A keyhole bed can help maximize your growing space, create microclimates and can be part of a beautiful garden design. Read on to find out more about a keyhole bed.
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The shape of the garden drives what space will be used to contain plants. In my permaculture design course I’m learning to utilize the space by maximizing the planting area. An easy way to maximize planting areas is to reduce the paths in the garden.
The Problem With Paths
Photo Credit: Jonathan Brinkhorst
Paths allow access from one area to another. The use of them compacts the soil down making it tough for things to grow. You can see in the image above that the path is a baked hardpan of ground. Pathways in edible gardens are wasted real estate which could be used to grow more produce, herbs or plants which will attract pollinators or predatory insects into the garden.
In a traditional garden bed of let’s say 10 feet long by about 10 feet wide, you could be losing 40 square feet of planting space to pathways or even more by planting single rows of produce. In 40 square feet you could be planting the following based on seed packet distances and a triangular planting pattern:
- 21 eggplants
- 416 bush beans
- 30 squashes
- 6651 arugula plants
- 104 corn
- 739 onions
- 46 seed potatoes
- 1663 carrots
- 185 pea plants
- 136 cilantro
- 17 echinacea
Now I don’t know about you but that is a lot of plants which could be planted in that 40 square feet and I would rather be planting some of these than having all that path!
Keyhole Garden Beds
A keyhole garden bed changes the configuration and layout of the traditional garden rows in growing your vegetables. By curving the planting space into a circle and making a small pathway, less than a quarter of the ground is used for a path.
In my previous post about planning a garden for self sufficiency, I made this graphic of a basic keyhole garden bed:
The wider circle in the middle is a turning space to allow you to move around for weeding, feeding and harvesting.
Multiple basic keyhole beds can be linked together with a main pathway which can accommodate a wheelbarrow or rolling composter to aid in harvesting and soil building. Keyhole beds linked together in a design are often referred to as mandala gardens.
Photo Credit: Andrew Pons
Mandala type designs can be seen in this passionflower. The stamen and anthers of the passionflower would be pathways in a garden. Use nature to inspire your inner garden designer when creating keyhole gardens!
Keyhole garden beds have become rather sophisticated now with composting towers built into them and can be small keyhole composting garden beds to much larger drought tolerant, composting raised beds. U-shaped, raised keyhole gardens were used in Africa and create beautifully productive, self-sustaining gardens. Keyhole gardens with integrated composters not only feed your plants right there in the garden bed are a traditional way to grow food in regions with poor soil and low rainfall because they require less water to produce a big harvest.
Building A Keyhole Bed
A keyhole garden may be purchased as a kit or built really simply using cardboard as a sheet mulch and building up the bed.
Using cardboard, cover the ground in the keyhole shape. The planting space for the bed would be around 3 to 5 feet wide. The pathway can narrow at 1 foot wide to the wider central turning circle of 18 to 24 inches. You can also cover the pathway with cardboard and mulch it at the same time or leave it uncovered by cardboard.
Add other compostable materials like leaves, newspaper, compost etc.
You might like to read a related post How To Make Easy Raised Beds Using Cardboard.
Plant your new bed!
It really is that easy! You can edge the keyhole bed with brick, rock or wood and create gravel or woodchip pathways or leave them grassy if you don’t mind the extra mowing to keep the grass in check.
Level Up Your Keyhole Garden
Some ideas to make your keyhole garden more productive and work easier for you:
Build a composting tower in the center to feed your garden bed meaning there is less work in moving compost.
Use rock, cement, adobe, glass bottles or wood to build up your garden to a higher raised bed and incorporate easy reaching, irrigation well and composter.
Hugelkultur and straw bales can also make great keyhole gardens that are low water and self fertile once established.
Tips to Plant Your Keyhole Garden Bed
Most gardens are rectangular or square in shape and by changing to circular designs you may think that there is wasted space at the margins.
Margins can also be used for native trees or shrubs as well as beautiful flowering shrubs. The only limit is your imagination.
Generally, plant frequently picked plants close to the center in easy reach. These may be cut and come again salads, herbs and other plants you eat daily.
Plants which you harvest every couple of days such as peppers, beans, tomatoes etc would go behind the daily harvest plants. Towards the back, long term crops like perennials such as artichokes or crops which are harvested once like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, cabbage etc are planted.
The outer edge can be trellised to allow growing of tall climbers such as beans or vines like grapes. The outer edge may also be planted with tall, sturdy crops to act as a windbreak.
Photo Credit: Thomas Beckett
Mandala and keyhole garden beds make creative flower beds as well!
Circular keyhole beds can balance the light and shadow from the sun and create localized planting niches for your plants.
If you orientate the central path in the keyhole garden so that it is pointed south you can create a cun trap, by planting tall plants at the north edge making it ideal for heat loving plants like tomatoes or peppers. Crops which wilt in midsummer sunshine can be planted to the east of tall sun loving crops to be shaded during the afternoons providing respite from the sun and preventing wilting.
Benefits of a Keyhole Garden
There are a few benefits to keyhole gardens and these are why you need them in your garden:
- Easy to water – a single sprinkler in the center can water whole bed
- Can be drought resistant
- Can incorporate a composter for self feeding
- Create microclimates – allows for more plants to grow
- Space saving – grow more plants in a smaller space
- Polyculture growing – mixed plantings help reduce pest problems by companion planting
If you want to read more about keyhole beds take a look at:
Do you have any keyhole beds? What’s your best tip in creating them? Let us know in the comments!
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