Keyhole Gardening

slowpoke_gardenerFebruary 12, 2013

We try to have "Cookies with Grandma" every other Sunday after church. This Sunday my oldest daughter was showing me pictures from the web of Keyhole gardening beds. I told her that I have never heard of such a thing, and it would be impossible to grow as much food as she was claiming in one of those things.

Have any of you had any dealing with a keyhole bed?


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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


Keyhole gardening beds are a method used with Permaculture gardening.

I haven't made any keyhole beds, but I like the concept and am contemplating using keyhole beds in the backyard when we take out the lily pond (too attractive to water moccasins since the ponds and creeks around us stay dry for so much of the warm season these last few years) and replace it with landscaping. I'm not sure if we'll get that done this spring in time for planting much since most of my outdoor time lately has been devoted to the two new garden areas out north (the hay bale/hugelkulture area) and west (sandy soil, gopher and vole infested) of the barn.

Thy key to the great yields in keyhole beds is great soil preparation and continual improvement but from the top down by layering on thick mulch and letting it decompose and then adding more mulch on a regular basis, planting closely to shade the soil and keep it cool, using some perennial crops that don't need to be replaced every year etc.You can use keyhole beds for any sort of gardening--from ornamental to edible or beds that combine both. I think you could get very high yields from keyhole beds. All the ones I've seen are lush and abundant. I think a person's climate would determine, ultimately, how productive their keyholdebeds would be....just as the fertility and drainage of the soil would play a large role. One thing I like about keyhole beds is how little space is devoted to pathways. One reason they produce so much is merely because you place plantings so closely together and having more plants in the available square footage gives you more yield overall, though it also can give you less yield per plant due to the crowding. As with Square Foot Gardening, you may trade the higher yield per plant for more plants in the square footage and still could get a high yield because of the high number of plants.

What I really would love to do is a mandala garden, which is an arrangement of multiple keyhole beds in a mandala shape, but think I have too much slope to do that. Mandalas look best on fairly flat land.

Mandala gardens don't work for everyone, depending on their soil, its slope and their rainfall and wind patterns, but I think anyone can find a place to put in a keyhole bed.

Remember that the way most gardeners tend to plant their gardens is in straight rows or at least straight raised beds that resemble either squares or rectangles. This is a leftover practice from farming with tractors or horse-drawn plows where the straight rows are just the most efficient way to operate. I use neither a tractor nor plow in my garden and there's no reason for me to have straight rows. A person could just as easily plant in the keyhole shape, circular shapes, spiral shapes, etc. I do think there is a drawback to the keyholes, spirals and circular planting patterns when growing annual edible crops in our climate. I find it quick and easy to run drip irrigation lines in straight rows off the main feeder lines. It would take a bit longer to arrange them in keyhole shapes, circles, spirals, etc., especially in a sloping garden like mine where you have to be sure the water is not going to run off the higher areas too quickly and pond or puddle in the lower areas.

I do have a sort of keyhole bed in my butterfly garden, but it wasn't deliberately planted that just sort of happened because I was trying to make the butterfly garden as lush and filled-in as possible.

I'm going to link some info on keyhole beds for the benefit of anyone reading this who's never heard of them before.

Here is a link that might be useful: Info on Keyhole Beds

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 11:01AM
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Larry, sometimes my pepper beds kind of turn out like this but not because I am clever, just because I plant too close and that's the only way I can get in to pick them. LOL

Actually it is my intention to use this method in a section of my garden this year so I have been looking at lots of pictures and videos on the subject. In most cases it just looks like a raised bed that someone pulled into a circular shape. In other cases they plant up to an fence or something and just leave enough room to walk in and pick.

