The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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The Mandala Vegetable Garden

All your questions about this useful garden design answered by Jill Cockram

WHAT is a mandala garden?

It is actually a concept that is used in Permaculture because of its combination of aesthetics and practicality. In a nutshell, it is a circular garden divided by walk-through paths and keyholes which divide it into segments - like an apple pie that has been cut into equal parts.

WHY build a mandala vege garden?

1. The primary reason I built one is because it is a time saving as well as resource saving design for a vegetable plot. By having the bulk of your vege beds in one large circle, come summer, you only need to put a sprinkler in the centre of the circle and turn on the tap ..... bingo, your veges are watered with no wastage around the edges and it has only taken one minute of your time.

2. Aesthetics: Why have only square and oblong shaped garden beds when a curved shape such as a circle is so pleasant to look at and easy to manoeuvre around with wheel barrows etc.?

3. A mandala garden incorporates several Permaculture practices;

(a) keyholes for easy access to plants

(b) "no dig" principal to prevent disruption to soil ecology

(c) mulching for moisture retention and soil conditioning (your mandala becomes one big worm farm!)

(d) planting in different patterns rather than the conventional rows.

4. Rotation cropping, to prevent excessive build up of certain pests in the soil (e.g. nematodes, phytophthora etc.) is made so much easier to plan and put into practice - you only need to rotate your planting regime by one segment each season.

WHERE should you build you mandala garden?

(a) in a sunny spot not over-shadowed by trees or walls

(b) on a flattish piece of ground rather than on a steep slope

(c) preferably slap-bang in the middle of a wasteful piece of resource-draining lawn

(d) if you are adventurous, make your mandala vege garden the feature of your front yard, with companion plants like nasturtiums, marigolds and calendula to brighten it up.

HOW do you build a mandala garden?

1. Choose your site and decide on the diameter of your mandala (six to eight segments is convenient and the diameter of the circle made by your sprinkler on full pressure). Mark it out from the centre point - I used tent pegs and some string lines for this.

2. Before setting out your segments with bricks/rocks/sleepers etc., sheet mulch the circle after throwing down weed seedy hay, kitchen scraps, lime (if required) and blood and bone or manure, using thick wads of overlapping wet newspaper or old underfelt or carpet etc. Water it well.

3. Use the bricks/rocks/sleepers to form the segments, leaving enough space between the segments for a narrow walking/picking path.

4. From the centre of the mandala, form a keyhole radiating into the middle of each segment (or as I have done, form a keyhole from the centre of the outer curved edge of each segment towards the centre of the mandala itself). These keyholes are invaluable for allowing easy picking of your veges as every part of the mandala should be at arm’s length.

5. With most of the hard work completed, all there is left to do now is to barrow in top soil (if you have it), some well rotted manure and compost and top with the mulch of your choice - weed-free hay, lucerne hay, rice husks, straw or a sawdust/manure mix.

The paths and keyholes only need a layer of straw over the base sheet mulching, which can be topped up occasionally.

6. Sit back and wait till Spring before planting, to allow the worms to do their work, or even better, plant a green manure crop such as lupins or tick beans (nitrogen fixers) which will later be slashed and left to rot down before your Spring planting.

Handy Hints

1. If you wish you can mark out your mandala circle (taking care to leave your centre marker in place) and plant a crop of potatoes in mulch using the no-dig method. After harvesting the potatoes you will find the soil softened and enriched and worm-infested.

2. After each cropping season feed the mandala with manure/compost, lime, blood and bone, etc., to keep the worms happy and replace lost nutrients.

3. Make the centre of your mandala a useful feature in some way, e.g. put a tyre pond in the middle of the circle or build a bean tepee in the middle and train climbing beans up it.

Alternatively, drag up a chair and an umbrella and sit and enjoy the fruits of your labour and pray for a surplus!!

NOTE: Although the mandala garden will supply you with space for a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, you will probably still need extra beds for mass plantings of vegetables such as potatoes, onions, pumpkins, etc.