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Circle Gardens: a discovery par excellence!

by Pat Featherstone

FILED IN: Green Gardening · Issue 15 · Soil For Life

Save water and increase production with a new way of gardening. I first read about ‘ecocircles’ (‘circles of cultivation’) in a Land magazine dating back to 1998. The article was written by Anthony Trowbridge of Applied Natural Sciences at Technikon SA.

In a recent telephone conversation with him he enthusiastically endorsed this way of growing as a means not only to save on labour, but also to provide a unique and simple way of growing large amounts of food in small spaces using very little water.

Not only can the method be effectively used by the home gardener, but it can also be used on a commercial scale, where its low-tech requirements reduce capital costs.

Professor Donald Langham, working in Venezuela, developed the idea of planting in circles instead of growing in straight lines in angular beds as a means of overcoming the difficulties faced by South American farmers; the same difficulties experienced in this country with an ever-increasing prospect of drought and, in some regions, floods, and the loss of precious topsoil.

Circle Gardens

It affords the home-gardener an opportunity to create interesting garden designs with circular veggie patches arranged along pathways, interspersed with herbs and flowers which serve the multiple purposes of attracting beneficial animal life, providing colour and diversity, acting as companion plants to the vegetable crops, stimulating their growth, acting as natural pest deterrents and creating a feeling of abundance.

There are many benefits of growing in this way:

• You can grow lots of food in small spaces. Each circle has a diameter of one metre (or one spade).

In our Resource Centre garden we have been in awe of how much food comes out of one circle. For example, we harvested 3 bunches of spring onions, a bunch of beetroot, 4 lettuces and a whole stack of beans. Total sale value - R60!

Out of another circle - five massive cabbages, interplanted with faster growing radishes and spring onions. We have planted tomatoes, spinach, radishes, lettuces - all sorts of combinations - together, and all have given incredible yields. Nobody could believe the size of our Swiss Chard leaves! Try it for an instant mood lifter.

• Raised beds give an increased depth for establishing healthy root systems.

• There is a saving of up to 70% in water usage. Compost (or other organic material) added to the soil as the bed is constructed creates a sponge which retains the water. Mulching prevents evaporation, and the method of irrigating ensures that minimum water is used.

• ‘Ecocircles’ build soil fertility and help to prevent the unnecessary loss of soil to the erosive forces of wind and rain.
• The basin shape of the completed bed funnels water into the centre where it sinks into the soil; it doesn’t run off, carrying precious topsoil with it. In other words, the bed acts as a mini-water- harvester.

• Deep watering encourages good root growth. A strong, well-developed root system will ensure a healthy plant.

• Because it is such simple technology, it costs nothing to implement. Very important in this day and age of prohibitive costs.

• It requires almost nil land preparation. You don’t even need to weed before you start. This means less work for those of us who are not up to wielding a spade.

If you’re ready to give it a go, this is how you go about creating your first ecocircle:

Circle Gardens

Mark out a circle (1 metre in diameter) on the ground using two sticks and a piece of string. Alternatively, if you are the secret possessor of a hoola hoop, that will suffice to mark out the circle.

Remove the first 20 - 30 cm of topsoil and place in a neat pile next to the circle.

Circle Gardens

Remove 20 to 30 cm of subsoil and place it in a separate pile next to the circle. The depth of the hole should be 50cm (knee deep).

Circle Gardens

Using a candle and a needle (stick it in a cork to prevent burning your fingers) burn 16 holes in the side of a 2 litre plastic bottle which has a lid. The holes should be arranged in 4 vertical rows as shown above.

Circle Gardens

Place the bottle at the bottom of the hole, in the centre of the circle. Add a 2 cm layer (one finger) of compost (or well-rotted kraal manure, kitchen waste or dry grass) in the base of the hole and cover this with an 8 cm layer (four fingers) of subsoil. Water these two layers well.


Continue replacing the subsoil, layering it with compost (or the other materials mentioned above) and watering each layer as you go until all the subsoil has been replaced.

