A Garden Mandala

There is no mistaking this local garden for big agribusiness. It is designed around the the shape of a traditional Zia Pueblo sun symbol, the same one that appears on the New Mexico flag. It elegantly expresses a concept that is philosophical and spiritual, yet incredibly useful and down to earth. A symbol in itself of the interdependence of nature and human cultures.

The problem is the garden does not exist. No one had actually built a garden like this when Bioneers called on me to paint it. It exists in the imagination of a group of visionary horticulturalists, engineers, biologists and planners.

If it is ever built, it will feature a meticulously thought out display of traditional and modern New Mexico crops arranged according to nutritional content, and cultural importance--like the "Three Sisters," corn, beans, and squash planted in the central spiral.

Zia garden

A symbolic Zia New Mexico garden (click to enlarge)

When I first got the client’s doodle for this piece from Bioneers Collaborative Initiative, a group of pragmatic visionary planners, for the cover of their report, “Dreaming New Mexico,” I hesitated to take it on for a few days. I thought it would be impossible to paint and I didn’t know how to tell them that. It worked as a beautiful theory, but not as an image.

There was so much scientific detail that it seemed at first to require a boring and textbook-like map or diagram of some kind with symbolic pattern fills, if the viewer was going to be able to identify the plants in each bed. Yet the whole purpose was to make the abstract idea seem real and appealing to the imagination, even to the taste buds! It was to be a garden that one would think about: food for thought.

My client’s original intent was to visualize the hypothetical garden in a realistic way. It was certainly not anything that a photograph could convey. They wanted a painting. So I decided to try to give them one: a digital painting.

As it turned out, a little bit of scale exaggeration and idealizing of the plants made this work on its own as a painting. They decided, in the end, not to even violate the painting with little numbers and a key. I created a black and white line diagram of the mandala shaped beds and labeled each plant species there. This map was included inside the cover.

“Looks wonderful, ” was the email reply to my first tentative color proof.


  1. keith
    January 29, 2017

    Do you happen to have a comparison of square foot usage for a design like this compared to row cropping?

  2. Heather
    April 23, 2016

    New Mexican transplant to Idaho. Planning my (short season) Zia garden. Lovely rendition. I’m going for a French potager garden but with my NM roots. Love the ‘three sisters’ grouping. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  3. Alexandra Mesa
    April 1, 2016

    Hi, I would like to ask for your permission to be able to share this on my gardening site.


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