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PDC Blog: Day 5

Jump to: Permaculture Design Principles, Gangamma’s Mandala system, Mandala gardening practical, The effects of mulch or Planting swales

Starting every day with a bag full of banana’s, my mom and I were quite popular with the farm’s most unique characters, Oscar the horse, and Donkey, who would follow us around with rapt attention until we fed them.

Best friends, with Donkey as Oscar’s eternal sidekick, any time we left the gate open they’d canter around our cottage like two naughty kids, neighing to one another with glee.

Donkey and horse in garden

Less friendly were the ducks, who were fiercely protective of their chicks and would hiss and lunge threateningly at us until we gave them a wide berth. And so goes life on a farm, always an adventure.

Farm ducks try attack

Permaculture Design Principles

After a quick breakfast, the morning’s lecture started with a discussion of the Permaculture Design Principles.

• Relative Location

• Efficient energy cycling

• Every element performs multiple functions

• Each function is supported by many elements

• Planning for energy efficiency

• Small-scale intensive systems

• Accelerate succession and evolution

• Diversity

• Use biological resources

• Increase edge within a system

Visit my article on Permaculture Design Principles to find out more.

We celebrated Sebastian’s birthday over tea and carrot cake (and a couple of banana’s) before splitting into two groups to do our practical sessions. My group would be discussing the Mandala system, while the other group would analyse Andrew’s swale (see end of page for more on the Andrew’s swale).

Gangamma’s Mandala system

Hazel designed her garden based on Bill Mollison’s Gangamma Mandala system, after reading the Permaculture Home Garden by Lynda Woodrow.

Organic veg garden at Wild Olive Farm, Stillbay

The Mandala garden is made up of seven circles. It’s laid out in such a way as to allow easy access to all parts of the garden, while maximising growing space, and best of all, it’s pleasing to the eye. Taking companion planting into account, plantings are planned in to allow maximum light and air to reach each plant, and to serve multiple functions.

What's more, using the No-dig gardening method, and using chicken tractors to ensure crop rotation, Mandala gardening requires very little work.

Why build a Mandala garden?

• It’s easy to set up using the No-dig gardening method

• You only need one sprinkler in the centre of the circle thereby saving water

• Using keynotes, every part of the Mandala is within arm’s length, ensuring easy access

• Moisture is retained and soil becomes more fertile through mulching

• Allows for crop diversity and companion planting

• Pest control through rotation planting

Mandala gardening practical

The aim of this practical is to design and then plant a Mandala bed.

Before doing anything, we first assess the area. The epitome of zone 1, it’s highly irrigated. Plants here need a little more care and there is a constant need to walk through the garden.

Taking adequate time to design is essential, so Hazel tells us that before doing anything, we need to put it on pencil and paper. It’s also important to keep records, she says, because if something goes wrong you can check back and see what you did.

Hazel recalls growing pink broccoli, and finding out from her records that she hadn’t planted according to the Lunar calendar!

Then the planning phase begins, where we look at each plant and ensure it has more than one reason to be there. However, before doing anything Hazel takes us through the existing Mandala garden, demonstrating examples of companion planting.

Entering the garden, we notice that rosemary has been planted the entrance. Rosemary repels insects and has a very welcoming scent.

Rosemary repels insects at entrance

We then walked to the pond and herb spiral.

The pond and herb spiral

The middle circle is always the pond and herb spiral, which attracts bug-eating creatures such as frogs and provides a drink of water to lizards and birds.

Pond and herb spiral

Mint is a water-loving plant and grows at the bottom of the spiral, while the bed provides a crop of perennial herbs and vegetables such as thyme, rhubarb and globe artichokes. We learn that this is also the best spot for a sprinkler.

The six circles

Hazel shows us the outer circle which is surrounded by lemongrass, which has a strong root structure, retains water, and can be pulled out and used for mulch. The outer circle is the first barrier to insects, small animals and invasive grasses like kikuyu.

The outer circle can also be planted with comfrey, yarrow and lavender. Hazel tells us that you simply can’t get enough comfrey and yarrow as the chickens love them, they activate the compost heap and make a nutritious mulch.


