Keyhole Garden Design

Keyhole Garden Design

During a drought, Texas has a lot in common with southern Africa. Scorching heat, thin layers of topsoil and elusive rainfall can make for a brutal summer when gardening is not for the faint of heart. Recent Texas droughts are the most severe on record, and the National Weather Service warns that the long-term forecast is drier still. So it’s nothing short of amazing that the community of Clifton in Bosque County has been transformed into an oasis in this gardening desert with help from creative landscape architect Deb Tolman. Leaning on her 30 years of experience in landscape design, doctoral studies in environmental science and research on African survival strategies, Tolman has teamed with local ranch owners Jim and Mary Lou Starnater to unlock the secrets of sustainable gardening. Affectionately known as “Dr. Deb,” Tolman lives “one block off the grid.” Living on the Starnaters’ StarHaven Ranch in a 10-by-10-foot converted oat bin, Tolman has access to electricity from United Cooperative Services, which serves the ranch, but uses no other public utilities. She grows her own food—even in hot, dry conditions—cooks in an outdoor oven, and every month hosts sustainability workshops on topics from rainwater harvesting to her most popular class—keyhole gardening. Lessons from Africa A keyhole garden is the ultimate raised-bed planter. It is often built in the shape of a circle measuring about 6 feet in diameter that stands waist-high and is notched like a pie with a slice cut away. A hole in the center holds a composting basket that moistens and nourishes the soil. The garden, which from above looks like a keyhole, can be built with recycled materials and requires less water than a conventional garden. “It works well in places far drier than we are here on the edge of the Hill Country,” says Tolman, who discovered the technique five years ago. The sustainable gardening method was developed by a humanitarian aid organization in southern Africa, where resources are scarce and the climate unforgiving. There, three keyhole gardens can feed a family of 10 all year long, reports the BBC. In her area of North Central Texas, Tolman has added a twist to keyhole gardens, making beds almost entirely of compost. Some of the soil is composed of recycled newspapers, telephone books and cardboard, which she says adds carbon, nitrogen and air to the soil. In Tolman’s garden, cardboard is gold, and what it buys is priceless. “You don’t have to spend $400 a month on groceries when you can grow healthy produce at home,” she says. “In the summertime, I grow Malabar spinach, which loves the heat. The chard’s been going all year. I can eat a power snack of French green beans right off the vine.” Her harvest also includes carrots, kale, tomatoes, berries and more, rivaling Texas farmers markets. “I eat year-round from these gardens,” says Tolman. Texas Keyhole Gardens Tolman is sharing these ideas with the community, and Clifton now has about 60 keyhole gardens. “My first keyhole garden here in Clifton was at Ace Hardware,” says Tolman, describing a demonstration garden maintained by the hardware store. “We used native rock and clay to build the walls, and recycled paper and manure to make soil. In just four weeks, 129 phone books were no longer discernable, and half a Dumpster load of cardboard from Ace Hardware had become soil.” Jim Starnater has helped build three community keyhole gardens in Clifton and has built several on his ranch. He was skeptical when he first attended one of Tolman’s workshops and saw photos of a beautifully productive raised-bed garden built on a mutual friend’s property. “I thought that garden was several years old,” he says. “But it had been planted just seven months before. You’re not going to start anything else in Bosque County that grows like that.” While the keyhole provides easy access to the composting basket in the center, almost any raised bed about 6 feet in diameter will work. “You can adapt the concept to whatever you have available,” Starnater says. “We’ve experimented with various things, from old, leaking cattle water troughs to tractor and truck tires. Personally, I’m not into ‘pretty.’ I’m into function and efficiency. I’m interested in how to produce the largest amount of nutritious, organic food in the least amount of space with the least amount of water.” Tolman, who appreciates both form and function, has worked with Starnater to turn an old ski boat and a bathtub into gardens in addition to her more traditional stone designs. Drought Hardy Clifton resident Rosa Peitz met Tolman through the Clifton Garden Club. “I’d never heard of keyhole gardens before Dr. Deb’s workshop,” says Peitz, “but I liked the idea of a garden where I didn’t have to bend over and that would only use a gallon or two of water every day.” Tolman had suggested using rocks and cob, a mixture of clay and straw, but Peitz didn’t have either. Instead, she and her son used broken concrete from a house remodeling project, mortaring it with cement to create a frame for her now-prosperous garden. “This year, he’s got eight or nine different kinds of peppers growing in it, and we’ll easily harvest several thousand peppers,” Peitz says. “During the drought, when almost everyone had given up on their gardens, the keyhole gardens were thriving.” Tolman’s and Starnater’s gardens also continued to produce during the 2011 drought, although extra water and care were required. “If you go through a Texas summer with more than 60 days over 100 degrees, nothing’s going to grow if you don’t water it,” says Starnater. “But we used drip irrigation and a thick layer of mulch, which reduced the amount of water required by about 30 percent. We also created umbrellas to shade the plants and reduce the heat and sun exposure by about 60 percent. That makes a big difference.” Because keyhole gardens can both weather the drought and take a big bite out of the grocery bill, they’re a welcome gift from Africans to Texans for bountiful seasons to come. ——————–G. Elaine Acker is a freelance writer and occasional blogger who divides her time between Texas and New Mexico. Visit Deb Tolman’s website for more information on keyhole gardening.
keyhole garden design 1

