of herb and forest spirals...

Herb spiral, Kräuterspirale, 2011 watercolor sketch
Walking around town one summer day, my friend and I stumbled upon a curious mound of rubble in the courtyard of a primary school. Upon closer inspection, I perceived that the pile was dirt contained by natural stones arranged in a spiral from which weeds had sprouted and flourished. My friend, a native, enlightened my notion by explaining that it was a Kräuterspirale, an herb spiral, that children had built as a school project. One finds these spirals in gardens, private and public, and they are quite popular here.

Hundertwasser's Waldspirale, 2011 watercolor sketch
Its larger cousin, the Waldspirale (Forest Spiral), designed by (grownup) Austrian architect Hundertwasser (A hundred waters), right in Darmstadt's backyard!

The idea is that one can grow a variety of herbs from different climates in a relatively small space by placing them at different levels in the spiral. A whole herb community can thus be cultivated.

I later discovered that it was an Australian, Bill Mollison, who had come up with the idea, as part of his “permaculture design”. Some years ago, the word “permaculture” had so captivated my imagination that I was ready to set off for farms in Wales and Japan to study it (the word permaculture comes from permanent, or sustainable cultivation of the earth). In particular, I had read about a Japanese farmer by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka who had published a book in the seventies called One Straw Revolution. It was essentially a manual of techniques Mr Fukuoka had distilled from thirty years of “natural” farming— that is, farming that rejected industrial techniques of heavy machinery or the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. It was, in short, the antithesis of the so-called “green revolutions” that promoted modern industrial agricultural techniques in developing countries such as India in the 1960s.

At the dawn of its independence, an India suffering from famine turned to the United States for food aid. In 1960, 92% of the aid that the US provided to India was alimentary in nature. It was then that the Green Revolution was launched, supported by the American Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and India was able to considerably increase its cereal production (from 70 million tons in 1954 to 220 million today). However, the price India paid was heavy: dried-up canals and underground waterbeds, soil salinization, soaring personal debt of farmers (more than 100,000 among them committed suicide in less than a decade), an alarming rise in cancer rates in the countryside. And that without mentioning the grave repercussions at the political and social level. Many considered the Green Revolution as a major factor that led to the secessionist revolt in Punjab in the 1980s, a movement during which Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards in 1984, following the assault by the Indian army of the Golden Temple, a Sikh sacred site, where the insurgents had taken refuge.1

Back to Fukuoka… one of his most cherished projects was combatting desertification through “plant irrigation,” that is, by spreading the most water-hardy plants throughout the desert first, and then using their network of roots to accumulate and hold ground water. He envisioned forests eventually engulfing the desert, although not in his lifetime.

An herb spiral is similarly concerned with water irrigation in its distribution of plants at different levels. Below are instructions on how to build an herb spiral, taken from a gardening book found in a café in Heidelberg.

Plants in an herb spiral

The upper level of the herb spiral is ideal for Mediterranean plants such as oregano, lavender, winter savory, sage, rosemary and thyme. The middle level is good for culinary herbs from the continent, such as marjoram, hyssop, basil, chives, parsley and burnet. And finally, on the lowest level of the spiral are moisture-loving plants, such as peppermint, lemon balm and watercress.

Constructing the spiral

The spiral is made out of natural stones, like a dry wall. Draw out the spiral at the location desired with a spade or stick. For the first stones, dig a foundation about 10 cm deep. From this foundation, the next levels will be built. The maximum height of the spiral should be around 50-60 cm, with the sides sloping gradually until the edges.
The space between the stones should preferably be filled with rubble. This chalky and permeable material is ideal for herbs. The rubble should then be covered with about a 10cm thick layer of earth. A good mixture would be two parts garden soil and 1 part sand.
Fill the outermost sections of the spiral with good garden soil. At the end of the spiral, one can create a small pond that collects water. Just make a hollow and line with film or simply install a plastic tub inside.

(1) Mira Kamdar, “L’Inde résiste à la séduction de l’agroalimentaire américain,” Le Monde diplomatique, March 2010.

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