27 Jun

Garden Report, 2014-06-26

Keyholes West and EastWe’re starting to get good canopy coverage in the keyholes, mostly watering from the center, the leaf crops (kale and chard) are surprisingly sweet–the best luck we’ve had with them. Snowpeas are ripening, purple bush beans are blooming, eggplant is doing what it’s supposed to do, and the tomatoes are dense, healthy, and not too tall, with blossoms–now to get them to set. Right now it’s just a pretty good garden, with the roots firmly established and drilling down. I won’t know how successful my keyhole construction is until July/August, when the rain more or less stops.

Keyhole Two, with ales, beans, peas, tomatoI finally watched Deb Tolman’s video and learned that many of the sites I used as reference are a bit sloppy or simplistic–I made a layer of carbon, a layer of nitrogen (3:1) and a layer of dirt (fairly deep). There should have been multiple alternating layers of each–at least two. My guess is the plants with deep roots like the tomatoes will dig down and go nuts. The others will get less fertilizer, some from the dirt, most from the compost bin. At the end of the year, I’ll likely dig out some soil and repeat a set of layers. I’ll watch the video again first, take notes, and make sure I’m following a slightly more scientific model (although it’s a model that makes a lot of intuitive sense). 


Front Beds, Most of ThemIn the front, the three zukes and, I think, a pumpkin are throwing their arms out, with the frontmost of the zukes (a yellow) ready to pick in a week or so and the back two successively less mature. In spite of soap spray, the caterpillars are still eating basil salad, although I’ve slowed them down (mixing a weak solution of dish soap and water)–I think the next round of basil will be in pots. Peppers (you can just see the top of a Gypsy lower center, left of the lilies) are, meh, a little slow, but I expect them to boom in the next few weeks. And the corn, well, we’re not in the sun belt, it looks very healthy, but it’s not much more than knee high. Perhaps in a month. I’ve given it some nitrogen snacks for encouragement (in spite of what Debby says, I’m sure they won’t ruin the corn’s appetite later this summer). 

Thanks to my friend Steve who started me down the keyhole path and set the example with his own garden reports.

27 May

Brief Garden Report, 2014-05-26

The keyhole gardens are planted for the spring. Here’s what we’ve done so far. Next steps include mulching, probably with newspaper. Weather’s been just about perfect–high 60’s to low 70’s, sun and light shade, mildly humid, spots of easy rain. It looks like the trend will continue for another week or so, at least.

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

The front gardens have 4 zukes (3 bought–two Gypsy yellow, one green Noche, and one mystery volunteer), 12 corn (bi-color sweet), two sweet peppers (Carmen and Palladio), and a bunch of herbs, some new, some returnees (basil, leaf parsley (italian, cilantro), stevia, thyme, sage, tarragon).

15 Apr

Keyhole Garden Batteries #’s 1 and 2 Complete

Over the weekend I finished building the second keyhole garden (KHG), then moved a couple yards of dirt to top off #1 and fill #2. The lawn grew enough in the past two weeks to provide substantial green layers for both (I dug it into the #1 before topping it off and laid a healthy layer in #2).

Stats: 6 feet in diameter, 2 feet deep (including a few inches into the earth), with a good layer of brown compost (accumulated cardboard and other paper-based recycling), shrub trimmings, bark, and leaves; followed by a layer of lawn clippings, quickly covered by dirt. The ratio is about 3:1 (brown:green|carbon:nitrogen). Compost cage in the center, 1 foot in diameter, for long term feeding.

KHG-done-2 KHG-done-1

What’s that pink thing in the center of each compost cage (shown in #1)? Why, it’s a pygmy sarlacc, a natural squirrel and cat deterrent. Here’s a closeup:


The tomato cages posted around the borders are my attempt at keeping the dogs off until the vegetables have taken over. It doesn’t take much to deter Sasha–he has one lazy eye and unless he can easily detect a wide opening, he’ll steer clear (otherwise, he’s a natural hill climber). Chloe, if she doesn’t think she can use the elevation to reach the squirrels that race along the fence, will also probably be deterred.

People who don’t garden don’t quite understand why we built these. They aren’t along the fence and they stick up. Two people have asked, So you’re going to plant a garden in these this year? (After I gave them my pat summary description–although I was so tired I might have been speaking word salad.) Aside from being practical, I also think of the KHG as terrain or backyard architecture. Sure, they require less maintenance, water, and backache. But, fundamentally, they’re cool. The dogs think of them as the center of a figure 8 racetrack.