Aesthetically pleasing, lavender bring bees and repels certain insects. You can also use it as an essential oil.

Borage, bush basil, rosemary, wormwood, tansy, sage and pineapple sage can also be planted in the circle.

Meanwhile (an interesting discovery), hanging CD's all over the garden will help deter birds!

All six circular beds around the centre circle can all be planted with annuals such as celery, peas, tomatoes, corn etc.

The pathways

All the pathways are laid out with sawdust, which kills off grass, holds in moisture, and when it rots it attracts worms. What’s more, it lets visitors and dogs know where to walk. You can also scoop it off the path to use as extra mulch, replacing it with fresh (untreated) sawdust.

Fruit trees

These grow amongst the Mandala. The fruit tree has multiple uses – it brings shade in the summer, mulch from fallen leaves, fruit for the family and you can feed the chickens any fallen fruit. Each Mandala bed can take six trees. Hazel advises using dwarf trees or a variety that is no taller than three metres to ensure enough sun reaches your seedlings.

Eating freshly picked melon

After tea we returned to the lecture room to discuss companion planting within the Mandala system with the rest of the group. We draw up our chart for the class to demonstrate how we’ll be planting.

Planning the Mandala bed

The drawing below represents our plan for the Mandala bed based on on companion planting principles. It's hand drawn, so don't judge it too harshly!

The circular bed contains what is known as a keynote, essentially a walkway from which you can reach the entire bed.

The sprinkler goes in the centre, so that it can water the entire bed.

A pioneer plant, Lucerne can be planted at the centre of the circle.

With roots reaching up to three metres down, Lucerne is a miner which breaks down rock and is also very nutritious.

Mandala garden plan


The bank is where we will plant the most famous example of companion planting, the three sisters. First we will plant sweetcorn with climbing green bean at its base, which makes nitrogen more accessible to the sweetcorn roots (small and lazy root). And the last of the three sisters, gemsquash is planted next to provide ground cover and keep the ground cool.

Along the opposite bank we will plant broad beans and Jerusalem Artichokes. Jerusalem Artichokes are nitrogen fixers which feed the soil, and also give shade.

We will also plant marigold, which provides good defence against certain bugs and can be eaten, or radishes, which hold the edge of the bed, grow quickly and are good animal fodder. Nasturtium will also be planted here as they soften grass and provide a good line of defence.

We then look at our companion planting chart to see what sweetcorn is a good companion with and work out that we should plant spinach and sunflower seeds. It's interesting to learn that sunflower should never be planted against a white wall, as it will grow facing the wall.

The spinach will be protected by dill which it combines well with. Dill provides shade, is wind pollinated and feeds both us and the bees.

Coriander combines well with most vegetables so we decide to plant it next to the spinach with lettuce on the other side. Lettuce is ideal as we eat a lot of it, and combines well with rocket.

Next to the rocket, we decide to plant beetroot as its a hardy root vegetable which we can eat, and its leaves are tasty in salads.

Last but not least, basil and tomato use up the remaining space, as these combine well, both in nature and in salads!

After a lunch of pasta salad and grilled and stuffed peppers, we return to our Mandala bed to start planting.

Mandala gardening practical: planting

Then back to the garden to plant according to our map: Firstly, we moved the chicken coop to new area, which is done every two weeks to provide fresh food and a varied diet for the chickens.

Mobile chicken tractor

Placing the door for easy access, we put stones around the coop to hold it down.
Chickens in tractor move to fresh garden greens

Chickens in chicken tractor

Careful not to walk on the bed, which contains the best soil and smells fresh and green, we take mulch (straw) and spread it around the Mandala.

Mandala bed ready for planting after chickens have done the work

We then create our keynote (walkway) and use lines of flour to measure the borders for planting (divided like a pie).

Using flour to mark lines on Mandala bed

Taking our seedlings from the nursery, we find a cutworm! Hazel tells us one cutworm can destroy an entire shade house, so we search all the nearby plants for further threats and they provide a snack for the chickens.

