Last spring our farm manager, the venerable Julee Applegarth, was looking out over the top of one of our fields and musing out loud to a gathered crowd upon the fact that previously she was unable to get much to grow in the hard-packed soil there. She stamped her foot, I recall, illustrating the hard-packedness of this particular quarter-acre field. She said it would be planted with members of the brassica family but because of years of tilling followed by hard rains the topsoil would probably not yield much. She said with its scattered hay and dappling of punky weeds it was no place to foster the life of our much-loved and cared-for broccolis, kales, cabbages, and collards.
So after a few seconds of thought (I would say minutes but inspiration seems to come explosively quick to Julee) an idea came volcanically forth. Julee spun around with both arms up in the air and shouted: “MANADALA!”
In his epic Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual, author and permaculture prince Bill Mollison talks about “Gangamma’s Mandala,” a polyculture garden built in a cyclical shape. The word itself first appears in early Buddhist and Hindu vocabularies as a mystical form suggestive of the cosmos and the different relationships established between the material and spiritual world. Influenced by the curves and spherical patterns used in Taiwanese and Philippines gardening, “mandala” is now permie-speak for any bed utilizing keyhole shape design, radiating circles, ovoid patterns, et al.
The mandala is powerful; I will probably write this more than once. Beyond it being an aesthetic improvement (who likes to gaze upon long straight lines of monoculture vegetables anyway?), the mandala allows for a very dense planting so crops that otherwise would be rows apart can abut one another. This neighborly association confuses pests (no more straight line buffet), allows for easy companion planting, and makes harvesting much easier.
The mandala decreases the amount of pathway you need in the garden and therefore increases production. The mandala cannot be tilled, so the soil will always be increasing in ecological diversity and strength. Because they are usually designed in a raised bed fashion the mandala helps to decrease water waste and runoff as it channels rain to the base of each bed. Finally, the mandala helps us focus on all of the plants and not just the weeds on the north or south side or the bugs invading one crop here or another there.
Armed with all of this knowledge we set to planning and designing our own raised bed mandala to reinvigorate the failing field. With some luck we were able to make a connection with the Portland Permaculture Meetup group and get the project off the ground. They showed up on a balmy day with a trailer full of rotten seaweed like some sort of deranged/victorious patriots of decomposition.
Our shape – a radiating clover with beds deepening to five feet in some areas. Our layers – recommended soil amendments lime and potassium magnesium sulfate (SPM), sawdust for moisture retention, the mineral laden kelp, some high nitrogen alfalfa meal, our own compost, rotting leaves, Benson’s compost (great Oreo cookie stuff with little claws from sea-creatures mingled throughout), and finally a thick hay mulch.
In a week the mandala was planted with every kale we could pack in it along with some nasturtiums, collards, and an outer ring of cabbage. Bam.
And how did it do you might ask? Well, my friend, you should probably just come and check it out. But bring your sunglasses because this thing is radiant and strong, beautiful and supercharged, healthy and evocative, lush and powerful, triumphant and righteous and the vegetables we are pulled out of it are Beethoven’s-fifth Jurassic-era mega flora.
Fast forward to this year. The mandala is now expanded so that if you were to look at it from a helicopter you would see a radiant sun with jagged rays formed by new beds. We have packed the beds full of nightshades – Jimmy Nardello peppers, Ruby Gold tomatoes, Green Apple eggplant, and a ton of other funky stuff (and some old standbys). We are seeking out a Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) grant that would allow us to also build a pollinator border along the field-edge by the mandala – these folks have helped us in the past with the construction of a massive three-bay composting facility.
So thanks for reading, I hope my story gives you some ideas as to how you can layer it up and grow healthier foods using permaculture teachings. Stay tuned and increase the peace.