My motivation is something different. I have Harrington Rods, and my back doesn't bend from my neck to the top of my legs, so anything that has to be done on the ground, like planting, weeding, or picking of short plants, I do on my knees from a bending stool. My spine is stationary and doesn't rotate, so I can't turn either, except for my head. In addition, if I lean too far forward, I just fall on my face. This also can happen from a standing position, but I deal with that a different way. For low growing plants, I have to leave a wide enough space for my stool to be turned in such a way that I can work straight in front of me, without having my feet in the next bed. If I need both hands for a task, then I have to lean into the sides of my stool so I don't fall forward. As I am typing this, I am thinking that it sounds much worse than it its, and since I have been dealing with it for 26-27 years, I have things under control (mostly).

During the winter I have spent a lot of time studying permaculture and have learned a lot. Some of what I have learned is: (1) that I already use a lot of the methods for soil conditioning, close planting, mulching, limited tilling, etc. (2) that a lot of people are just trying to exploit the concept to make money, (3) that there are better ways of harvesting rainfall than trying to fill rainbarrels, (4) that I should pay more attention to companion planting, but not for the reasons I had read about and ignored, (5) and this bed shape thing.

The key hole shape beds would probably be a good shape for a lot of people, but for me they look wonderful. Instead of wasting path space which has to be wide enough for my stool and my feet and legs that stick out behind (roughly 2 feet), I can leave a 2 foot circle, and maybe a one foot path to reach the circle, then I can work in all directions from the same location by just rotating my stool.

I plant mostly vertical on trellis and cattle panels, but it's hard to plant onions that way and keep them weeded, or pick an early crop of bush beans. For example, I could plant potatoes around the outside circle that need the under-ground space and I could keep them hilled from outside the circle, then broccoli that needs the above ground space could be the next crop, and by the time they needed more space the potatoes would be falling over anyway. Then maybe a two foot width of green beans that I could reach from the circle. That's just one possibility, but I think it would work well for me. My garden isn't square or rectangular anyway, so introducing another new shape might make it more interesting looking. I think if I can find room to do a couple of plantings like this, that it would be of benefit to me.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 1:36PM
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I took a seminar, which emphasized keyhole gardening. That's what the new Tahlequah Community Garden is going to adopt. I suspect that a reason they produce so much, besides what Dawn has said, is that the one who works such a garden, works it intensively. They do as much as possible with a small space, like Dawn said, cramming more into it. The keyhole design lets them sit in the middle and reach almost the entire rest of that garden. The Mandala design is a conglomeration of keyhole gardens.

In my own gardens I tend to do some things like it. I like to clump things together in kind of a patch work. But I also prefer rows for things like corn, sweet & Irish potatoes.

I don't know exactly why it is, but I once read a saying, "A garden's best fertilizer are the footprints of its owner." I agree. Just walking through and puttering a little each day makes a huge difference in a garden. I bet that this dynamic works a lot in the keyhole design.

Tahlequah, OK

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 1:45PM
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I love the concept. The best I could tell this bed was in Africa, in a jungle environment. The women that were tending the garden were of good size. I told DD that you cant get that big living on 11 Sq. Ft. per person, at least not where I live. If I could make that work I could put in a 4' x 8' bed and never have to go to Walmart again.

I do however want to try some of the things I saw in the video.


    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 3:58PM
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Larry, thanks for posting info about keyhole gardening. I was intrigued by the name, and also by the info from Carol and Dawn.

Carol, I'm very interested in learning more about permaculture.
Everything I've learned so far has been an improvement over the old ways of planting and harvesting.

We devised a rainwater harvesting system that supplies all the water in our house. We have two shallow wells (approx 10') that I use for the gardens. Our well water is really really bad. An asteriod hit the Bay a bazillion years ago, broke up and jumbled the aquifers. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. You cannot drink it. Rainwater tastes great and your skin and hair will thank you for using it.

Our local newspaper did a short video about our rainwater system to educate people in our community about this simple, relatively inexpensive solution to the "bad water" problem - and it's a lot less expensive than bringing in "city water." Some people have adopted it. In a normal year, we get 48-50" of rainfall. Even in drought, we are self-sufficient re: water.

After the newspaper guy shot the video, Pete removed the black plastic and painted the tanks black (this inhibits algae growth and looks a lot neater).