By adding organic matter and watering each level in turn a sponge effect is created which will retain water below the surface so that plant roots are encouraged to grow downwards, giving them greater strength. Surface watering tends to make plant roots stay near the surface.

The sponge effect is maintained by the burying of the bottle (or alternatively a tin can with holes in the bottom) into which water can be poured so that all the plants in the ecocircle can be reached with one watering session.


Having added all the subsoil, replace the topsoil. The surface of the bed will be higher than the surrounding ground. This creates a raised circular bed.


Scoop the soil from the centre of the circle to the outside to create a basin with the top of the bottle in the centre.


Mulch the surface of the basin and plant seeds or seedlings on the inside of the ridge, in circles. It is extremely important to keep the beds well mulched as this prevents water loss by evaporation. One bed can accommodate 10 lettuces or 5 to 8 cabbages, or 4 rows of beans or a variety of different crops.


To look after your ‘ecocircle’ there are a few things you need to remember:

• Fill the bottle with water (it is only necessary to do this once a week if the bed is well mulched. This means that you are using only 2 litres of water per bed per week. Tighten the cap and then loosen a little but so that no vacuum is created once the water drips out into the soil.

• In areas of high rainfall, the surface of the bed should be flat to prevent water-logging. In dry areas the basin shape promotes the sinking of water.

• Records on planting and crop rotation can be kept easily and accurately to ensure good soil, and therefore, good plant health.
• Very young seedlings planted in the centre of the circle are protected from wind.

Let us know how you get on with this exciting way of growing. Share your ideas on creating an interesting garden design with these circular beds.

In the next edition of Biophile we are starting a series on trees. Wangari Maathai’s work in Kenya - her passion for returning the devastated landscape of her country to its former glory - is inspirational to say the least.

Thom Hartman, in his thought-provoking, life-changing book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, speaks of the death of the trees and the consequences to planetary health and well-being.

I quote - ‘They are the lungs of the planet.’ Yet, ‘forests are imperiled worldwide.’

There is always hope. Start planting trees. Create your own forest - your own lungs, and food, shade, security, dust traps, wind breaks, habitats and much more. Invite life back into your landscape.

It’s easy to plant a tree. Modify your ‘eco-circle’ a little. Make a square hole - 1 metre x 1 metre x ½ metre (1 metre, if you’re up to it) deep. Fill it in exactly the same way, burying a ½ metre length of plastic piping instead of the bottle (although a bottle will do).

Create a basin and plant the tree of your choice. Remember, before planting a tree, make sure that you know what size it will be when it’s mature so that you can chose the right position. Nurture it, remembering that it will support you in the most unexpected ways. What goes round, comes round.

Go on.

Do it today.

Plan where to put your first. Prepare the hole. Purchase the tree, remembering that each tree should fulfill more than one task in your garden; a multi-purpose plant. Get reading. Go planting. It’s the right thing to do.

Soil for Life is a Cape Town-based NGO which teaches people to grow their own food. For more information about Soil for Life membership, and organic methods for growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, please phone Pat on (021) 794 4982

Soil for Life runs monthly workshops in Cape Town on all aspects of organic gardening. Book early to avoid disappointment!


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  1. HI there
    I am a grade 11 student at Carleton High in Carletonville, I have used some of the information of your issue 15 and it has had a great impact (I hope long term) on all the people who read my presentation.
    Thank You very much
    Natasha Aoun

    Comment by Natasha

  2. That’s fantastic, Natasha — thanks for sharing with us.

    Comment by Steve

  3. Biocircles.

    I have been growing vegetables in biocircles since 1998 first in Moorreesburg in the Western Cape and then in Walkerville
    in Gauteng. Mr Anthony Throwbridge gave me some very competent assistance at the time and my unit was very much based on the research done by Dr. Langham in Venezuela.

    An article which I wrote on the system was published in the
    Gauteng Smallholder Magazine way back in 2002 and I am surprised
    that you have not come across any of my writings on the topic.