I didn’t get into this thing consciously; there was no decision made, no career-test administered, or no plan of any sort, not at first anyway. It just sort of grew in me, starting perhaps when I was a boy passing off Comfrey leaves as payment for an invisible meal at a ‘restaurant’ in a game we used to play in the woods. My mother ran a daycare which meant there was always an endless supply of friends to grow the economy of the imaginary town we created in the woods. Everywhere there were paths through the woods, lady slippers and log bridges, and my old house beneath the giant maples in the front yard. The Comfrey plants by the barn were the bank, guarded by Tristan or Ryan with sword in hand; that community meant everything to me, to all of us who played.
Fast forward to a college dropout journalist me, together with sweet Marina, disillusioned by the annoying Bush years and the crawl of a generational unrest, the first pangs of a staid life of loan payments and general drudgery just beginning to ache. We were in the kitchen, I recall, just staring at each other with this anger, this sleepless feeling of want and unhad adventures. Nothing was how we wanted it to look, as if we both were part of a group project and somewhere along the line we had ceded control to other people in the group and now the whole thing was wholly wrong and unsatisfying and we were ashamed to present it to anyone else.
In a sentence or two we hatched a plan to get out, the way you would hatch a plan to hit the eject button on your starfighter pre midair-death-collision, a knee-jerk. Our first notion was something like “Let’s go be ski bums in California,” and it seemed good, rolled off the tongue well and left our mouths with this electric taste, the zing of movement and of action; we had crossed a line.
After some internetting and advice from my brother at Warren Wilson College we stumbled upon the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. It seemed like an inexpensive way to travel – we could rig up a sleeping situation in the back of Marina’s truck and just go from farm to farm, live to work and eat farm meals, be outside, be together. It felt perfect.
So I was never interested in farming as an occupation, it just popped up in my life. It exploded, actually, into my life, and brought with it this warp-speed rush of all things important and romantic, radical and right. Goats that gave milk that you could drink right out of the pail, long days in the field that reworked the epidermal integrity of my hands, crock pots of bees wax, a cupboard of glass jars filled with every dried herb imaginable, food alive, boots and tools, farm libraries, and everywhere across the country people involved in discourse and work, action and drive, the very nuts and bolts I was missing. Importance thrived on these farms.
Now I work at Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish, Maine as a Journeyperson through an educational program with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). This is my second year on the farm and from here I intend to start my own small operation in nearby Limington – the land I grew up on. My experiences through WWOOFing took hold on something deep within me and fused this lifestyle to my own.
Rippling Waters is a five-acre operation on the Saco River; we actually pump our irrigation water right out of the river. We farm for markets in Portland, Bridgeton, and Gorham and do our best to practice farming methods we view as sustainable and beyond the realm of just conventional organic. Sheet mulching, layered beds, no-till practices, permaculture, companion planting, funky beds, and perennial food – all of these things have helped us increase productivity on the farm and open our fields up for education and experimentation while helping to actually increase produce yields.
The farm is technically an educational, non-profit operation with gardens in nearby elementary schools and a solar-passive greenhouse (that uses water barrels as a solar heat sink) at the middle school. Farm to school education is the main goal of Rippling Waters, and every week it is part of my job to teach others how to grow food as I work with various social service groups and volunteers. We have a field staff of four, run a 100+ member CSA and work six days a week.
It is a beautiful place and I have gained a deep admiration for those who are working to bridge the gap between real food and the void left by financial constraints in our public schools. It is good work, but for the most part my job focuses on the running of the farm, which in itself encompasses a wonderful one-million things. Contending with the ever-multiplying stack of mysteries woven into things like greenhouse construction, plant health, pests, water management, companion planting, polycultures, fundraisers, irrigation systems and electric fences. The farmer has to be the everyman; able to transplant delicate flowers, build shelves and stairs and tables, find and snare woodchucks, design posters, talk to customers and take care of the soil all within the confines of a day. There is never want for a challenge and each day requires a full and healthy mind and body; each day requires full attention, creativity and responsibility.
It is everything to me, this life. To live by the potential of my own hands and mind. I think if you are still reading this then maybe these things mean something to you too. So I invite you to read along with me this year, so I can tell you about all the wild insane awesome stuff I find.
-Thanks again, Stowell P. Watters