A circular-shaped garden can be used to grow edibles in a beautiful setting. While pleasing to the eye, the design may also reduce labor. Here are some tips for designing your own edible circle garden.
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A Brief History of Geometric Gardens
The idea of growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers together in aesthetically-pleasing, geometric designs is not a new invention. Rather, beautiful edible gardens and landscapes have been around since at least medieval Europe, where monasteries were among the first to mingle edibles with a desire for eye-catching gardens that encouraged contemplative walks.
I suspect gardens with geometric shapes–such as circles and rectangles–extend even further back in history.
Dating to at least the first century BCE, ‘Paradise Gardens’ were created in Old Persia–impeccably designed gardens that functioned for food, medicine, and beauty for wealthy families.
These Persian influences can even be seen in the gardens of Moorish Spain from the early 12th century CE, an example I had the opportunity to see in a trip to Spain in the year 2000. An example of one such formal garden is at a castle called the Alcazar of Segovia.
Water features were an essential component of these early-day gardens, as was the need to border the garden with trees or shrubs to create a formal boundary and keep wildlife out.
For us modern-day types, the circle garden is an opportunity to grow edibles in a location where we might otherwise need to mind the aesthetics, such as a front or side yard. However, because circle gardens can be a low-maintenance way to garden, they can even be useful where aesthetics aren’t the primary concern.
See how Rosalind Creasy created her front yard Magic Circle Herb Garden in her book Edible Landscaping. And get more edible landscaping ideas in my article see how easily you can create an edible landscape.
The Circle Garden Design
The circle garden includes four paths that lead from a central element toward each of the four cardinal directions, creating gardening quadrants on the circular perimeter.
The dimensions of the circle, the gardening quadrants, and the paths can be varied to match a particular location and style, which means that the circle garden can be used on either a grand or small scale.
By designing a garden in the shape of a circle, the gardener can access all four beds from a central vantage point, reducing labor.
The Central Element of a Circle Garden
The central element of a circle garden can be a number of different things, depending on the size of the garden and your goals. Here are some ideas:
- A bench or bistro table could make an inviting place to sit, surrounded by gardens.
- A teepee or obelisk would make a beautiful statement on its own or it could be used to grow vining vegetables or flowers (I love Thunbergia).
- An herb garden or herb spiral
- A wildlife-themed center could include a bird house or bird bath with flowers underneath that attract beneficial insects. Some of my favorites are calendula, comfrey, oregano, sweet alyssum, and yarrow.
- In a small garden, the central element can be omitted to make room for accessing the gardens more easily.
photo by Stephane Mignon via Flickr
The Perimeter of a Circle Garden
The perimeter of a circle garden can also be a number of different things, depending on your site’s conditions and your garden’s size.
- In a formal English garden, the perimeter would be lined with boxwoods or another evergreen shrub. Keep them pruned for a short height and tidiness to let light in while forming a barrier against invading grass, kids, or dogs.
- Garden border fencing can also define the space while keeping kids and dogs out.
- Trellising would allow you to grow your climbing vegetables and flowers around the perimeter to create privacy for an outdoor room with a sitting area in the center of the garden.
- If an open view is more your style, then simply give the border a good edging trench to keep grass out. When I create an edging trench, I use an edger and a sharp spade shovel.
Circle Garden Examples
The following are some examples of circle gardens of different sizes.
You’ll notice in the above diagram that rather than have a central element, this small garden uses the inner circle as a staging area for accessing the four, 3-foot-wide garden quadrants. This allows enough room for turning a wheelbarrow around comfortably or collecting harvest baskets.
In the above diagram, the additional space allows for a central element to be included, such as an herb garden, with a circular path that separates the herb garden from the four garden quadrants. Although this garden is larger than the small circle garden, it still only allows for a 3-foot wide central path and 3-foot-wide garden quadrants.
The large circle garden allows for a central element–such as a bean teepee planted with edible flowers–to be surrounded by a sizable circular pathway that allows easy access to the four garden quadrants. It also increases the growing space of each quadrant to a 4-foot-width.
