Boys Club of New York’s Herb Spiral Project Incorporates Math, Permaculture Design, Soil Science, and Microclimates

As posted previously, Children’s Garden at Campos is working with the Boys Club of New York this summer, specifically focusing on outdoor garden projects that enhance their STEM learning curriculum. (See, June 9 post, Campos Children’s Garden — Spring Learning Begins). Our first major project has been to create an herb spiral in the middle of the children’s garden space. An herb spiral is a permaculture garden that uses a spiral of rocks or bricks to contain soil and other filler to grow a diverse array of herbs. The stone acts as insulation for the plants, warming the soil and maximizing the use of space, water and other resources.

This is an example of an herb spiral project from The Talking Farm, an urban farming organization I co-founded in Evanston, Illinois.

Herb Spiral14
Herb Spiral from The Talking Farm’s 2007 Mini-Farm












We decided to put the spiral in the middle of the Children’s Garden, the location of last year’s beautiful Three Sister’s Garden

Three Sisters Garden, 2014 Children's Garden at Campos
Three Sisters Garden, 2014 Children’s Garden at Campos

Though we loved our Three Sister’s Garden, the squash can often “take over the world” of a small space and can make getting around the garden and accessing other plants a challenge.

Runaway Three Sisters
Runaway Three Sisters


Benefits of Herb Spirals
An herb spiral is a perfect “small” garden for urban settings, small garden spaces, schools, areas with questionable soil or anywhere you want to put a gorgeous and unique conversation piece. (I put small in quotes because the amount of growing space in a typical herb spiral is amazing: depending on how wide you make the spiral, you can end up with a row as long as 25 feet to grow your herbs coiled into a 5-6 foot spiral). The benefits of herb spirals are numerous:

  • Creates a beautiful eye-catching garden centerpiece
  • Maximizes growing space in a small surprisingly small area
  • Grows diverse variety of herbs and other companion plants
  • Minimizes water and soil needs
  • Uses gravity to help water plants
  • Creates “microclimates” to help plants grow more productive and healthy
  • Retains heat and insulates plants
  • Long lasting (semi-permanent) structure
  • Allows for easy maintenance and harvest
  • Makes a great educational and teamwork project for youth that uses science, math, engineering, art and other skills

How an Herb Spiral Works
Unlike a regular bed, the herb spiral has multiple levels, growing conditions and “microclimates.”  The top portion tends to get more sun and have the best drainage, so mediterranean type plants, like oregano and rosemary, that live hot sunny spots go up top.  As you move down the spiral, plants that face east will get shade after noon, while the plants on the west get all the afternoon sun. And at the bottom of the spiral, plants that like the most moisture and mixed sun/shade, such as, parsley.

Also, the plants’ height plays into where you locate them, so you don’t block too much sun as they need it. And mixing up perennial and annual plants will ensure that you have some constant producers and allows you to mix it up from year to year by changing some of the annual herbs. For example, here are the plants that went into The Talking Farm’s Herb Spiral (photo above), starting at the top of the lovely spiral, including their botanical names and heights:

1) Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) 12-36″ tall
2) French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus Sativa) 12-24″ tall
3) Italian Oregano (Origanum majoricum), Perennial 15-24″ tall
4) Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) 12-24″ tall
5) Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum) 12-18″ tall
6) Lemon Thyme, (Thymus citriodorus), Perennial, 6-12″ tall
7) Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana), 10-12″ tall
8) African Blue Basil (Ocimum sp). 24-36″ tall
9) French Thyme ( Thymus vulgaris ‘Narrow Leaf French’), Perennial 10-12″ tall by 18-24″ wide
10) Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) 2-5′ tall
11) Lady Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Lady’), Perennial, 8-10″ by 18″ wide
12) Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) 2′ tall
13) Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) 12-15″ tall
14) Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Perennial, 2-5′ tall
15) Bronze Fennel (Foenloulum vulgare purpureum) 3-5′ tall
16) French Sorrel, (Rumex scutatus) Perennial, 2-3′ tall
17) Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis), Perennial, 24-36″ tall
18) Horehound (Marrubium vulgare), Perennial, 2-3′ tall
19) Fern Leaf Dill (Anethum graveolens) 18-20″ tall
20) Italian Parsley, (Petroselinum crispum), Biennial, 2′ tall

The center core of the spiral usually contains a reservoir of some sort, drilled with holes for seeping water into the rest of the spiral. The reservoir catches the rain and can be used to fill water directly. The gravity of the spiral work to help the water move most efficiently to use less of it overall.  Often, you can put a small pond, such as the bottom of a planter, to catch excess water run-off and reuse.