BTW: I have rods and screws in my back too, but mine are not as extensive as yours. That's one of the reasons I want to work smarter, not harder. ;-)

As always, thanks for the great info! Feels like I sneaked into the accelerated class.


Here is a link that might be useful: Rainwater Harvesting

    Bookmark   February 13, 2013 at 10:28PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Carol, In the spot where I am putting the hay bale/hugelkultur hybrid beds, we have one swale between the barn and the first bed. It used to carry water off to the pond, but I have dammed it up so it can hold the water for the use of those beds. To do things properly the hugelkultur way I should have put a swale in between each bed, but the clay is too hard to dig. At least we'll have the one swale capturing and holding rainwater. Of course, the hay and hugelkulture beds will hold moisture better and better every year and maybe one of these years we can put in swales between each bed.

Our ranching neighbors across the road built a huge outdoor covered horse arena that is, I think, about 250' x 150'. They had a rainwater harvesting system built in that holds, I believe, 40,000 gallons. It includes a filtration system that makes the water fit for human consumption. Just one inch of rainfall from the roof of the arena puts 25,000 gallons of water into the tank. Isn't that amazing? I'd be happy just to catch that amount unfiltered from the barn roof over the course of the year for the garden. I hope somehow to have a tank that captures rainfall off the barn, but now that I've built the hugelkultur beds in the only area possible for a tank or cistern directly by the barn, we'd have to use rain guttering to carry the water someplace else. I like the one they have at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Their rainwater recapturing system is so well-integrated that you hardly know it is there.

I'm not going to put in swales to capture and hold water in the sandy soil garden on the other side of the barn until next year. This year it will be time-consuming enough just to get the beds double-dug and the soil enriched by planting time, but I want to put in swales between beds next winter. I don't even know if those swales will hold the water long enough to make a difference since it is very sandy soil, but I could dig clay from the adjacent pasture to line the swales. The hay has no problem holding water at all.

With permaculture, you do have to wade through a lot of websites trying to sign you up for the classes and courses or sell you their books and videos. I felt like I found all the info on it I needed from the book "Gaia's Garden" and from reading Bill Mollison's book about 10 or 12 years ago. I wish I'd had the simpler Gaia's Garden book first because it is geared more to a simple landowner or gardener and Mollison's book was much more about design and larger patterns of usage than what I was interested in learning about as a newbie to the idea of permaculture.

Pam, I love your house! I could only see the first 58 minutes of the video before it encountered trouble and said "try again later", but will go back and try to watch the entire video later. You and Pete were so smart to come up with your own solution to the water quality issue.

All our commercially-available water here, at least for our water co-op, comes from well water. With the aquifer dropping so much in these drought years, I wonder how many more years the wells will produce reliably. We've already seen some smaller water systems that serve small communities in southern OK and western North Texas run out of water in recent years, either because their lake dried up or their aquifer dropped lower than their wells and pumps. The solutions at a time like that are expensive because you need water ASAP. I'd like to already have a rainwater harvesting system in place long before we need it as our main source of water. So far, we've been remarkably lucky since moving here. I cannot remember ever having any watering restrictions in place even for a single day, although once or twice a line has broken and we've received a 'boil water' notice until they can get the water tested again after repairing the break. That was likely over a decade ago because I barely remember it at all. We've never had water rationing, but our water is high-pH and I catch and use rainwater in barrels and buckets, though you cannot catch enough that way to make a gigantic difference when you have a big garden. I will give the board who runs our co-op credit. I've seen them refuse to put in water lines to new members when they did not have the capacity to supply the water. People who wanted to build houses had to wait for a new well to be dug to ensure adequate water would be available. We were lucky---we joined the co-op just before they put a moratorium on new members. If we had tried to join a few months later, we might have had to wait another year or two before we could build our house.

