One of the most potent and exemplary designs of tropical permaculture is the banana circle, also sometimes called a pit garden. It has multiple functions that include the following but are not limited to them just as Bill Mollison once said: (the yield is theoretically unlimited, it is only our imagination and information that does)

  • Compost pile (anti-burning of organic material)
  • Food production
  • Biomass production
  • Greywater- from a sink or an outdoor shower right on top
  • Habitat for wildlife
  • Integration into mandala gardens
  • Community interaction (as we experienced in Malaysia with harvesting material from one neighbours burn pile)
Banana Circle serving as a greywater system as part of an overall design with aquaculture, swale, hedgerows, and garden terraces

Banana Circle serving as a greywater system as part of an overall design with aquaculture, swale, hedgerows, and garden terraces

The banana circle is a relatively easy design feature to construct and quickly planted out with cuttings and root division. When constructed correctly it serves mainly as a spot to cycle the constant flow of organic matter that is dropping from the jungle and coming out of the homes there.

Culturally, people like to keep their grounds clean (fear of snakes and such but also tradition of northern Europeans to scrape off all the organic matter and burn it) which necessitates a place to recycle the abundant organic material. Burning the material solves nothing holistically but a banana circle results in food and biomass at the very least. Bananas are very hungry plants and will thrive off the abundant cycling of organic material as well as the moisture inherent in its design.

Banana Circle Process of Construction

Banana Circle section view

Banana Circle section view

Step one is to lay out the circle in relative location so that it can perform many functions. It again may connect to the house via a sink or waste stream so site it appropriately. They are usually dug on relatively flat ground but a slight slope should not affect it at all. From there you will peg out the inner and outer circle with dimensions roughly but not always from the below drawing. They can get bigger or smaller but for access we have found this to be roughly the best dimensions. The 2 meter wide depression allows for ample water storage and composting area but not big enough where the constant flow of materials will not keep the depression without material. The material should be kept in a convex shape within the concave shape to keep the mosquito’s at bay if there happens to be standing water.

banana circle schematic

banana circle schematic, section view

The earth that is dug is drug outwardly with hoes and shovel to form a mound more or less 2 feet wide.

Banana Circle plan view 1

This gives plenty of planting space for the bananas themselves and the subsequent guilds. The mound will support seven bananas equidistantly planted around the edge on top of the mound.

From there a myriad of plants can be inserted but the main ones used in this guild still are providing physical shelter, nutrients, assist in pest control, and reduce root competition.  This guild will also produce food and the other elements are in relative location to making it a synergistic little cultivated ecology.

The simplest version is to simply add cassava or manioc to the outside of the mound as they can tolerate drier conditions. They are fast growing and can give some shelter while eventually providing a root crop yield while the systems is still young (plant and time stacking). This can be propagated by cuttings from other plants or sections of roots can be placed in the ground.

From there any of the tropical grasses (lemongrass, citronella, or vetiver) are inserted on top of the mound in between the banana plants. These plants are then chopped and dropped to make mulch for the emerging system. This cycles energy through the circle absorbing what could be entropy from the emerging planting scheme. The strong scented grasses can also be part of the pest control and provide some low growing initial windbreak. These plants are easily propagated through root division by digging up a clump elsewhere and simply ripping the root mass apart, cutting the foliage back, and then replanting.

The following step involves planting a groundcover to help with reducing root competition as tropical grasses and weeds will invade any newly disturbed space. Thus we like to use something fast growing like sweet potato slips. Alternatively or in combination could be peanut grass which an aggressive nitrogen fixer with beautiful yellow flowers. Both are propagated through cuttings or layering. Sweet potato slips are purchased from markets as there are some varieties grown for the leaf and are extremely fast growing and are sold for their steamed green edibility. This will help mitigate the weed issue and also create more stable soil temps creating conducive conditions for growth.

The final element is the planting out of the inner rim which could house a number of different plant elements. The location lends itself to plants who like the wetter conditions.  For this we usually use wetlands plants such as taro or cana lily.

