Sustainable garden spirals to life

Susan and Peter Horn's double spiral compost garden,

Susan and Peter Horn's double spiral compost garden.

South Walton family builds compost garden with a twist

Walton County residents Susan and Peter Horn are at ease with being green. The forward thinking couple has transformed their entire yard into a multi-faceted ongoing permaculture project.

Creative planting of herbs in a spiral-shaped compost garden had proven successful for the couple, hence the decision to expand on their existing spiral.

With a little help from their friends on June 21, bricks were towered and a wide variety of ingredients were poured in to create a composting work of art.

Using materials salvaged from construction projects, composted leaves, minerals, chicken manure and fermented cabbage were just a few ingredients that created the perfect mix.

“We don’t have dirt, we have sand, and this method builds dirt.  Building dirt is any organic gardener’s top priority, but takes on special importance here on this barrier island composed of quartz sand. It is a lovely way to have an attractive compost pile that is also producing fresh organic herbs while making dirt/compost,” Susan explains.

Beginning of the brick laying for spiral.

Beginning of the brick laying for spiral.

Susan also explained the advantages of growing a spiral garden include hearty growing conditions in a small space, and it suits the needs of a wide variety of plants – from those that like it high, hot and dry (rosemary, salvias, oregano, aloe, scented geraniums) to those that prefer or tolerate more moisture or perhaps a bit of shelter/shade (most of the mints, the beautiful and adaptable yarrow).

The herbs also provide food, shelter, nectar for beneficial insects including pest predators  (green lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantis, beneficial wasps) and pollinators (bees, hummingbirds); bronze fennel in particular feeds caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly.

The Horns’ first herb spiral also invited earthworms, nature’s best soil improvers, to a section of their yard that had been hot, dry and full of weeds.

Some of the materials placed into the spiral:
• Used cardboard
• Shredded paper nesting material from their chicken coop
• Sphagnum moss
• Abandoned bird nesting
• Fermented vegetable matter
• Partly composted leaves
• Chicken manure
• Dirt (sand)

Additional nutrients included:
• Rock phosphate
• Lime
• Mycorrhiza
• Calcium
• Essential minor elements
• Green sand (potassium)
• Epsom Plus (magnesium)
• Lactobacillus and other beneficial microorganisms

The ‘spiral’ crew: Front row, left to right:  Peter Horn III, Susan Horn, Sherry McCall, Christi Ferry, Patrick Ferry. Back row:  Peter Horn, Jr., Tennyson Horn.

The ‘spiral’ crew: Front row, left to right: Peter Horn III, Susan Horn, Sherry McCall, Christi Ferry, Patrick Ferry. Back row: Peter Horn, Jr., Tennyson Horn.

I asked Susan a few questions about their permaculture approach and garden concept.

What inspired you to get into spiral herb garden construction?
I’ve loved gardening for decades, especially herbs and things I can eat.  Grass and ornamentals just never worked for us and I’d been casting about for an approach to residential landscaping that made sense to us.  When I found out about permaculture, I knew I was onto something, and first read about herb spirals in Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway (THE book to read for homescale permaculture).  When Chandra Hartman and Kat Provencher gave an Introduction to Permaculture course, I jumped at the chance, and was knocked out with their combined knowledge and expertise; we soon convinced them to create a permaculture plan for our home, making sure to include an herb spiral. The herb spiral was one of the first parts of the plan that we built, one afternoon last summer, using salvaged bricks of random sizes.  We’ve enjoyed that one so much, we wanted another one.

Are there specific types of plants (herbs, veggies, flowers) that work best with a spiral garden?
One of the great things about an herb spiral is that it provides so many “microclimates” in such a small footprint.  You can keep a lot of different kinds of plants happy, whether they like full sun high and dry, wet feet and afternoon shade, or anything in between.  I’ve had good luck with the Mediterranean herbs, as well as some Asian ones like Thai basil.  I’m sad to say, I cannot seem to keep lemon thyme alive for more than a few months.  The only veggies I’ve tried in the spiral were small peppers; nasturtiums and marigolds have both done well, and we’re trying violas in the new herb spiral.  I would stay away from lemongrass, because it gets so big!  Put plants like that in a spot where they have plenty of room to spread out without bothering neighbors.

Where did the spiral garden concept originate?
I can’t say for sure, but quite possibly with David Holgren and Bill Mollison, who first formulated the principles of permaculture in the late 1970s – based on their observations of nature and their knowledge of centuries-old homesteads in Southeast Asia where great varieties of useful plants and animals were cultivated in amazingly small spaces, while impriving rather than degrading the land.

The Horns have completed several green projects over the years. Peter has designed and built an entire house out of building materials he kept out of the landfill (either surplus materials from new construction or salvaged from demolition/remodeling projects), and have created play houses for Cottages for Kids which were built almost entirely from salvaged materials.

Peter is a LEED-for-Homes Certifiying Agent, as well as a Florida Green Building Coalition Certifying Agent, and he proctors tests for other people who are in the process of becoming FGBC certified.