Keyhole Garden Design

A keyhole garden is a 2 meter wide circular raised garden with a keyhole-shaped indentation on one side. The indentation allows gardeners to add uncooked vegetable scraps, greywater, and manure into a composting basket that sits in the center of the bed. In this way, composting materials can be added to the basket throughout the growing season to provide nutrients for the plants. The upper layer of soil is hilled up against the center basket so the soil slopes gently down from the center to the sides. Most keyhole gardens rise about one meter above the ground and have walls made of stone. The stone wall not only gives the garden its form, but helps trap moisture within the bed. Keyhole gardens originated in Lesotho and are well adapted to dry arid lands and deserts. In Africa they are positioned close to the kitchen and used to raise leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, and spinach; herbs; and root crops such as onions, garlic, carrots, and beets. Keyhole gardens are ideal for intensive planting, a technique in which plants are placed close together to maximize production. Plants with wide reaching root systems such as tomatoes and zucchini may not perform well in a keyhole garden. The keyhole garden was developed in Lesotho by the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency (C-SAFE), based upon a design that originated with CARE in Zimbabwe. In the mid-1990s Lesotho had one of the highest AIDS/HIV rates in the world. C-SAFE designed the keyhole garden for people who suffered from AIDS or were otherwise unable to tend a traditional garden. They are tall enough that people don’t have to bend over while working in them; sturdy enough that a person who is weak can lean against them while they work; and are small enough that the entire bed is within arm’s reach. The garden is constructed using layers of compost, manure, wood ash and other nutrient rich materials so they are more productive than most home gardens; and they hold water making them drought resistant. The walls can be made of common stones picked up from a field, cinderblocks, bricks, or any material strong enough to hold in the soil. Clean water is used when watering the plants on the surface, while household greywater is poured down into the compost basket. While they are designed for people who were too sick to tend a traditional garden, because they were so productive, people in good health started building them as kitchen gardens. Here the family could grow its high value crops using succession planting. In the end C-SAFE helped build over 20,000 keyhole gardens, and when they returned a couple of years later, more than 90% were still in use. Today keyhole gardens are found in many places throughout Africa, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Sudan, and Nigeria. African style keyhole gardens have been built in Texas and other places in the US. The Texas Master Gardeners Association has put on several workshops to promote them. They have modified the basic design, having standardized on a 6-foot wide bed with a 12-inch tube made of rabbit fencing or chicken wire for the compost basket. It is common in Texas to add red-wiggler worms to the compost basket to help break down the organic matter. The term “keyhole garden” is also used in permaculture to describe a garden bed that has been laid out with one or more paths that dead-end rather than continuing through, in order to reduce the area of paths. Permaculture keyhole gardens tend to be wider and flatter than the African variety and do not generally incorporate a compost basket or compost pile built into the bed. The tall beds that incorporate compost are referred to as “banana circles” by permaculturalists. See also Raised-bed gardening Square foot gardening

Keyhole Garden Design

Keyhole Garden Design
Keyhole Garden Design
Keyhole Garden Design
Keyhole Garden Design
Keyhole Garden Design