Each plant has been grown in a little plastic or newspaper container to protect it and keep moisture in. It’s an effective way of re-using plastic and recycling paper (so long as it contains no harmful inks, glues or chemicals). However, the plastic has to be removed within three days, whereas the newspaper can biodegrade into the soil.

Reusing plastic containers for planting

We then sprinkle seeds lightly on top of soil, mimicking nature’s method of seed dispersal. We also carefully plant our fragile seedlings, still in their plastic for now, taking care not to traumatise them.

Planting seedlings in Mandala bed

Seedlings in Mandala bed

We place Artemisia thorns on the outside edge as a barrier, which prevents dogs (and humans) from trampling the beds.

Artemisia thorns protect Mandala bed

Lastly we lay out some sticks to add as additional mulch in the keynote. And that’s it, our Mandala bed is finished!

Completed Mandala bed with keynote

The effects of mulch

Then it was time for a small experiment, the effects of mulch by Dr Henry Elwell, a renowned Zimbabwean permaculturist.

This experiment entailed taking two identical containers holding soil, one covered with straw mulch and the other without. We then allow equal amounts of water to sprinkle on them for an extended period of time, to see the difference in water retention.

Effects of mulch experiment

It was amazing to see how much water (and topsoil) drained out of the container with no mulch, whereas the one with mulch did an excellent job of retaining moisture and preventing soil run-off. When the mulch-free soil dries out, even more topsoil would be lost with rainfall.

The picture below shows the two containers after having been sprayed. The bowl on the left was full of brown water, and had been repeatedly emptied, while the bowl on the right had far less water lost and virtually no topsoil loss.

Results of mulch experiment

Then it was time to visit Andrew’s swales, and start planting according to the chart they'd drawn up.

Planting Andrew’s swales

Andrew’s dream is to create a food forest, and we are lucky enough to help him achieve it.

With the sun coming from the North, Andrew’s swales are subjected to a strong westerly wind and an easterly wind in summer. The trees will provide a windbreak, and will be planted in an alternating pattern (deciduous and non-deciduous) to ensure maximum sun.

Set on a very steep gradient, the swales had been dug using a grader so all we had to do was get them ready for planting.

Newly dug swales

With a plan in place for what to plant, we start digging holes to plant the fruit trees, and soak them in water to get the water flow right down past the roots.

Planting the fruit trees


We add compost, topsoil (from the swales) and bone meal into the mix, before starting to plant the fruit trees.

Cutting the plastic off the tree, we plant them to the north to ensure they get the most sun.

Placing cardboard around the tree, and more mulch so it holds the cardboard, we put thatch on top and rocks to hold it down.

This protects it from grass growing, keeps light out and the moisture in.


Navel organe planted on edge of swale

The top swale is planted with (from left to right) lemon, strawberry, guava and keurboom (native to South Africa), while the lower swale is planted with alternating deciduous and non-deciduous trees. The deciduous trees such as peach and apricot will lose their leaves in summer, so that the non-deciduous trees such as orange and minneola will get more sun in summer.

Meanwhile, the keurboom is a legume which provides nitrogen-fixing bacteria, living in nodules on its roots. Further down the slope, we plant a mulberry tree and a macadamia nut tree.

Planting the dynamic accumulators

The rest of us start planting the dynamic accumulators on the edges of the swales, including comfrey, yarrow, amaranth, chickweed, rosemary, fennel (which attracts wasps), dandelion and santolina, all which increase the fertility of the soil, literally nursing the fruit trees to health.

The last swale, right at the bottom of the slope is filled with fresh cow and pig manure.

Pumpkins, melons and cantaloupe, are planted here in patches.

We all pitch in to throw compost in the swale and fresh manure.

Then the sprinklers go on, absorbing 1800 litres in just an hour’s time, demonstrating the swales water-retaining capabilities.

Dynamic accumulators planted on swale edge

After a dinner of fresh garden salad and home-made puff pastries, we watch a video called Global Gardening, by Bill Mollison. It’s an inspiring story, following Bill Mollison as he travels the world to view permaculture in the tropics, deserts, cool temperate climates and cities.

Go to PDC Blog: Day 6

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