For more information about Peter and Susan’s company, Artisan, go to www.artisan-builds.com

Local links:
www.cfhdesignstudio.com
www.floridagreenbuilding.org

Interesting subject links:
www.permaculture.org
www.tropicalpermaculture.com
www.pathtofreedom.com
www.polyfacefarms.com
www.michaelpollan.com

Lori Ceier is the publisher of waltonoutdoors.com, and can be reached via email at info@waltonoutdoors.com

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8 Responses to Sustainable garden spirals to life

  1. Teresa Henehan Trujillo says:

    This is so cool. A recent episode of “The Bioneers” on public radio talked about the universal place of the spiral shape. I would need more info on working with clay/river bottom soil being so close to the Rio Grande.

  2. Monica Spain says:

    What’s not to LOVE about this?

    We are going to get bricks from a salvage yard
    here in New Orleans and start our own spiral garden! Kudos to the Horn’s! Thanks for the inspiration and keepin’ it GREEN! We will pass this on to our local forum!
    Thank YOU Walton Outdoors for keepin’ it REAL!

  3. Bill Howes says:

    Way to go folks! Your efforts are appreciated and positive.While others are fighting over lawn grass, etc. you are working towards the future of our planet and our race.One other ingredient you might consider adding to your gardens would be charcoal.(of course I think bamboo charcoal is superior) Thank you for communicating with us, and good,great luck in the future.
    Peace,bill

  4. Susan Horn says:

    Monica, I bet you will find some way gorgeous old bricks in NOLA. Happy gardening!

    Bill (Bamboo Bill presume?), I just received an order of biochar and plan to start using it in our garden, and with the chickens. Hoping to learn how to make our own, probably a winter activity!

    Will also incorporate biochar into any future herb spirals we build — currently, we have two community education/service projects tentatively scheduled for the fall, where we’ll be teaching/building herb spirals here in the Panhandle. Time permitting, we’ll cover terra preta/biochar for its soil-improving and carbon-sequestering benefits. Are you selling bamboo charcoal?

  5. krishna paul says:

    ENJOYED YOUR SITE AND WOULD LOVE TO SHARE SOME INFO.
    HAVE BEEN INVOLVED SINCE EARLY SEVENTIES ,STUDYING HORICULTURE,PROPAGATION AND ABHOROCOLOGY (THE WHOLE STUDY OF TREES AND THEIR ENVIRONMENTS AND WENT ONTO BECOMING INVOLVED WITH ORGANICS AND BIO-DYNAMICS.
    BEING PART OF A COMMUNITY GARDEN IN THE MID NINETIES WE EXPERIMENTED WITH BRINGING ALL FACETS TOGETHER OF GROWING PLANTS AND AN INTERGRAL PART OF DESIGN LAYOUR WAS TO CREATE SPIRAL GARDENS,FLAT ON THE SOIL SURFACE AND CREATE GARDENS THAT SPIRALED OUT FROM A NUCLEUS CENTRE.
    WE ALSO ERECTED ON THE SMALLER GARDENS USING BAMBOO STICKS,PYRAMID SHAPES,WITH THE APEX OF THE PYRAMID BEING DIRECTLY ABOVE THE NUCLEUR CENTRE,SOME 3 METRES IN HEIGHT ABOVE THE GROUND,WHERE WE HUNG CLEAR QUARTZE CRYSTALS.
    WE USED THE COMPANION PLANTING SYSTEM,WHICH INCLUDED ALL TYPES OF PLANTS,EDIBLE PLANTS,HERBAL AND FLORAL.
    THE RESULTS WERE OUTSTANDING WITH SIZE AND QUALITY AND CONTINUED PLANT GROWETH SUPERSEDING ANYTHING THAT I HAD PREVIOUSLY BEING INVOLVED WITH.
    THESE DAYS WE ARE INVOLVED WITH WORKING WITH PARTICULAR SPIRAL SHAPES WITHIN A STABLE STILL MATERIAL – CERAMICS,CLAY AND WOOD( CLEAN,NOT CONTAMINATED )
    AND ALLOWING ELEMENTS ( WATER,WIND,SUNLIGHT,SOUND ETC.) TO PASS THROUGH THESE SHAPES WITH SOME INTERESTING RESULTS.
    WE ARE ALSO DESIGNING SPIRAL SHAPED DWELLINGS AND COMMUNITIES – WE SIMPLY CALL IT VORTEXUAL HARMONICS AND THE UNIVERSAL ARCHETYPAL PATTERN IS A VORTEX – THE SPIRAL.
    HAPPY SPIRALLING … KRISHNA paul

  6. krishna paul says:

    also another interesting direction to be aware of are the very beginnings of the findhorn experiments in Scotland back in the late 60′s where an important aspect was to work intimately with the elemental community in conjunction with sound organic and now what is called permaculture principles.
    listen and watch nature …..
    YOU WILL BE AMAZED AT WHAT YOU LEARN … TRULY AMAZED.

  7. Great. Thanks for taking the time to document your process.

    Rock on! Or, should I say, Brick on!

    Best to you,
    Valerie

  8. Gidds says:

    I want to make one of these for my new house. However, I live INSIDE one of the state parks so fermented cabbage may be out of the question. I’d like more information on where I could scavenge bricks and acquire other materials, if at all possible.