Both are good biomass plants and can be used for food when the right cultivars are selected. They are planted densely around the inner terrace absorbing lots of nutrients and having access to the moisture pocket.

banana circle installThey are not pretty initially after the install but quickly take off from there. The inner circle should be mulched heavily and again the heap of organic material should form a convex shape. We often use large logs on the bottom for initial bulk and to provide a good fungal base and some aeration. Anything can be recycled and Mollison even suggests throwing in much of ones trash since that service is often limited in the tropics and can even be a resource in iron deficient soils. The mound itself should be mulched heavily in between the new plants to reduce weeds and retain moisture.


Banana Circle Maintenance

The mound will evolve quickly and excess banana plants (should only be grandmother, mother, and daugheter from each original plant) can be used as material to fill the depression. The circle design can also be used for Papaya or Coconut Palm. I have seen them bring together people of different cultures, house bats on their undersides, and delight children with their fruit. So I ask that you please incorporate these into your tropical Permaculture design so that the destructive paradigm of burning organic matter can be shifted and abundance can follow.

Papaya circle

Papaya Circle from a farm install in Dominican Republic from Dec 2012, same design just put Papaya in instead

Written by Doug Crouch

Header Art Anita Tirone

tropics header contour-2


    • Looks like scale is wrong, from my personal experience on Maui Hawaii each banana offshoot planted will rapidly grow to a 8’/2.5m clump in 18 months, and that’sthe diameterof the stems, canopy extends further yet. Casava gets to be 2m wide and 3m tall and the lemongrass has sharp leaves extending half meter in all directions. You could use this plan if you changed scale by a factor of 3 or so, or simply plant no more than 3 banana and harvest the casava and lemongrass frequently

  1. Excellent idea! This “banana circle design.” And I agree I can do the same for papaya. For coconuts, using the same circle recommended dimensions as that for bananas, wouldn’t that be to close assuming we plant the same number of trees (seven seedlings)? But I like the idea. Although I would need some convincing. In fact I might consider this in my planned coconut farm. Instead of planting the coconuts (regular tall variety, not the hybrid or dwarf) at 10 meters by 10 meters, I might consider the “coconut circle” in each corner of the square planting pattern instead of a single tree in the corners. But I need suggestions:
    1. What would be the recommended diameter of the coconut circle?
    2. How many coconut seedlings should I plant along the circumference? In the relation to that, what would be the MINIMUM spacing between two (2) consecutive seedlings measured along the circumference?
    3. Measured center to center, what would be the closest distance between two (2) coconut circles? Given that the trees will grow outward in a slant from the base. Can you recommend a range of planting distance between the circles?

    By the way, I live in the Philippines in Western Mindanao. Would appreciate your inputs. Thank very much. And the coconut farm I will develop will be integrated with free ranged chickens, naturally farmed pigs, bananas, robusta coffee, cacao, some fruit trees (breadfruit for human and livestock feeds). Maybe a hectare or two of dwarf coconuts for sap sugar production. Plus others plants I can economically grow in the farm.

    • Dear Karen,

      I am interested in wwoofing Philippines and love Siargao. Is it possible that your farm would be interested accepting volunteer permaculturalists?

  2. Karen, my farm is in the area of Zamboanga City, about 75 kms from the city proper, about one and a half hours by regular bus. I am now working with a higher education institution in Ozamiz City. The farm will be developed with coconuts as the major crop, banana, jackfruit, breadfruit and other fruit trees/plants. Livestock and poultry will be integrated.

    • Thanks, Karen. Can you describe briefly what project you are initiating in Siargao? We might be able to pick up some ideas. Thanks

  3. right now we have a 5-ha area to be farmed using permaculture methods with Bert Peeters (i thinkhe started the movement in the Philippines) as our consultant.

  4. Does anyone know of any examples, links or references of this technique with species appropriate to temperate climates? I am in the Southeast of the USA.

    • Hey Brent, in my PDC in Oregon some years ago the circle design was fulfilled with basket Willow as part of the shower grey water circle. It could be hardy bananas for producing biomass with greywater as well. It could also be any water and nutrient hungry fruit. I could see paw paws (Asimina triloba) with elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and chokeberry (Aronia melancarpa) working. Guess it depends on how far south you are but maybe some species like salmonberry from out west might be possible but that is purely a guess. I know my paw paws and chokeberry do very well on my swale mound just downhill of a seepage spring. All in all the circle design is great for cycling nutrients and water, can be tied to greywater, and can be a place to add food scrapes or excess manure and cardboard.