Next up: let the beds cook for a month, till mid-May, then start planting. In the meantime, order Deb Tolman’s KHG DVD–and learn what I haven’t learned yet (in prep for next year–when I’ll also probably add another layer of stones), plan the garden plantings, and shape a dog-friendly mound in the back corner of the yard from all the relocated sod. At some point, plow up the surrounding sod and plant nose and eye-friendly ground cover.

26 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Filling It In

It turns out a garden two feet deep and 6 feet in diameter takes more material than you’d think (yes, the math is easy, but so is convincing yourself that you have plenty of materials on hand that fill the required volume). For the brown layer, I used quite a few  very large cardboard boxes (saved and snagged from local retailers), a few 2013 phone books, and all the paper-based recycling we could scrounge. For the green, clippings from the first mowing, and bark and sticks from the tree I felled last year (from the pile waiting for the chipper), then random dead cuttings from the herbs and flowers. Normally our lawn produces a recycle bin of cut grass–this year, I raised the mower deck to its tippy toes to accommodate the wet lawn and encourage even growth. The result: a relative tablespoon of cuttings. Maybe there’ll be more for the next bed.

The results, before adding dirt:


Note: the funnel cake-shaped roll of paper in the compost cage was added to retain the contents initially, just in case the grid was too large. It rained the next day, crumpling the paper. I dumped compost on top–the cage held it just fine.

Day before yesterday, I started liberating the nice black dirt from our big raised bed next to the fence (and associated tree roots). Plenty of dirt to top off the keyhole bed, my optimistic lobe said. Not quite. 3/4 of it moved and still a good ten inches (x 6 feet) to go. I’ll scrounge dirt from other sources around the yard, then see what it costs to buy a trailer load from our local landscaping supply yard.  I’ll probably pay their suburb-jacked prices to go easy on our minivan versus driving significantly further out. (We need the van–a 2005 Caravan with 130k–to last a few more years. It shows my age to think that anything made after the magical year 2000 AD–like my daughter–still sounds new.)

So bed #1 has become our learning (or teaching) garden, providing a realistic estimate of work and materials needed  to build a keyhole bed: a template that we can plug into our garden budget and calendar. Having that info on hand has freed us to think about other garden-related dependencies to address before or while the second bed goes up.

And when it’s all done, then we shall bask in the admiration of our neighbors…


Or, more likely…

20140325_123632 (1)

24 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Ground Breaking to Build Up

Keyhole garden #1 progress made on Saturday, 3/22/2014.  Cost $0, thanks to the stones retrieved from a raised bed I’m razing to the West (left/downhill of the photo frame).


Yesterday I found enough cardboard and paper products (just barely) to layer the bottom and sides, followed by bark from a tree I felled last year and the first Spring lawn cuttings. (I finished that work in the dark, so no photos yet.) I also made a compost cage from materials on hand: tomato cage wrapped several times with wire fencing.  Yesterday, I broke ground on the second bed just uphill (you can see it staked out in the bottom photo), but am focusing on finishing the first bed before I do more with the second. 


Tonight, I’ll pick up a few blocks for the keyhole inset (it’s fairly shallow), scavenge the creek banks tonight for some more dry green material, fill in the compost cage (from our existing compost bin), and start transferring the dirt from the old raised bed.  Bed #1 is on the steepest pitch–about a 12 inch drop from the upper to the lower side, but the bed bottom is flat: built up on the lower end and dug into the ground on the upper. It’s two feet deep with a three foot compost cage, with a six foot interior diameter.


Our motivation behind this effort, aside from Fun with Gardening and Reducing Water usage (even though we live in the Portland metro area, water’s still expensive): The dogs were rough on the backyard over the winter, removing much of the thin layer of sod long the rise and further down. The photo above shows some of that damage. The placements are ideal: during much of the Spring and all of the summer, both beds will be in full sunlight nearly all day long. Though the yard is on the north side of the house, it’s high enough in the upper end to stay out of the house’s shadow.

Given the shape of the garden wall, the kids were sad to learn that I was filling it with dirt. The dogs helped by sleeping in the sun most of the day.