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

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