Keyhole gardening may be worth considering in our climate. Keyhole gardens offer easy accessibility and efficient use of space with the most productive capacity. It is a raised garden concept shaped like an old fashioned keyhole.
Keyhole gardening provides a low maintenance, self contained and productive ecosystem that the whole family (young and old) can participate in and enjoy; is waist to chest high with easy “reach-ability”; using household combustible recycled materials such as lint, egg shells, vegetable waste, coffee and tea, breads, rice, grass, bark, newspaper etc. and can be watered with “grey” water; was developed in ancient times as a way to garden arid environments and used successfully in African villages; is energy efficient and conservation friendly.
The center compost area naturally conditions the soils and provides a nutrient base for the worms and micro-organisms to do the hard work for you -using the “no-dig” principle which prevents disruption to soil ecology making it easy on you.
You will need to weed occasionally, top-dress with mulch or compost to retain water and keep the roots cool, and rotate your crops from year to year. Plan your beds (each “wedge”) for light, water, growth patterns and include some companion plantings for disease, pest control, enhanced production and identification. In order to build a keyhole garden, you will need the following: stakes, string, rocks/ stones/bricks/logs, wire (chicken wire), cardboard and newspaper, broken pipe/pots/rusty cans/rubber for drainage, soil, manure, compost, and preferably worms.
#1 – Pick a good sunny spot with mostly flat soil, access to water, and cleared of weeds (especially woody weeds).
# 2 –In the center of the ring, stake a wood/metal/or cane stake with a string to outline the edges. (Probably 3-4’ long) Outline your circle with spray paint or draw with another stake in the dirt. Line the perimeter circle with stones, bricks, cinderblocks, rocks, or logs. Eventually you will build a 3’ wall.
# 3 – At the center, place 2 stakes 18-24’ apart (compost basket width) and then 2 more at 90 degrees. Make the basket by either- spacing stakes 6” apart and wrap with wire and straw to keep the compost from falling out or use chicken wire supported by the stakes. Line the bottom of this basket with crumpled newspaper.
#4 – Create your “keyhole” entrance. Center is the approx 20” at or close to the compost basket, outer width should be about 2½’. You may line your “wedge” with mulch or bricks.
# 5 – Line the floor of your circle with several layers of cardboard boxes. Then add “drainage”-sections of pipe, broken clay pots, rubber, rusty cans, stones; a layer of straw if you have it, (you may add more newspaper or wood chips if desired) and then start adding soil from the center outward. The top 12” should be a mix of quality soil, well rotten manure and/or compost and some worms to get the process started.
# 6 – Divide your circle into “wedges” – usually 5-7 – mark with string/stakes/spray paint. You will need to “rotate” your crops each year by moving them one or two sections over. Plant at least 4 types of plants from different plant families to help deter pests and disease. Interplanting and companion planting make for an interesting and more productive garden. Plant carrots and radishes in the same row -radishes mark the row where the carrots will be; tomato, basil, parsley and marigolds; corn with tomatoes, peas, squash, pole beans to climb. Marigolds control nematodes and some fungal diseases. Plan your garden carefully with flowers and vegetables you enjoy considering their growth needs and production times. Information is available on-line or at your local library.
#7 – Top-dress with mulch or woodchips to preserve the moisture and prevent weeds. Water well until the roots are established, then water primarily from the compost basket to provide the nutrients and moisture needed by the plant roots. There are many websites with gardening tips and ideas for keyhole or raised bed gardens in addition to books you may purchase or check out from the libraries.
Some sites with information on keyhole gardens are: www.facebook.com/keyholegardens (pictures and Dr. Deb Tolman), www.gardeningknowhow.com, www.gardensforfun.com, www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/nature-outdoors/keyhole-gardening/, http://bakerinstitute.org -search “keyhole garden” for step by step building and maintenance.