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Keyhole Gardens for Small Spaces

By Catherine Winter

One of the most common concerns we hear is a lack of gardening space. Many people who have access to an outdoor garden are city dwellers who only have a small front yard or tiny lot behind their homes to play in, so they feel that they are very limited in what they’re able to grow. A great way to maximize space (and increase growing yields) is with a keyhole garden: read on to learn more about what they are and how to set one up.

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Keyhole gardens are so named because they have a notch in them much like their namesake. They’re ideal for small spaces because that lovely little notch allows you to walk into the centre of the garden so you can reach all the glorious plants you’ve packed the space with: you don’t have to crawl over anything, possibly damaging delicate greens while doing so.

Some people also sink an active compost pile into the centre of their keyhole beds: this is ideal for areas that are prone to droughts, as the compost (which should be kept damp!) releases both moisture and nutrients into the surrounding soil on a regular basis. This method of keyhole gardening is quite popular in parts of Subsaharan Africa and various regions in Texas for precisely this reason.

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If you have limited space, map out the closest thing you can get to a circle (mark it with chalk or non-toxic paint), decide where you’d like your notch to be placed, and then build up a wall. I’ve used old masonry blocks for mine, but you can use everything from stones and bricks to woven branches. Use what you have on hand. If you’re renting your home, you can reassure your landlord that these keyhole gardens can be disassembled quite easily, though they’ll probably be so impressed by what you’re able to grow in there that they just might keep them around if and when you move.

Once you’ve created the walled exterior, decide whether you’d like that active compost tube thinger in your garden. If you do, make a simple tube out of chicken wire and place that at the sharp V point inside the garden. Prop it into place with some bricks or stones.

Create a layer of loose pebbles at the bottom of this garden for drainage purposes, then create layers inside it as though creating hugelkultur or a “lasagna” garden: some rotting logs, topped by cardboard, yard clippings, old hay, and then compost-rich garden soil.

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Determine where the sun hits over the course of the day, and plant your vegetables accordingly, placing those that need the most light in the sunniest spots, and those that can thrive in partial shade in the areas that get less light. If you plant zucchini or cucumbers, place those along the edges so they can spill over the sides, and don’t be afraid to grow upwards! You can secure some poles or sticks around that composter and use it as a trellis to grow peas, beans, or even climbing tomatoes.

Be sure to intersperse herbs and pollinating flowers in amongst your plants! Take note of which will be the best companions for what you’d like to grow, and get planting!

Photos via Wikimedia Commons, as well as McKay SavageJulia Gregory and K. Latham via Flickr Creative Commons.

diy composter, make your own composter, trash can composter, trash bin composter, diy compost bin

DIY Trash Can Composter Tutorial

By Cat DiStasio

Composting food scraps from your kitchen is an easy way to reduce landfill waste and create nutrient-rich potting soil for your garden. You probably already knew that. Did you also know you can build your own composter for the cost of a movie ticket and less than 30 minutes of your time?

There are many, many different types of composters available for sale at hardware stores and garden markets (and online, of course), but they are often quite expensive. While there’s nothing wrong with buying one if that’s your jam, making your own is just so easy, cheap, and fast. It’s tough to come up with a reason not to build your own.

Using an inexpensive plastic trash can and supplies you may already have on hand, you can easily build your own composter. Some commercial tumbler-style composters sit horizontally, often on a large metal frame, and can be turned with a crank handle. This DIY version uses the same principles, but is designed to sit upright – which takes up less garden square footage and makes it easier to add scraps. You’ll be able to turn your round trash can on its side and roll it on the ground to mix the contents, replicating the handle-driven turning of a tumbler composter.

Here’s what you’ll need to begin. As you’ll see, it isn’t much.

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Supplies Needed:

  • 1 round 32-gallon plastic trash can with a tight-fitting lid
  • Drill and 1-inch spade bit
  • 3-4 bricks or cinder blocks
  • Organic refuse (uncooked kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, undyed paper)
  • 2 bungee cords (optional, but recommended)

A note on trash cans: You can repurpose an old or damaged trash can, if you have one around, but you’ll have to scrub it very clean first to remove all traces of inorganic materials. A new plastic trash can of this style (lid included) typically runs around $10, though. If you prefer, consider spending a little more for a wheeled trash can, which may be easier for some people to tip on its side for turning.

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1. Drill air holes.
In order to decompose properly, organic material needs some oxygen to help the process along. This is why commercial composters have ventilation, and why many compost bins are slatted or perforated. To create a similar effect on your DIY composter, use a 1-inch spade bit to drill holes all around the walls of the trash can.

DIY Composter 003

It’s best to create several vertical lines of holes, with 6 inches between each hole. Space the lines 6-8 inches apart so you do not compromise the structural integrity of the trash can. Drill several holes in the bottom of the trash can as well.

DIY Composter 007

2. Add food and yard waste scraps.
To use your new composter, set your composter atop the cinder blocks to allow for drainage. Place equal amounts of brown and green materials in the trash can and mix them together. Green materials include vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, grass clippings, and used coffee grounds. Examples of brown materials would be dead leaves, twigs, newspaper, sawdust, and cardboard. For best results, keep composting materials damp—like a wrung-out sponge—but not wet or dripping. Typically, the moisture in your green scraps will be plenty, but if you live in a very dry climate, you may need to spray it with a bit of water as well.