For great detailed instructions on various ways to build an herb spiral using a variety of materials, see the Micro Gardener’s blog post, 4 Step Guide to Building a Herb Spiral.

The Boys Club Lays Footprint for Herb Spiral
The Boys Club students, along with Campos volunteers, began construction of the herb spiral in early June. To start the kids off thinking about the math and engineering behind the spiral, Campos volunteer and landscape architect, Erin Hodges, created these preliminary computer-assisted design (CAD) plans for a 4-foot round herb spiral. As part of the CAD, she actually calculated the number of bricks we’d need for each layer (166) and even suggested herbs for the spiral.

Note: We ultimately expanded the diameter to 6-feet, which increased the number of bricks to over 300.  We did this in part to accommodate a metal cage structure that would house both the internal reservoir system for watering the spiral, and to create a strawberry “tower, with strawberries growing on top and out the sides. 

CAD by Erin Hodges
CamposHerbSpiral20152 (1)
CAD by Erin Hodges


Here we begin the process for laying the footprint, before beginning layering the bricks and filling the spiral with a combination of peat moss, soil and topping with compost:

Students use hose to measure spiral and aisles and begin laying foundation bricks (photo courtesy of Erin Hodges)
6 inches aisles from brick to brick (photo courtesy of Erin Hodges)


Double-checking the width (photo courtesy of Erin Hodges)



Moving along the spiral’s interior (photo courtesy of Erin Hodges)
Confirming the width of the footprint before more layering more bricks (photo courtesy of Erin Hodges)


June 12 Construction Glitch
Because we were already short of bricks and now that we expanded the size of the spiral, needed even more bricks than we originally planned, we couldn’t finish the herb spiral until we ordered about 200 more bricks. But getting bricks delivered to Manhattan proved to be a tremendous challenge, made no easier by the abysmal delivery service at Lowe’s and its delivery contractor XPO Last Mile Logistics.  Despite the outrageous usurious delivery charge of $125 for delivery from Lowe’s Brooklyn 2nd Avenue Lowe’s (the bricks themselves were only like $80), we had no choice because we don’t have a van and so we needed them to deliver to Manhattan. The Children’s garden is nonprofit, materials paid for by a small grant, and run completely by volunteer sweat equity and love, and the store had no nonprofit rate or program. Delivery was scheduled for 2-4 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10.  After waiting in the garden for over 4 1/2 hours for the delivery, the driver never showed, despite repeated calls and long hold times to its delivery contractor XPO Logistics and Lowe’s in Brooklyn to find out status. Without any notification, after being on hold yet again, we finally heard that delivery wasn’t coming at about 6:45 p.m.. Reluctantly we scheduled another for the next day, and had to make another 3 phone calls to Lowe’s and XPO delivery to confirm delivery, who promised a special delivery truck to bring our bricks so the boys club could finish their projects. Unlike home delivery, where one can do other things, a volunteer needs to go to the garden and wait, without a bathroom, access to a phone charger, etc. Two and half hours of waiting and yet another no show by driver, yet again, without any notification and several long phone calls. XPO said its driver wouldn’t go to Manhattan and Lowe’s Brooklyn wouldn’t send its van.

On each call, Lowe’s and XPO was told this was a nonprofit children’s garden and that almost 10 hours of volunteer time (between in-garden waiting time and follow-up phone calls) had gone into their very expensive and failed delivery. It’s a fair statement that given the disrespect that the Brooklyn Lowe’s store and XPO Last Mile deliver showed to the Boys Club children, to the children’s garden and its volunteers, we never use them again on any project, gardening or otherwise. We cancelled the order and began to look into a new source. But the boys were due back after the weekend.

Good News Update! Don’t Buy: Reuse and Recycle!
Lesson learned–why buy new bricks if you have a resourceful and determined garden head named Chris Batenhorst? After hearing the saga of the bricks, Chris scrounged up used and reclaimed bricks from various sources and in the dark of night, finished the herb spiral for us as we lay sleeping on Sunday night. Who needs Lowe’s when you have Chris?

Herb Spiral Completed in the Dark of Night with Reclaimed Bricks

In an upcoming post, we’ll show you how we planted the spiral, with the order of herbs and then plant the strawberries–including 25 bare roots–that will grow vertically out of the sides of the metal tower in the middle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *