Through the Keyhole

Several weekends ago, the weather finally headed into an extended warm stretch. Saturday morning started off a little more overcast and breezy than I expected, but the clouds started to clear about 1pm, and the breeze, while still present, helped to cool down the warmer parts of the day.

Robert continued on the massive task he has set  himself — digging out the monster root system in a corner of the backyard — while I worked on building a new garden bed in the front of the house.

The gutter on one of the southern corners of the house leaks a little bit. It’s also not angled correctly, to allow for ideal drainage through the downspout. As a result, water tends to pour over the edge of the gutter in that spot, absolutely hammering the ground below. We’ve tried to grow things in that spot for a couple of seasons, but the water always has an adverse affect on whatever we plant. The fact that I couldn’t use perfectly good growing space was annoying, so I decided to try a new gardening technique this weekend.

A few years ago, my friend Matt (then the manager of the National Colonial Farm) revamped the space in the Museum Garden, showcasing different cultural approaches to gardening. He included a section in the middle that utilized a keyhole garden. It’s a form of raised bed gardening that makes use of compost and grey water, and is particularly useful in drought-prone regions of Africa and Texas. The raised beds help

The compost bin from Matt’s garden

with planting/weeding/harvesting, and the compost bin in the center helps to provide nutrients and moisture directly to the soil. I won’t have to water this garden as much as the ones in the back.

I have wanted to try my hand at a keyhole garden ever since Matt built that one back at Accokeek, and I figured this might be an opportunity to play a bit with the gutter problem.

The area where I wanted to build the keyhole garden already had part of a rock wall around it, from the original garden bed I built a few years ago. The original wall stretched a lot further across the front of the house. Knowing I wanted to build the walls up, rather than out, I relocated the rocks from further down the original bed, and used them to create a sort of oval shape, with a segment out of it to form the keyhole.

[Most keyhole gardens are circular…mine is less so, because of the area I am working with.]

I used an old tomato cage to mark out where I wanted to place the compost bin, and wrapped old straw mats (which have been in the basement for years without a defined purpose) around it. I used some hemp cord I had in my stash to lace the mats together, and held the structure in place with a few strategically placed sticks.

I debated whether to put landscape cloth down, and ultimately  decided against it. I

Here it just looks like a jumble of rocks. (and you can just barely see the corner Robert has been working on, in the back, past the other beds)

might come to regret that, as there are a few tenacious weeds and shrubs which have a tendency to come back, no matter how many times I try to dig them up, but I am using another method and hoping for the best.

After I built the walls up, I tossed down a layer of sticks from the brush pile, and

Looking down into the start of my compost bin

covered that layer with torn pieces of cardboard. You’ll want to make sure you remove any tape or glue, as it won’t break down in the dirt. I also threw some cardboard bits in the compost bin, to start the ball rolling there.

The new bed got four and a half bags of soil and a bag of mulch on Sunday, but I think I want to put  a little more on it. I’d really like to angle the dirt a little more than it is at the moment. Once the final load of dirt goes in, I’ll start planting. I plan to have a few flowers throughout the bed, but most of it will be a mix of radishes, carrots, cabbages, and the borage.

I did get a few things into the dirt over the weekend: a salad mix bed with red and green oak leaf lettuce, butterhead lettuce, and an heirloom Romaine known as Flashy Trout Back (let’s be honest…with a name like that, is it a surprise I picked it up?). I also got a few more strawberry plants, a rhubarb — which I’ve never grown before but am interested in attempting — a type of tomato known as Indigo Rose, and a large bell pepper variety known as Big Bertha. On the flower/succulent side, I picked up some more lobelia, and a new hen and chick to go in the top of the strawberry pot.

Robert drew up some plans last night for two more raised beds for the back of the house, like the ones he built last year. Last year’s beds worked out really well, and I think they add a lot to the house (plus, it’s one more thing that will help keep down the weeds that take over the back yard). One will be square, and the other will be the same size and shape as the other two beds. I’m thinking green beans will go in the long box, along with some kale, turnips, and more carrots. I want to try cucumbers and potatoes in the square bed.

And, in case you’re wondering what we’re going to do with that back corner, once Robert is finished tearing all the old roots out…I have plans.

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