Monday, November 22, 2010

The Keyhole Garden

The Permaculture Series - exploring the concepts of sustainability: gardening that takes care of itself with less work and better productivity, one topic at at time.

One of permaculture’s many ideas is the “keyhole” garden, referring to the shape of it. One could instead call it “U” or horseshoe-shaped. A keyhole garden consists of a central pathway surrounded on three sides by garden beds. The shape is intended to maximize growing area while minimizing pathways.

We decided to try this idea. Our chosen space is about a 13 x 14 foot rectangle. We first took out some surfacing tree roots, and the movable rocks. The rocks are now a small stone wall behind the area, building up the back of it that had been a downhill slope. This leveled the area and will help to keep rainwater there. Rain is our source of water for this. It is out of reach of the hose. And, too, another concept of permaculture (there are many!) is of finding ways to retain and use rainwater, and we'll get to that in a future post.

After preparing the space we then figured out on which side the path should enter and how wide to make the path (wide enough, we decided, to turn a wheelbarrow around). The next step was to create garden-able soil by layering compostable materials. Our other garden areas were also started with compost instead of digging. The materials are built upward from ground level instead of digging downward (there’s too many rocks here to dig). This works beautifully- our plants have done very well in it.

We began with forest land for our keyhole garden, but if you have lawn instead, the same idea works just as well. We’re giving the layering process below in case you’d like to try it too.

We're not sure yet exactly what we want to plant. We want to try some of the plants touted by permaculturalists. These include Good King Henry, fennel, perennial kale, seakale, and other edible perennials. We'll think about this through the winter as we go through seed and plant catalogs. The "perma" part of permaculture means permanent, indicating the use of perennial or reseeding annuals that are hardy in our climate.

Here is how to assemble the layers, and I should say there’s no need to be a perfectionist about it. If you’re starting with lawn, cut the grass as short as you can get it.

1. Spread any soil amendments that are needed to improve your garden soil. Here, we need lime to convert forestland, and we like to add alfalfa pellets (this is sold as bunny food at the farm supply).

2. Top the amendments with a sprinkling of manure.

3. Next is a crucial layer: newspapers and/or cardboard. Use the black and white newspaper pages, not the shiny ads. Layer them 1 - 2” thick and overlap the edges. If you are shading out lawn be sure to make the layer thick to prevent any sunlight getting through. This layer and the ones beneath it will attract worms which will eat through the papers and cardboard. Worm manure is excellent for your plants.

4. Now add about a foot of mulch material. This is an important layer that will break down into a hefty amount of compost. We are using pine boughs from some pine trees we just had taken down, and some raked leaves. Scrounge for what you need for this layer- trimmings from shrubbery, grass clippings, raked leaves and so on, or go to the farm supply and get bales of straw (not hay which can reseed the area with grass).

5. Top it off with a layer of compost. You can sprinkle on some dirt also if you have some handy.

The layers will break down into compost. The keyhole garden will not require tilling or digging. The ground beneath the layers will loosen and become enriched by compost and worm activity (if you have sod it will rot and loosen up). Although we are told you can go ahead and put plants into this right away (plant them with compost surrounding the roots), we prefer to let ours age over the winter. In spring we’ll let you know what we’ve decided to plant in it. -jmm

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Greens for Winter Harvest

Earlier we posted instructions for building and preparing cold frames. This post will focus on the plants that we will be harvesting this winter. Our cold frames consist of eleven windows this year and planting took place between late August and late September. Between November and March there is little actual growth that takes place. It's starting to get cold enough at night now to be putting the windows down on the cold frames. This is a sign that growth is slowing for the season.

Spinach happily thriving in the cold frame in November
Under some of the windows are carrots, beet greens, and scallions that will over-winter and be ready in early spring. Between the rows of carrots, mache is already being picked for salads. Mache is the hardiest of greens and is one of our favorites. It is a small, low-growing plant that easily reseeds itself if you allow it to flower and go to seed. You may find that it has planted itself in the pathway outside of the cold frame.
We plant spinach also, and several varieties of lettuce. Black Seeded Simpson is a favorite lettuce because it is very prolific. The current crop will take us into January when the cold frame will be reseeded for a March crop. 
We also plant arugula, endive, escarole, Swiss chard, sorrel, and claytonia. Endive, escarole, and radicchio are members of the chicory family, with radicchio being an Italian red chicory. Arugula and sorrel add distinct flavors (sorrel is lemony) and are wonderful in a mesclum mix. Claytonia, also called “Miner’s lettuce,” sprouts small white flowers in the spring which we eat with the leaves. Spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard should not be eaten raw on a regular basis, so we steam them for a side dish.    
We use succession planting for some of the crops. Mache, lettuce and spinach are planted in two week intervals so new crops become harvestable in late fall, the middle of winter and in early spring. 
These plants are our personal produce selection that keeps us from having to buy Peruvian produce at the super market. With a goal of eating locally, even in our Maine winter months, cold frames are how to eat from the garden year round. Bon appetite. -G.H.