Circular Logic

July 10, 2009 at 10:03 Leave a comment

Pathway towards the 7 earth mounds

Pathway towards the 7 earth mounds

June 11 – Suderbyn, Gotland – Human life depends on spheres and circles of all sorts – from the sun that provides all energy and life, and our own spinning home that sustains our daily needs, to the wheels and drills that underpin our modern society.  Take a look at a typical field of vegetables or grain, or a suburban neighborhood, and you’ll find straight lines, right angles, bare earth, and little competition.  At Suderbyn, the founders believe there is another way to design one’s surroundings, and this theme of circles and spirals came up in all our work there.

The most noticeable manifestation of this (it’s impossible to miss) is the massive earthwork running diagonally across the property.  Seven connected mounds of earth, dug up on the property, run for a length of 2000 m at a height of 2 m.  These mounds resemble a series of interlocking horseshoes.  All are facing south, which will create both a shelter from the wind and a warmer microclimate inside their protective arms.

Looking south over the mounds - click for a closer look

Looking south over the mounds - click for a closer look

The excavation sites will eventually fill with water, creating four ponds on the property.  These will give habitat to a wider range of plants and animals, and will generally enhance the diversity and health of the land.

One of the four future ponds

One of the four future ponds

All of this work is founded on the tenets of permaculture, a school of thought seeking to emulate natural communities and structures in our own human settlements.  Permaculture structures, like natural ones, serve many purposes at once – not only will the ponds provide water, they will increase biodiversity and benefit the aesthetics of the community.  Likewise, the mounds are not only fertile soil for plants to grow in, they provide shelter and heat to the land inside their arms.

In the sheltered interior of the earth wall: potatos!

In the sheltered interior of the earth wall: potatos!


While One Step Beyond was staying at Suderbyn, we had the chance to help with several permaculture projects.  Inside of Horseshoe #5, we created a new farming area.  To match the surroundings, we created circular garden beds for potatos, root crops, and tomatos to grow in.  How we did it:

First we threshed the tall grass to make way for the earth.  We laid the cut grass down as a first layer of mulch, hoping it would keep the grass from growing through our barrier.  On top of that we laid a double layer of newspaper and cardboard as added weed protection.  Then came the soil, brought by the wheelbarrow load from a leftover pile excavated from the pond.  For a 12-meter diameter circle of earth, this took quite a long time.  Eventually we finished it and planted in the potatos, with a border of beans and horseradish to encourage good growth and healthy soil.

Potatos, root vegetables, and tomatos call these beds home

Potatos, root vegetables, and tomatos call these beds home

We didn’t get to finish the interior beds before we left, but they were designed as a kind of watermelon-slice-with-a-bite-taken-out-of-the-middle to match the circular lines and provide easy weeding/harvesting access on all sides.

The outer bed is complete, and the inner beds are almost finished

The outer bed is complete, and the inner beds are almost finished


The future site of the ecovillage’s houses is a beautiful rocky field today.  Plans for the village are full of curves and circles as with the rest of the land, and will build on the area’s natural beauty rather than diminishing it.  Just next to this building site is another gardens that started growing while we stayed at Suderbyn.  These beds emulate a snail shell as it grows outward, following a spiral curve around a central point.  Depending on your temperament, getting to the middle can be an act of meditation (following the wide spiral curve) or a zigzag in-and-out affair (cutting between the garden beds).  The snail has a few more rotations to go before it reaches its adult size, at which point it could produce enough food for a small community.

Snail-shell garden beds

Snail-shell garden beds


While snails are growing out at the future ecovillage site, another spiral took form outside of the old farmhouse where the community now lives.

An herb spiral provides a home for all of the culinary herbs you can grow.  It provides a wide range of climates, all within arms’ reach for harvesting.  It’s a staple of permaculture design, both for its ease of construction and the many benefits it gives.  Stones, sand, soil, and seeds are all it takes to build one.

The magic of the spiral is in its use of space.  A typical garden bed of the same length would be about 7 m long, and you would have to walk along it and bend down to the ground to harvest the herbs growing in it.  The herb spiral takes the same amount of growing space and curls it around and upwards, putting the entirety into easy reach. Beyond this, the rocks also take in the heat of the day and slowly release it in the night, keeping the soil warmer and allowing a wider range of plants to grow.   The height of the center casts a shadow over the northern part of the spiral, making this area better suited for shade-loving plants, and the crevices of the rock give plenty of habitat to creeping plants like thyme and lemon balm.  And, as if that wasn’t enough, water falling on the spiral will flow downwards and collect at the bottom, making the top quite well-drained and the bottom more marshy.  Combine all these effects and you end up with a microclimate for almost everything you could want to grow!

Growing upward

Growing upward

Tom and Jean stabilize the rock wall

Tom and Jean stabilize the rock wall

The finished product, planted with herbs

The finished product, planted with herbs

We planted our spiral with rosemary, lemon balm, yarrow, dill, chamomile, thyme, oregano, marjoram, mint, and semper vivens, with room for basil and other plants to come in later.

Asta the bulldog enjoying the work site

Asta the bulldog enjoying the work site

For a decent guide to starting your own herb spiral, look here.  Be sure to site it close to your kitchen for easy access, and so you can marvel at the power of the spiral over your breakfast.

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