Designing Garden Beds: Keyhole Design

Last week, I wrote about the many social and ecological problems that we face as a society and linked them to the systems we use to meet our needs. 

After that post, I received a lot of feedback from people offline. In fact, from the analytical data I have access to, that last post quickly became one of the most read and shared pieces I’ve written here. Many said they had been thinking similarly along these lines, somehow intuiting the challenges we face, but not quite connecting it to our basic system of production. 

Once you understand that our problems flow from the way we meet our needs, you begin to see how simple acts like gardening or saving money on home energy can have a high positive impact on society. 
But what I’ve really been learning is that there are a lot of people out there like us, who are motivated and inspired to “be the change they want to see in the world.” They want to live better lives and understand that means living in a way that’s better for others, too. 
We want to build Lillie House at that powerful intersection between the vision of a better world and the practical, life-enhancing actions that will bring it into reality. 
So, I will need a little time to take your feedback into consideration as I continue that post, showing how we can “solve all the world’s problems in a garden” as Permaculture Designer Geoff Lawton often says. 
In the meantime, lets talk gardening. 
Keyhole Bed Design
Right now, I have our some of our beds “undressed” for maintenance, so it’s a good time to show some of the hidden features that have worked well for us. These aren’t the prettiest pictures, but they’re a great “behind the scenes” look into our gardening. 
At Lillie House, all of our beds use “keyhole design” to minimze work and maximize growing space. This diagram shows an example of a basic keyhole design that anyone can use to “makeover” their garden:

I’d like to report that we’ve been gardening this way for years and it’s one of those classic Permaculture techniques that’s really worked well for us. In fact, these days I can’t really imagine gardening any other way. 
The basic idea is that if you have a 10′ by 10′ garden space and you divide in into rows, you might get 4 tightly spaced rows, or 40′ of growing space, with 60′ of compacted path area that’s a perfect space for weeds and a poor space for root infiltration to help your crops. Such a garden will be a tight, difficult place to maneuver and work in, too. Worse, if rows aren’t perfectly on contour, university extension research has shown such rows act as drainage ditches, channeling water away from where it can help plants. 
But, if you divide this same sized garden into two larger 4′ beds with a 2′ row in the middle, you can have 80′ of growing space! At 4′, you can still reach to the center of each bed without ever having to step on it. This larger row will be easier to work in and you’ll be less likely to accidentally damage plants. 
But if yo go even further and reduce that path to 5 feet of length, creating a “keyhole” you get another 10′ or more of space. Meanwhile, you only have 10′ of path space to weed and maintain. You can reshape the path to have more room in the middle, where you work, and less room at the enterance, where weeds would start to encroach. 
And now that you have a “keyhole” bed, it can easily be designed to catch and store water, and aid in composting in place. 
Above, you can see where I’ve raked off the mulch that used to cover a keyhole path and used it to mulch the bed for the winter. You can also see how I’ve surrounded the outsides of this bed, especially the vulnerable corners, with “fortress plantings” of perennial vegetables and herbs to keep out the weeds. The high number of perennials also helps the beds store nitrogen and other nutrients over winter and host beneficial insects and micro-organisms. Perennial plants are one of our great natural allies in building soil. 

With the paths raked out, you can also see that the paths and “keyhole” (which is sometimes called a “node”) are dug out level, “on contour” so that they catch water behind the slightly raised beds. This helps soak water into the soil where it’s most useful to our plants. 

 You can also see that the access points are kept small to minimize weed intrusion, but there are roomy “nodes” where one can sit and have more work space. This takes advantage of the best of both  worlds, narrow paths for reduced maintenance, and wide paths for easier work where it’s needed. 

And finally, these pictures demonstrate the huge amount of continuous mulching we do in our garden. For me, the use of continuous deep mulching is problably the number one element to reduce garden work. In a keyhole bed, the path can be treated as a “mulch basin” where weeds are kept in check through heavy mulching. This heavy mulch hosts micro organisms that can also help clean water and break down contaminants. 
Come next spring, most of this mulch will be broken down to the point where it will pretty much look like beautiful soil. A nice edible groundcover of self-sowing vegetables will already be well established and perennials will begin to bloom and yield for us: 
(keyhole beds in summer, with annuals, perennials, vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers.)
So, to recap, here are a few tips to consider as you plan your garden for next year. 
1. Keyhole beds make the best use of space and eliminate weeding, watering and fertilizing work. 
2. You can design your keyhole beds to catch water and infiltrate it like a rain garden. 
3. You can design your keyhole bed so that the path acts as a “mulch basin,” which breaks down into compost to feed the garden. This compost can periodically be used to mulch the beds. 
4. You can design keyhole beds with “fortress plantings” of perennial plants around the outside, especially at the corners. Good Fortress plants include oregano, thyme, creeping chamomile, clover, perennial alliums like chives, and bulbing flowers like daffodils. 
5. A permanant keyhole “path” means we never have to step on our beds, so we never compact the soil, and as a result, we never have to dig the beds! Keyhole beds are a great approach for “no dig” gardening. 
6. 4 to 5 feet of bed witdth allows most people to comfortably reach to the center of a bed from both sides, so a 10 to 12 foot “keyhole garden” is an ideal size. Larger gardens can be collections of smaller keyhole gardens.
A keyhole garden designed in that way is a classic Permaculture approach that minimizes maintenance and puts nature to work for us. It’s an approach we reccomend and one that’s worked well for us for years. 
If you’ve done keyhole gardening before, I’d like to hear about your experiences, positive and negative.  

One thought on “Designing Garden Beds: Keyhole Design

  1. Hello, I have browsed most of your posts. This post is probably where I got the most useful information for my research. Thanks for posting, maybe we can see more on this. Are you aware of any other websites on this subject.most popular beds

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