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.
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.
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.
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!