How to Make a Circle Garden
A small circle garden will take up a circular area with a diameter of at least 11 feet, a medium-sized garden will require about 17 feet diameter, and a large circle garden will require a diameter of at least 23 feet (or larger). You will need to decide beforehand what size garden you intend to create, and whether/what kind of central element you want. Drawing it out can help the process go more smoothly.
- Wooden stakes and/or utility flags
- rubber mallet
- measuring tape
- digging fork
- cardboard to cover area
- shovel or pitchfork
- wood chips to cover paths (or keep the paths as grass, but be wary of having to fight to keep the grass out of the beds)
- (1-2 cubic yards) any combination of compost soil, worm castings, homemade compost, chemical-free aged manure, or aged leaf mold to cover garden bed areas
- desired plants and other optional supplies for the garden beds, central element, and perimeter
1: Mark off the diameter of the area.
Use the measuring tape to mark off the general area. Use the mallet to drive a stake into the center of the area to mark it, then tie a piece of twine to the stake that is the length of the radius of your circle. (The radius is half the diameter: The radius of an 11-foot diameter is 5.5 feet).
Using the twine, rotate around the circle marking the perimeter with stakes or flags.
2: Mark the paths, beds, and central element, as appropriate.
Traditionally the paths will head in each of the cardinal directions.
Whether you’re creating a small garden without a central element or a large garden with a central herb garden, you’ll want to mark off all of the areas using the stakes or flags before breaking ground.
3: Create the pathways.
Now that everything is marked off, it should be easy to identify where your paths will be. Cut the cardboard and lay it throughout the path areas, overlapping the ends to keep grass from creeping through.
Cover the cardboard with wood chips.
Alternatively you can leave the pathways as grass, but you would be wise to create a sturdy edge using the edging tool to keep grass from creeping into the beds. I would add clover seed to the grass to make it more diverse and provide nitrogen fertilizer for the surrounding beds.
With a solid path system in place, it will be easy to wheelbarrow soil materials up to the garden beds.
4: Create the garden beds.
First, use the digging fork to poke holes in the soil, loosening and aerating. This is an important step in the no-till garden.
Next, cover the garden bed areas with cardboard, overlapping the ends as you did in your paths.
Now add your soil materials to each bed, piling it as high as 12 inches (in decent soil, a few inches is fine).
A rock border or edging trenches can help to keep the newly piled soil inside the beds. Over time the soil will settle.
5: Create the central element and perimeter.
If you’re creating a central herb garden and/or planting a perimeter of shrubs, now is the time to create that. Otherwise, bring in your table and chairs and give the exterior perimeter a good edging, trellises, or fence.
6: Plant the garden beds and herbs
Water your new garden well and give it a week or two to settle before planting. Waiting until after a good rain is even better. This isn’t entirely necessary, but if you have the time to wait, your new plants may be happier.
A Circle Garden Case Study
At Hillside Community Garden, we wanted to demonstrate unique gardening strategies that would motivate residents to create beautiful and eco-friendly gardens in their own yards. The circle garden was one such strategy that we put into practice.
The size of our circle garden was limited by other features of the garden, but we designed our circle garden to have a central herb garden with narrow paths lining the four garden quadrants.
The challenge with our garden was its situation on a hillside. Rather than place the pathways to direct north, south, east, and west, we placed the garden beds at those cardinal directions in order to reduce soil erosion and stabilize the hillside. The slope also meant that our north and south garden beds needed to be terraced.
Here are some pictures of the project:
The hillside was stabilized by the north and south terraced beds, and the circular shape created an interesting dynamic that broke up the monotony of the other long growing terraces we had built on the hillside.
What didn’t work:
For a working community garden with lots of helpers and visitors, the narrow 2.75-foot-wide pathways inside the circle were just too narrow. Trying to bring in a wheelbarrow and navigate it around the small central herb spiral was a challenge. For a garden of this size with lots of foot traffic, we probably could have done without the central herb garden. It sure would have made tending the beds a lot easier. Ironically, the small, simple herb spiral was a favorite of many visitors.
Whether you create a small or large circle garden, the unique shape and feel of the garden is sure to be a place of respite, pleasing the eyes with beauty and pleasing the back with reduced maintenance.
Have you created a garden in a unique geometric shape? What was your experience?