Unfortunately rainfall here seems to come in two amounts---too little or too much at one time. Upon three occasions we've had drought-breaking rainfall in amounts of 12.89", 9.25" and 7". When so much falls at once like that, the ponds (and rainbarrels) fill quickly and most of the water runs off into the creeks and then into the Red River. I'd love to be able to capture it in big tanks and save it for the inevitable dry months.


    Bookmark   February 14, 2013 at 12:16PM
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If I am understanding everything correctly, you don't require a swale at every bed and especially in the case of land with a natural slope. The distance between the swales, for maximum benefit of harvesting rain water, is based on the amount of rain water you receive in a year. The MORE rain you get the closer the swales need to be, hence more places for the water to be held in place. If you get little rain, say 12-16 inches, then 50 feet would be OK, but if you get 40-50 inches like we do here, you would need to be closer, like 18 feet, or so.

If that swale is 18 inches deep in the center, and around 6 feet wide, then you could plant some at the top side of the swale because you are holding water in the swale long enough to provide moisture, but the low side then becomes of so much greater benefit than it was before. If before digging out the swale, you could put limbs, old firewood, hay, whatever, on the low side then loosely put the soil from you swale, on top of that wood creating a hugelkulture bed, then the water from the swell will flow downhill (underground), wick into the wood filled bed. The wet wood is going to hold moisture that will wick up to keep that bed moist, but simple gravity is going to let the water flow downhill, but underground. So below ground you are creating a slowly watered bed, instead of losing the water to run-off on the surface that you would have experienced had you not had the swale to slow down the water. You also have less evaporation because it is not exposed to the air.

At some point, the moisture that goes straight down into the earth, is going to hit a barrier of some sort, or such a saturation of moisture, that in some climates you may create springs, or restore springs that once ran full time.

Regardless of what you eventually achieve, your immediate result is that you have kept the rainfall on you land for a longer period of time, which has to have a benefit. In addition, you have stopped erosion on any steep spot or on the land surface near any creek or low spot on the property, or in the case of a urban property, just kept it on your land and out of the sewer drains.

The hard part is that this swale needs to be level so you have made a holding tank, not a creek bed, so you have to dig this swale following the natural curvature of the land mass, and also create as much 'edge' as you can. You need to go across the land area and not from high to low. You don't want it to be straight, but to meander around following the contour of the land. You want the swale to be as long as possible for the best effect, and hundreds of feet, or more,would be better.

My garden is small, but I see a few more ways that I can improve things. My reason for trying to learn as much as I can about the procedure is the property at my son's house. A few mistakes have already been made because of the placement of things, but I think improvements can be made to make things better. He gets almost as much rainfall as we get at our house, but his property doesn't hold it. So much is lost to runoff, that even his ponds go dry. The wind blows hard so evaporation is much greater.

The neighboring property to the north is a farm where they grow beans on almost flat land. A thin row of trees has been left along the fence line, but it is not enough to break up the wind flow much. The land where his house sits, flows southward toward a creek, that is sometimes a raging waterway, but most of the time is low water, but always flowing. There are some natural dips in part of the land mass, but they are open on the end, so the water just flows down to the creek.

In spring when there is a lot of rainfall, and the water table is so high that the pump in his basement has to run to keep the water out, but in the heat of summer the pond that is close to the house will go dry. According to previous owners, the Spring moisture situation started when all of this rural neighborhood went on rural water rather than using their own wells.

There are a lot of issues to look at, but in typical Oklahoma fashion, a lot of land has been cleared of trees, allowing the wind to come sweeping down the plains, and the water to quickly run off of the sloping land mass. I am learning as much as I can about permaculture because I think it is the way to improve his land, which although lovely, still has a few issues. Three fourths of his property is in it's natural state, but the 22 acres around the house could benefit from a few changes.

I have Gaia's Garden on my desk right now and I am about half way through it, but it is mostly for home scale gardening. My favorite 'teacher' has been Geoff Lawton and I never watch one of his video presentation that I don't learn something.

