and then, working from the outside inwards, height is created by stacking the walls gradually higher as you move towards the center of the spiral. A bonus benefit of using bricks is that you’ll create little crevices throughout it that become a habitat for lizards, spiders, and other small predators that will help keep herb-loving bugs at bay.

Alignment to the sun is everything when it comes to building a herb spiral
Alignment to the sun is everything when it comes to building a herb spiral

How you orient your spiral is where the magic comes in. In the Southern Hemisphere you position the spiral with the lower end on the south wall of the spiral, and the top north facing. The reason for this is as the sun tracks across the sky, the height of the spiral will create shade on the southern side, while also allowing full sun on the northern side.

In the Northern Hemisphere this would be reversed, as now the equator (where the sun tracks) is to the south so the shadows will be created on the north side of the spiral. Using a tool like SunCalc.net can help you get your angle just right.

Herb spiral drainage and size

Also, water will drain quicker from the top parts of the spiral to the bottom parts, allowing dryer conditions in the center and wetter conditions as we spiral down. An optional extra is also to put a small pond at the bottom of the spiral to keep your cress and mint happy, but also to attract frogs and birds that might grab a little insect snack on the way. You can dig an old bird bath into the ground or even just a tub of some sorts.

After ascertaining the direction of your spiral, you can measure out how big your herb spiral should be. It is generally advised that a herb spiral should be approximately 180 cm wide and 90 cm high. This allows the herbs throughout the entire spiral to be within arm’s reach, and none of the herbs are damaged when you harvest your aromatic bounty. It also creates a large growing space within a small area.

Once you have positioned and measured out the spiral you can lay down some thick cardboard (first remove any plastic tape) and stack your bricks. The cardboard prevents any weeds or grass from coming up, and also adds carbon to the soil as it breaks down.

To fill the herb spiral, I personally start by filling the bottom with some twigs and small branches, with more in the middle moving to less as the spiral gets lower. This allows better drainage and prevents my spiral getting waterlogged.

Next, I added compost (from an old empty fishpond we have on the property that was used as a compost pile) and a grow medium. You can go wild here with beefing up your soil nutrition (have you tried vermicompost?) or just use whatever you have at hand.

What to plant in your herb spiral?

Now to plant the herbs. As I mentioned, herbs that prefer full sun and well drained soils will be at the top, moving down to the herbs that prefer shade and water.

I chose the following, as they’re the herbs we use most for cooking, but you can choose to add whatever you want, if you place them within the spiral according to their needs.

Top to bottom:

Rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, basil, coriander, parsley, chives, lemon balm, basil, mint, garden cress.

You’ll see that I planted basil in two different positions on the herb spiral as an experiment to see where it would grow better. It decided that my experiment was useless and has flourished proudly in both places, which I’m more than happy to go along with.

I also added alyssumnasturtium, and marigold, as these incredible plants are excellent for pest control.

After my wee lil’ seedlings were placed I lightly mulched around them, as the sun can be brutal here in the subtropics. The mulch reduces the temperature of the soil, thereby protecting it and increasing the soil biodiversity.

Now, one month later, after careful watering and much praying, my herbs are doing wonderfully! I’m delighted to say that my murderous hands have not struck again, and my hip swaying and hair swishing is almost at a professional level.

Building your own herb spiral is easy, useful, and a good first step to growing your own food. So, get out there, roll up your sleeves, put your hands in the soil, and get dirty!

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