Mandala Garden Design

In permaculture, garden design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. With an eye on where elements can go to maximize a system's benefits, the central concept of permaculture is not on each separate element, but on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together. This method capitalizes on useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design minimizes waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements.

To that end, permaculture gardens utilize a non-linear approach to achieve greater productivity due to the fact that there is simply more gardening space when using non-linear geometry. Linear gardens have their origin in division and ownership of land (easier to mark and measure), and in use of mechanical soil cultivation (easier to drive a horse or a tractor down a straight row). Since neither one of these elements applies to a vast majority of home gardens, there is absolutely no need to make them straight! Any shape that respects the landform, works with the flow of water and with the way humans move make more sense.

The Mandala Garden is a popular permaculture design approach. Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning "circle", and the geometric garden design was first proposed by Linda Woodrow in her book The Permaculture Home Garden. The art of Buddhism and Hinduism often takes the mandala form. True to permaculture fashion, the actual mandala shape in a garden application is malleable in accordance with conditions in your own backyard (slope, water runoff, orientation toward the sun).

Building a mandala garden is a great way to break up your garden beds into a riot of living colour, allowing easy accessibility and visual interest. It’s circular in shape and has a number of keyhole paths or spokes that invite you to look closer at the assortment of plants on display.

By applying mulch and compost, you never need to dig and disturb the soil biota. The bacteria and micro-organisms are best left undisturbed. This way you gain a rich array of soil life which creates an abundant thriving vegetable garden. It’s the microbes and billions of bacteria that do all the heavy work in fostering soil fertility. The only effort needed is to apply some regular soil mulch and good compost and then allow time to have nature break it all down for you.

The advantage of keyhole paths is that you can easily kneel down and touch any part of the garden bed with your outstretched arms. It’s all very accessible and allows for easy maintenance.

Design Plan

An easy way to design a Mandala Garden is to lay out the keyhole paths first using a length of garden hose to define the boundaries. A perfect circle can also be defined by inscribing an arc with a string or hose attached to a central hub post to mark out the boundaries.

Bricks or stones (or any other barrier) are placed roughly in position to mark out the design. This one had the main boundaries defined in a snaking brick path of three key hole “spokes” that where flipped over to create the final circular wheel pattern.

In the center, you can have an herb spiral, a tree, or a small pond. Surrounding the center can be a keyhole shaped path. On the outer edge of the circular bed , many people like to plant fruit trees. Between those trees, you could have five vegetable circles. If you have a few chickens, you can occupy one of your vegetable circles with a chicken tractor. After you harvest vegetables from one circle, put a chicken tractor there. Let the chickens work for 2 weeks or so and plant some other vegetable there afterwards.

The remaining space on the bed should be covered by a living mulch.

Living mulch are special kind of plants that serve the same purposes as mulch and more: they prevent soil erosion, attract beneficial insects. You can also plant herbs around your perimeter. If you’re not a vegetable fan, transform the vegetable circles into soft fruit areas. Plant raspberries, blackberries, currants,… Instead of living mulch, put the remaining space to use with strawberries.

If you don’t have (or don’t want to use) chickens, replace the chicken tractor with green manure crops (like legumes). You plant green manure crops after you harvested the vegetables.

You’re free do whatever you like. Just make sure to utilize as many layers as possible.

We're going to make a mandala garden within the boundaries of our main garden on the property. Here's the spot proposed in Better Farm's garden for a small mandala garden:

We'll be back with schematics, photos of of us implementing the design, and lists of what we'll be planting next spring!


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.