DIY Composter 008

Do not put cooked food, oil, meat, or pet waste in your composter, nor anything treated with pesticides.

You can add refuse to the bin whenever you like (because nobody really loves a full scrap bin in their kitchen!) but be sure the close the lid tightly after adding new materials, and use the bungee cords to keep it closed. This will protect against scavenging critters, like raccoons and rats, who can be deluded into thinking a composter is a breakfast buffet.

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3. Turn your compost regularly.
At least once a week and always after adding new scraps, turn your composter by laying it on its side on the ground and rolling it around several times. This will mix up the contents and make for a more efficient composting process.

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In most climates, it takes between two and four months to turn scraps into usable compost. Many people are concerned about how a compost bin might smell. The good news is that, done correctly, composting should smell more like fresh dirt than like a back alley dumpster. If an unpleasant aroma develops, there is a chance your ratio of brown to green materials is off, or the compost mixture is either too wet or too dry. Although it may take a little troubleshooting to find the sweet spot for your area, rest assured, it will be a worthwhile effort.

Be sure to check in with us regularly for more composting tips! We’ll be sharing an article soon about how to transform an old nightstand into a vermicomposter (worm composting system), and how to use compost tea to nourish your growing plants.

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Seeds n’ Soils

By Catherine Winter

Just about every person who’s tried to grow vegetables or herbs has had to deal with “failure to thrive”, whether it’s from seed failure or seedling death. It’s disappointing (even devastating if someone’s dependent upon gardening endeavours for their food), and there are a number of different reasons why it happens. One of the most common reasons is that the plants haven’t been cultivated in the right soil, so it’s important to determine what type of earth your plants need so you can give them the most optimal conditions from day one.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that you’ll find different plants in different areas. On my land, there’s a ton of coltsfoot and mullein growing in the sandy soils around the creek, but I’m not going to find those plants tucked in amongst stands of birch in the loamy forest soil. They’re growing in the areas that are best for their development, and will fizzle out and die if forced to swap spaces.

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Acidic Soil

Radishes, peppers, and potatoes all thrive in acidic soil. You can add sphagnum peat moss into an all-purpose organic seed-starting mix, and the sphagnum will increase the soil’s acidity and increase the chances that your plants will germinate successfully.

Sphagnum is a good option for container gardening, but if you’ll be planting a large garden’s worth of food, you can get sulphur at your local garden centre and work that into the soil you’ll be planting into.

Here’s a tip: If part of your land is naturally acidic, take full advantage of that area and plant a bunch of perennial berry bushes. They’ll grow really well there, and you won’t have to put any extra effort into making the soil a happy place for them to be.

Cabbage

Alkaline Soil

Brassicas, peas, beans, and most leafy greens (like chard, lettuce, and spinach) prefer alkaline soils, but can do just fine in pH neutral soil as well. If the earth in your garden is on the acidic side and you’re really keen to have a ton of broccoli and beans, you can add some pulverized limestone to increase alkalinity.

If you’re uncertain as to just how acidic or alkaline your soil is, you can test it with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and plain white vinegar: take two samples of soil, and add a bit of baking soda to one sample, and a bit of vinegar to the other. If the sample with baking soda in it fizzes, then your soil is acidic. If the vinegary one fizzes, it’s alkaline. If nothing happens at all, it’s neutral.

You can, of course, also use pH testing strips, but this is an easy way to test your soil using items you likely already have at home.

carrots, root vegetables, roots, orange carrots

Sandy Soil

Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and beets tend to do best in sandy soils, as do aromatic culinary herbs like thyme, summer and winter savoury, oregano, and sage. Just like amending your soil with sphagnum, you can work sand into your soil prior to planting your seeds.

*Note: root vegetables can also be stored in sand in a cool, dry place over the winter. If you have a root cellar or cool, dark basement, try this method after you harvest them.

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Rich Soil

Squashes, pumpkins, zucchini, melons, broccoli, and cucumbers are heavy feeders that suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil, so it’s important that whatever they’re planted into is very nutrient-dense and rich. Work aged compost into your seed-starting mixture, and work a good fertilizer into the soil they’ll be planted into about 3 weeks before transplanting them. Once they’re in the soil, it’s good to re-fertilize every few weeks (compost tea is ideal for this), but along the “drip line” (around the edges of your plant) so you don’t burn or damage the plant itself.

 

Many seed companies (especially organic and heirloom dispensaries like Baker Creek) have in-depth information on the backs of their seed packets: they’ll tell you exactly what type of soil is best for your plant, as well as their sun and water requirements. If your seed packets don’t give you this information, a quick Google search should work wonders. We’re in the process of compiling a rather large database of information that will let you know exactly what each species needs, but it’ll take us a little while to get all of that sorted out.

Have you had to amend your soil to suit different plants’ needs? Which techniques did you use? Please let us know in the comments section below!