    I acquired a Bsc in Agriculture at the University of Copenhagen and worked for several years at Zebediela Estates who hired me from overseas as I was fortnate enough to be able to speak Afrikaans, which I learnt in Kenyi in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

    Your description of the system is good but I based my research
    on biocircles that were exactly 1 square meter which meant that my
    biocircles had a diameter of 1.2 meters. I think your
    illustrations are very good - could I perhaps use them for my

    I will gladly e-mail you a copy of my article.

    Kind Regards, Anders Reginald Arkner.

    Comment by Reginald Arkner

  4. @Reginald: Thank you for sharing. You’re most welcome to use the illustrations for your article. If you require high-res versions, it might be best if you contact Pat Featherstone (pat@soilforlife.co.za) as it is her talented daughter who illustrates all the Soil For Life articles.

    Comment by admin

  5. I am involved in poverty alleviation in a squatter camp in Krugersdorp (Mogale City). The people there are very poor and have no work. They are too far away from businesses to actually find work. I want to start a community garden there, but I need help and assistance

    Comment by Mara Scholtz

  6. I have prepared all my beds for the year, but am definitely going to change to the circle garden technique. I was really concerned at the amount of water I used last year (my first year of growing veggies), and this seems like a much better option.

    I am looking for a resource that describes what vegetables to plant when. Could anyone point me in the right direction?

    Comment by Martin Duys

  7. Dear Biophile Magazine.


    First: I must notyfy you of the change of e-mail address as I eventually got fed up with Telkom and all their inefficiencies. My e-mail address is as indicated on this e-mail.

    Second: I eventually did proceeded to write an entire e-book on the subject of gardening in circles and I put all my research and experience gained in the process down in writing expecting the whole world to make a bee-line my doorstep, but alas not so. I did indeed get the odd enquiry, but nothing really worth while. I think it is my own marketing of the book that has been at fault.

    Anyhow, at my age, I do not intend to pursue the matter further and I now intend to hand the whole enterprise over to you for you to use as you deem fit provided you give me due credit for all my work should you decide to make use of any of the material in the book.

    The book is very comprehensive as I put a lot of work and research into it and it contains virtually everything that I know on the subject of horticulture and which I now wish to share with everybody before I make my final departure to the next dimension.

    Please contact me and let me have your e-mail address and I will forward you a copy of my e-book in PDF format. The book is also ideal for publication in serial form and your magazine would be the perfect vehicle.

    The system of Circle Gardening is so under rated and your organisation is the only organisation, that I can think of, who could properly spread ‘the gospel’, so to speak, and in a truly professional fashion.


    Anders Reginald Arkner

    Comment by Reginald Arkner

  8. Mr Anders R Arkner.

    Good day Sir,is there a possibility to get hold of a copy of your e-book?
    If so my e-mail is hardyloubser@webmail.co.za.
    thanks Hardy

    Comment by Hardy

  9. Hi

    Can I please get a copy of this e book? Please mail me to the above e mail address. Regards

    Comment by Martinette

  10. Dear Biophile Magazine and Mr Arkner,

    I would love a copy of Mr Arkner’s e-book. But I have no way of contacting him. Is there any possibility that you (Biophile) could facilitate this?

    Comment by Martin Duys

  11. [...] tamaties, spinasie en kruie, te gaan, is egter net nie ‘n opsie nie.  Op die internet het ek van ‘circle gardens’ gelees.  Dit slaan nie baie plek in beslag nie, verg nie baie inspanning nie, en is maklik om in [...]

    Pingback by Sirkeltuin « Boendoe se blog argief

  12. Dear Biophile Magazine and Mr Arkner,

    I would also love to get hold of a copy of your book. Can you please e-mail it to sbhill@mweb.co.za.

    Many thanks,
    Gordon Smith

    Comment by Gordon Smith

  13. Hi, I am also interested in the E-book of Anders Reginald Arkner. Please email me a copy…

    I wish to spread the knowledge of living sustainably too!


    Comment by Nicholas McLean

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