      • Thanks! I had considered willow, but I didn’t think of paw paw. Excellent suggestion.

  5. I am looking for a solution for filtering grey water from the kitchen, I heard of creating a pool and using certain plants , could a banana circle be good alternative for filtering the water?

    • banana circle is a great option, fill it with lots of organic material in the material, making it convex with OM in the concave shape of the earthwork. Plant the seven bananas and on the inside rim of the earthwork plant heavily with cana lily, ginger, and taro. Whatever water loving plants that you can easily propagate do. lead the pipe in at a 2% fall and let the system filter. carbon is what filters.

  6. I think I would like to try this with my papaya farm and since I have coconuts around I’ll make an outer circle with them. Between the papaya I’ll try either peppers or eggplant with a ground cover of sweet potato.

    • Sounds like a good plan pier. Stack in space and time for sure with your annuals. It helps the overall system and don’t forget some herbs and flowers and other biomass plants to cycle energy further. Let us know how it goes.

  7. This is an excellent idea that I cannot wait to apply in Siquijor Island, Philippines. This can help restore the once delta fields around our island, and providing a new avenue of ecological fauna in our backyard. This system can instill self reliance and self sufficiency in food production. a better way to go organic and preserve life to the fullest extend of longevity. I am very appreciative of having shared all your expertise, ideas, comments, and recommendations.

    • Glad you found it useful, please share and promote the design and page and let us know of your feedback on implementation.

  8. Great and worthy information to share! Am developing a demonstration garden for an organisation and one of the activity is making the banana circles being constructed at the end of outlet drain. However, the space is under the shade of trees. I have planted some bananas and looking for some plants which can do better under the trees, please advise me if possible reply to:

  9. This is the information I have been looking for. I know it will go a long way in assisting my grouo.

    • thanks for the comment and yes implement, spread the word, and share your results please! good luck

    • sure can, i have augmented the design a few times in the tropics and we called them sponges, tried to work on contour for the most part and have some edge. the key is the depression inside should be a place of cycling organic material.

  10. Great idea … I am living in Tanga Tanzania … lots of Bananas and papayas so it makes sense to grow them together … I like putting the idea of manioc, sweet potatoes and lemon grass all in the mix . Few questions:
    1 I presume alternate banana and papaya approx 1.5 metres apart will be good
    2 I plan to water with grey water from the shower … presume that does not need any filtering if it goes into the central organic material
    Cheers Arthur

  11. The sky is the limit…amazing what God’s science and laws of nature allow man to accomplish. I can see many guilds in this type of project; I will try a maize/legume/squash guild along with the banana trees and other items described….you know- being off grid and not having trash service or recycling presents an opportunity. I believe if you get everyone onboard to have several sizeable circles it could eliminate all trash/refuse burning. Great article and thank you for the input!

    • Yeah i have been watching the farmers here in Portugal set fires everyday to all the organic matter that explodes once the fall rains come back in the Mediterranean. Such a waste. Yeah share and spread the word!

  12. Wonderful!!! As told by my friend I wanted to try it. Now I just got more information. Can I try it with arecanut? Am an organic farmer from Assam, India. I cultivate tea, vegetables and fish in natural ways without any purchased inputs, using the Vedic formulas.

    • great that you found this resource and yeah try it out with arecanut. maybe it is only 4 or 5 trees instead of seven. i dont know that tree in person, only read about it so give it a go and let us know.

  13. Such a great Idea, we will defenetly bring that into our permaculture farm here in Sri Lanka.
    I’ts so sad that most of the locals already forgot about there tradiotional farming methods.

  14. Soooooo awesome!!! We have just moved to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and are starting a permaculture garden. This information is so helpful and we will be creating all the said circles. Can’t wait 😊

  15. Thanks for the wonderful information.
    We are getting as much theorethical and practical knowledge as we can and we trust that by just vibrating it and letting people know, someone will be interested in letting us intervene on their farm and help them be more efficien, sustainable and wholistic.
    Cheers from Coffs Harbour, Australia. (a.k.a.Banana Country).