For anyone that is trying to understand this system, I have a few recommendations. The first thing that I recommend is watching a 47 min video that might change your mind about the condition of the world, the need to act quickly to fix some things, and a look at a possible fix (maybe the only one). It is a documentary done by a photographer named John D. Liu.

The second thing would be to watch this film. You have to sign in, but it's free. I think Geoff knows that it is important to share his understanding with the world, and feels this is the time to do it. Here is the film, Surviving the Coming Crisis:

Third, I would suggest that you Google: Lawton's Guide to Permaculture Design Strategy, and I think there are 5 or 6 films to watch, but any of his films are good although you are likely to see the same pictures in more than one of them.

Just so you know, I am not a tree-hugger, nor do I believe that the so called 'global warming', is caused by the things the politicians would like to make us believe, but I do believe that much of our planet is in trouble through our own making, not the least of which is modern agriculture practices.

Some of you will likely want to tell me how the US has the greatest and safest food supply in world, and while that may be true, it isn't a perfect system, and we can't feed the entire world. Also, I think we have done some major damage to our own country, and a few more drought years are going to make that even more obvious. Here's hoping it rains....a lot.

There's lots more to it, but this is the part that seems to most closely fit our discussion here. I have attempted to explain it as it comes to mind, the simple mind of a student, not an expert. Hope it helps.

This post was edited by soonergrandmom on Thu, Feb 14, 13 at 15:17

    Bookmark   February 14, 2013 at 2:59PM
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Hi Dawn:

I'm very interested in permaculture and want to learn more. You mentioned Gaia's Garden. Do you recommend the 2nd edition?

Our rainwater harvesting system is pretty simple. Most of what I learned about designing a rainwater system came from the Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting (free pub, link below).
You wrote that you watched 58 minutes of the video. I hope that was a typo and you intended to write 58 seconds! (the video is about 3:00)

Our roof is flat so we get approx 600 gallons of water per inch of rain. If we had a pitched roof, we'd get more (there are formulas). The roof has gutters. The gutters lead to two downspouts. Each downspout goes into a 550 gallon tank. The main system consists of four 550 gallon tanks, and three reserve tanks. The seven tanks allow us to save about 4,000 gallons. Most government pubs say that one person uses 50 gallons a day. We are careful with water so our little family uses about 50 gallons a day. We have a "hot water on demand" system so that also saves water.

When the rain begins, you need to divert the first few gallons from entering your system because it's likely to be contaminated (bird droppings, etc). Our system automatically diverts that water into flowers beds.

The four tanks are connected to each other with PVC pipe and are also connected to a smaller tank in the garage (warmer, less likely to freeze). When we turn on a faucet inside the house, water moves from an outside tank into the smaller tank, passes through a 5 micron filter and a UV filter, and is pumped to the sink or whatever.

Our reserve tanks are stand-alone - they are not hooked into the main system. We use a sump pump to move water from a reserve tank to an active tank.

As a general rule, we draw water from one tank and keep the lines to the other tanks closed (we learned this the hard way when a flapper valve got stuck while we were away, the pipes between tanks were open, so we lost all the water in all tanks).

Because the local water is essentially unusable, there is always pressure to provide community water. That's not a bad idea, but we can't have community water unless or until we have a waste treatment system. The cost to provide water is relatively small when compared to the cost of a waste treatment system. Ninety percent of the people who live on Stingray Point do not live here full-time. Most are weekenders who come mainly in the summer.

If anyone has questions about rainwater harvesting, I urge you to read the Texas Manual - it's an excellent resource!

Take care,

Here is a link that might be useful: Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting

    Bookmark   February 14, 2013 at 4:02PM
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Hi Carol:

Thanks for recommendations and links to the videos. I'm watching the video by Dr. Liu now, altho my husband is interrupting so I have to hit the pause button. I may wait until he goes to bed ..;-)

It's remarkable how much info is available once you know a few key words! I'd never heard of keyhole or Mandala gardens until 24 hours ago!

