Enter the Labyrinth

My fascination with labyrinths started a few years ago back in LA when I stumbled upon The Labyrinth Society.  It had nothing to do with a childhood obsession with big hair, eye-shadow, frilly shirts, grape-smugglers and the movie Labyrinth.  Nothing at all…

I was lucky enough to walk through the maze at Hampton Court Palace, London in 2006 during a choral residency at Westminster Abbey amidst the height of my interest in mazes.  At the time I didn’t have much knowledge of sustainable agriculture and in retrospect the maze would have been so much more engaging and enticing if it grew food instead of ornamentals.  Yeessss….food makes everything better….  It wasn’t until late last year, after I had been ruminating on keyhole gardens and hügelkultur mounds for a while, that I came up with the idea for a labyrinth garden.

Keyhole gardens are awesome and have definite benefits under many circumstances.  Originally conceived in Zimbabwe by CARE, keyhole gardens provided nutrient-rich food for impoverished villages.  A compact, circular structure, layered with various materials and a composting pillar in the center, accessible via a small, wedge in the perimeter, a keyhole garden is excellent for gardeners that are pressed for space or have unfavorable soil conditions.  But with so much space at the homestead, I felt like I wanted more for a larger project.

Hügelkultur mounds are an old Germanic technique further refined by Austrian Permaculturist Sepp Holzer.  Among it’s numerous benefits, it’s highly prized by many for it’s long-lived compost and no-dig approach.  However, since hügelkultur mounds generate an enormous amount of heat – beneficial in colder climes – in warmer climes like ours (Zone 8B), a teacher of mine recommended that the mounds may need to be sunk into the soil for our zones to help moderate the intense heat, a bit further down than in the picture below.  I haven’t tried this approach directly but I’m all for less labor and less disturbing already disturbed soils.


Hugelkultur mounds from Permaculture Magazine

The tough thing about all these great techniques is trying to think objectively about your situation and what is appropriate for you, your land and your climate.  Not being able to untangle your attachment to one technique or another can lead you to make a choice that may not work well for you.  When you find something you really like, awesome!  Learn about it.  Let it steep in your brain for a while as you learn more about it and other techniques.  In time – and often in a lot less time than you might think – a solution suitable for you will make itself known.  Or you’ll just have brain tea.  Gross.

That process in itself is like a maze.  Sometimes it feels like you’ll never find the right answer – and to be honest, even if you think you have all the facts, there are going to be variables you won’t have anticipated – like hitting a maze wall when you made that left turn when you should have went right.  But don’t let that stop you from turning around and trying a different path.

I’m not particularly fond of straight lines that are so common in conventional farming and gardening; in fact they have a lot of disadvantages.  Hügelkultur mounds offer more flexibility with non-linear designs and keyhole gardens can be connected to make interesting shapes as shown in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and Randall Jamrok’s work at Great Lakes Permaculture Portal.


Curvy hugelkultur mounds from Permaculture Magazine…I think?


Keyhole Mandala Garden from Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden


Randall’s Keyhole Garden Beds

And yet, I was STILL not satisfied.  Typical!  That probably stems from my unyielding and idiotic desire to do something new and unheard of. To pioneer the frontier in whatever I was doing!  To be a star!  What a load of self-important bullshit lol.

Well the brain tea had enough time to steep and I came up with this preliminary sketch in a small moment of inspiration.  I was pretty enamored with the idea of keyhole gardens and loved the ingress that allows for a person to walk to the center to do their work easily.


Labyrinth Keyhole Garden based off of a Classic 7 Circuit Labyrinth – by Claudia

But are they really necessary?  I’ll discuss in later posts why I opted to forego the ingress.  This design, if oriented with the sun properly, will allow for some neat design and planting techniques like sun scoops – planting your tallest plants to the  northernmost edges of your beds to ‘scoop’ the sun and allow for shorter plants in front to get the sun they need.  An idea I pulled from Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting books.

For all my interest and love of (terribly) sketching out labyrinths I have yet to dive deeper into their psychological impacts on those who meander through them.  Threading the labyrinth has a lot of similar effects on the body as meditation.  At its simplest it can reduce stress and anxiety.  At its pinnacle, to some, it’s a method to higher spirituality.  I look forward to exploring this aspect as this project continues.

The design process can truly be labyrinthine, we go forward, take a turn, end up taking the long, scenic route, wind around a place we’ve already been to without really knowing it, take another turn, hit a dead end, double back, try something new and so on until we reach the goal.  The only map we have to guide us are the clues left by those who have tread the path before us.  I try to honor those pioneers here where I can; retracing their steps and furrowing the path even deeper so it may be easier for others to follow in the future.

Nothing worth doing is ever simple, right? Well, did you know that you can solve any simple, connected maze by making only going left or right?  It’s true!  I was able to solve the Hampton Court Palace maze in a short amount of time with only needing to re-route once.

If only the design process were as simple as that.

Somehow, I don’t think Jareth’s labyrinth would be solved that simply, either…



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