  16. I live in Houston and we typically get a few frosts each year, which I know can cause bananas and papaya to die back and not fruit. Do you think that the biological activity in the pit will help to keep the land warm enough to keep the plants safe?

  17. Banana circles are a popular and fairly easy-to-make addition to any tropical permaculture system. in Near times this would be followed for sure, Good article.

  18. Very interesting.

    I am going to adopt this idea and tweak it a little. Im a farmer and educator on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. The land I will be utilizing is an old grass field that was previously unused. Initially for the central depression, I will probably add composted manure from local ranches, as well as bone meal and greensand for the added phosphorus and potassium. I will chop up the grass trimmings and use leaf clippings and other materials from around the campus for the brown/green manures. We do have large amounts of kīawe – mesquite growing here, and will layer the bottom with these logs with the other material covering forming the convex sinkhole.

    We have Hawaiian cultivars of banana that have been cultivated here for generations, and it would be a good tool for the students to propagate these types, as well as apple bananas from my own yard.

    I am thinking of putting lemongrass on the top of the mounds for the APC and intersperse them with Block-14 comfrey for the olʻ chop and drop mulch.

    Manioka – tapioca is going to be for the outside of the mounds. The kids can then learn to bake them in underground ovens.

    I will also hill up or mound on top of the mound area for planting sweet potatoes. We have hilling techniques that allow for the potatoes to grow well, and I think the students can learn the traditional puʻe style for hilling them and twisting or wili the vines as they grow to maximize the root growth. The density of the vines can help with mulching the ground area too.

    We also have large varieties of taro that will be planted in the inner ring. I was considering doing a Kona-style planting technique of digging holes about a foot down for each taro and filling them lightly with compost material and mulch which will allow the corms to grow to the size of the depression. I am thinking that they would still have to be a few inches away from the pit as to keep the solid wall of dirt in between the hole and the sinkhole.

    Native ferns like kupukupu or lauaʻe could be planted around the taro which could be chopped and dropped – and to add to the spiritual growth of the hole. Kupu means to shoot or bud, and lauaʻe is to encourage leaf growth.

    Over time, the banana that have produced fruit will be chopped and thrown into the hole, along with sweet potato vines and other organic materials to keep the microbiome healthy.

    I was even considering burning mesquite into charcoal and making biochar with manure, azomite rock dust, and a bit of whole flour to add to the range of microbes that would be produced.

    As for the borders of the field, our principal wants citrus so we will be planting those trees along with ʻulu – breadfruit trees. I believe the breadfruit will grow to become a canopy while the citrus will form a sub canopy. This border will be planted on the east northeast side of the area on a long hilled area with a swale made from the hilling on the oceanside -west of the tree line. I can put comfrey and other herbs underneath to build layers.

    Unfortunately the area is a flat field which doesn’t provide huge options for swale and terracing to happen… but I will consider options should any pop up.

    I do want to plant breadfruit in random areas in-between the banana circles to encourage canopy growth. I could also use moringa oliflera which I can cultivate easily from home. The moringa is great from chop and drop, on top of its huge nutritional value. They could form a canopy but I want to use them mainly for chop and drop, as well as to provide lots of organic material for composting.

    I could also do a similar style of banana circle around a traditional Dryland taro patch. Say for instance, if the ground is dug down around 2 ft. and hilled up substantially around the outer edge. The dirt could be removed or used to hill up other areas since it is a substantial area of dirt (10 x 10 or more). The pit could be used for the first year as a compost pit with logs and the same mix of organic materials and watered heavily to allow the soil to develop. After a year or so, the taro could be planted traditionally within the pit and a similar style of banana circle could be built around it. The only difference with that would be that the taro planted on the inner ring of the hill would be planted close together to encourage leaf growth and harvested as such, whereas the taro in the middle of the sinkhole would be spaced and used for corm development.

    So many ideas. Thank you for the banana circle diagrams. Much to consider.

    If you would like to comment thoughts or ideas, please feel free to.


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