We have a garden in the shape of a mandala at the center of our farm that is a source of joy for us. My sister and I built it back in 2018, when we just started leasing a small plot of land and had several infrastructure contingency hurdles to get through before we could move forward with developing it. To pass the time and make use of our lease, we wanted to create a beautiful place to garden.
A "mandala" is a circle filled with repeating patterns, and is considered in spiritual communities to represent the universe. Our mandala garden is about 1500 sq. feet in area and this is what it looked like from space just after we created it.
Google satellite circa 2018
Mandalas are traditionally used in spiritual practices to create sacred spaces, focus the attention of the practitioner, and help obtain a meditative state. That is certainly what it does for us. We must stay present while working in it, as it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you've been. Physically walking through the patterned hills, especially at the peak of summer when the sunflowers tower over us, can be a calming and healing experience.
Here's how we built it.
Sheet mulching the new garden area: We decided to build up rather than destroy the existing prairie soil microbiome by sheet mulching, which is the process of adding layers of material to built new garden beds.
We used cardboard for our first layer, which we collected for free from local appliance store warehouses and other retail stores. For smaller projects, I've used cotton t-shirts or got used moving boxes that people posted for free online.
The ground should be wet before you begin, and the cardboard wet before adding the next layers. This will allow the decomposition of the boxes and the plants below it to begin in earnest. We simply timed our work with the weather and allowed the rain to do that work for us each time.
We then added a layer of wood chips and a layer of compost, each a few inches thick, to the entire garden. For such a large area, we rented a dump trailer and bought these materials in bulk at a nearby nursery.
Creating a mandala pattern:
Design: We found inspiration from the book Getting Started in Permaculture: Over 50 DIY Projects for House and Garden Using Recycled Materials, which includes instructions for creating a mandala garden that we then modified.
Our finished sheet mulched area was 45 ft in diameter, so we had a lot of space to play around with. Our starting point for designing the mandala was this basic 7-circle pattern. Each circle would be 3 feet in diameter, and the center of each circle would be 6 feet apart.
We then repeated the pattern at equal distances to create this:
We finished the design by adding additional circles between each set of 7 to fill the entire area.
Creating the hills: We used bamboo stakes, rope, flour, and a rake.
1. We started with the layer of compost raked completely flat across the entire area.
2. We marked the center of the garden area with a bamboo stake to serve as our compass.
3. The centers of each circle are six feet apart. (You can adjust these measurements to fit your needs.) We used the rope to measure these distances repeatedly as we marked the circles. Here's what we did:
- We cut a piece of rope a bit longer than 18 feet (three times the distance between the center of the circles) and tied it into a loop that could be shaped into a triangle with three equal sides 6 feet long.
- We put the rope loop around the bamboo stake in the center of the garden and then used two more bamboo sticks to pull out the corners of an equilateral triangle, inserting the bamboo stakes in the ground when the corners were taut and the three sides of the rope were equal sizes. (We would check with a folding ruler to make sure each side was 6 ft.)
- Now we had the centers of the first three hills marked.
- We left the bamboo in place so we could come back and create a hill there. To mark the next circle in the pattern, we removed the rope loop from a bamboo stake in circle 2 and used the bamboo in circles 1 & 3 to created a new triangle to find where circle 4 should go.
- We repeated this process by using the bamboo stakes in the center of the pattern and in the circle we just marked to create another triangle to place the next bamboo until we had all 7 marked.
- To expand to the next set of 7 circles, we used two of the exterior circles from the first set to start a new triangle outward and placed a bamboo stake to begin to mark the next set of circles. And on, and on.
4. With the center of each circle now marked with bamboo (61 in total for our design), we then used all-purpose flour to mark the circumference of each circle. To do this, we again used the bamboo stake and a piece of rope. This time the rope was slightly longer than the diameter of the circle (3 ft) tied into a loop, which when folded in half equaled the radius of the circle. We placed the loop around the bamboo, pulled it tightly out to the edge and walked around in a circle marking its boundary with the flour.
5. Finally, we raked the compost layer that was outside the circles up into the circles we had created with the flour, simultaneously creating the path between hills. We also connected the circles around the boarder to create more gardening space. Once all the pathways were raked into hills, we flattened the hills to create 3 ft wide mounds.
We planted it with tons of sunflowers, herbs, vining squash and other pollinator-friendly plants. We used straw as mulch to protect the seedlings as they grew.
This is what it looked like by the end of the season.
I hope you are inspired to try sheet mulching your own new garden space or even to attempt to design your own mandala garden.
Thanks and be well.