Armstrong Education Center’s Mandala Garden

In the gardens at the Armstrong Education Center we grow fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. We find that fresh, homegrown food tastes better than store-bought food and process of growing is extremely fun, educational and rewarding. As a public demonstration tool, we show that an organic garden is a great way to use the open space right next to your house.

Why do we keep gardens at the Armstrong Education Center?

Organic Gardening reduces our use of fossil fuels. Most food in the United States is produced with industrial farming practices, which rely on petroleum-produced fertilizers. In addition to fertilizers, shipping food from centralized locations to the rest of the country requires lots of diesel fuel for trucks. Producing organic food at home as an alternative to industrial farming practices reduces our use of fossil fuels in the form of non-organic fertilizers and fuel for shipping.

Gardening brings us closer to our food and teaches us about nature. By gardening we begin to intimately understand how food grows, the life cycle of plants, how plants and animals interact and the importance of natural resources. Gardening teaches us that nature is bountiful. To be good gardeners and respect nature’s bounty we are forced to be educated and dedicated stewards of its soil, water, organisms and processes. Once we are stewards of our gardens and backyards we can become stewards of our towns, counties, and regions.

What is ‘Closing the loop’ and how does gardening at the Armstrong House Education Center help ‘Close the loop’?

In agriculture ‘closing the loop’ means producing food in a way where imported resources are minimized and on-site resource generation is maximized. To achieve this, we recycle organic material; the byproducts of one system are used as inputs in another system. For example, at the Armstrong Education Center, our food scraps (byproduct of eating) are turned into compost and used in our garden (input in food production). As the garden is tended and weeded, the waste organic material (byproduct of food production) is composted and used in a future garden (input in food production). Another example of closing the loop at the Armstrong Education Center is seed saving: seeds (the byproduct of gardening and eating) are saved to produce next year’s plants.

Why is the Armstrong Garden shaped like a circle?

Of all the geometric shapes a circle has the greatest volume relative to its outside surface. A garden shaped like a circle therefore has a lot of growing space relative to its outside surface. With the construction of a few strategic footpaths, our mandala garden maximizes available planting space while minimizing the amount of non-planting space.

One garden design component of permaculture is non-linear gardens. The mandala shape, a circular garden with large, internal planting spaces, eliminates excess pathways and maximizes growing space. Of all the geometric shapes, a circle has the greatest volume relative to its outside surface. A garden shaped like a circle therefore has a lot of growing space relative to its outside surface. With the construction of a few strategic footpaths, our mandala garden maximizes available planting space while minimizing the amount of non-planting space. The Armstrong Mandala edible garden is currently divided into quarters – one is planted with vegetables and herbs, two are planted with cover crops, and the last is sheet-mulched (see below for explanation). To increase garden productivity, we actively condition the mandala’s soil by using two techniques – cover cropping and lasagna style sheet mulching –which add plant nutrients and organic matter to the soil. All garden trimmings and food scraps go back into the compost o continue the cycle.

Online resources

http://www.organicgardening.com

Soil Improving Techniques Used at the Armstrong Gardens

Cover-cropping is the technique of planting beneficial plants before and after cycles of crop planting. While there are literally hundreds of different cover crops to choose from, at the Armstrong Gardens we have planted three – buckwheat, field peas, and oats – to improve the soil health of the new garden. We chose our cover crops based on availability, their function and their ability to feed our honeybees. Specifically, here is what our cover crops do in the garden:

  • Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum): adds organic matter, roots absorb calcium, phosphorous, and rock phosphate which are released upon decomposition
  • Field Peas (Pisum sativum): adds organic matter and fixes nitrogen
  • Oats (Avena sativa): grows and quickly to act as a ‘nurse plant’ for the peas and adds organic matter

Usually, before the cover crops go to seed, we turn them into the soil so that they decompose and add the nutrients they have accumulated. We will plant the nitrogen fixing crimson clover in the fall, which will overwinter and bloom in the spring and provide our honeybees with early season nectar.

Buckwheat, a cover crop, growing in the Armstrong mandala garden

Lasagna Style Sheet Mulching: This permaculture technique, which entails layering organic materials and allowing them to decompose over time, mimics how decomposition occurs in a forest. One whole section of the mandala Garden is dedicated to this practice which incorporates forest leaves, cardboard, existing soils, composted manure, grass clippings, and composted food scraps. Opposed to other types of composting that include aeration by turning over the piles, this process is more passive and needs almost no human intervention.

All the layers of our sheet mulched area in a fish tank so they can be easily viewed

 

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