I read a little more about keyhole gardens, found an article about a keyhole garden that is waist high. (below)
I don't know if a higher garden would be helpful or not.

When I'm working at the computer, I sit on a stability ball about 50% of the time - it's supposed to be good because you are constantly moving (slightly) to stay balanced. I think anything is better than sitting in a chair!

I agree with you that our planet is in trouble, perhaps in deeper trouble than we realize. I'm afraid that there is a tipping point when things have changed so much that we can't reverse the changes or the damage they are causing. I don't know if we're close to the tipping point or if we've passed it. I'm really spooked by how much our weather and climate have changed in the last 20-30 years and I'm not easily spooked.

As to our food supply - it's efficient, productive and profitable for a few. Personally, I don't want to consume foods that contain growth hormones and antibiotics. I rarely eat animal protein and was surprised that I didn't miss it. Once or twice a year, I'll have a cheeseburger - it's never as good as I thought it would be.

We live on the Chesapeake Bay and we eat seafood - mostly caught from the Bay. The Bay is a huge estuary where many species come to breed and raise their young. What we can catch and eat changes from month to month. The Bay is in terrible shape, thanks to pollution and chemical runoff. We've been trying to "Save the Bay" for 30 years - and we've failed. Organizations and citizens who want to "save the Bay" asked the EPA to take over, the EPA dithered so the orgs filed a lawsuit against the EPA. Too many states are contributing to the problem to fix it without help from the feds. I'm afraid it's too late.

Back to Dr. Liu. Does he have any thoughts about devastated waterways?

Here is a link that might be useful: Keyhole Gardening: Unlock the secrets of drought-hardy gardens

    Bookmark   February 14, 2013 at 9:48PM
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I am so glad you posted that link. I think it is also one my daughter showed me, but the screen on her phone is so small I could not see it well.

My wife and I took a walk on the other side of the Valley where we live looking for rocks that could be used in making a raised bed something like was posted. I an thinking of one more of a football shape with a backside that I can build a protective/reflective screen for. Maybe the screen could be used to reflect light and heat in the winter and be repositioned for shade in the summer. I was thinking that maybe a roll of aluminum screen wire with latex paint stripes every inch or two would serve as a shield that could be rolled up when not needed. I think the paint might fill in the squares in the screen to produce something that might look like a picket fence.

We also found large flat rocks that might be painted white on one side and flat black on the other to maybe adjust the temp of the soil around the base or the bed. ( It is too cold here in the winter to grow much). My winter onions, collards and rape are the only things that have survived this winter, but did not grow enough to produce food.

I have the paint and screen, I might just experiment a little to see if I can get any shade and reflection from it. I wont be hauling any rocks till I do some experimenting.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2013 at 2:37AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Carol, Based on experience watching how my current swale holds water, I think I need one in between each of those three beds on the hill. That swale will hold water forever...and I mean for a month or two after a heavy rainfall. I think the clay is so dense there that the water doesn't really soak i\ just evaporates eventually. It isn't a very big swale, about 4' wide and 10 to 12" deep. That's the issue with dense clay----I suppose a swale in this clay might be more like a pond than anything else. I know from mowing in previous drought summers that the swale can be full of water, while the ground 6 to 8 feet away is dry, hard as a rock and cracking, so I don't think the swale's water spreads out through the adjacent soil. I think it just stays there in the swale. Maybe swales won't work there because of the density of the clay. Maybe I could run a slanted raingutter/downspout off the barn roof to each of the other two beds. I understand the concept of creating edge areas, but my edge areas are always snake havens so I don't want any edge areas along my swale. I want a clean swale with no snake hiding places!!!! Maybe now I don't want a swale at all. : )

I imagine whoever once farmed this land, prior to the 1970s, put in the swale to channel water. It used to run about 150-175' across the contoured top of the slope on the highest ground we have before we bought the place and put in the house and outbuildings. There was only about 100' of the swale left before we started breaking up ground for more garden space, and now there is only about 60' of undisturbed swale left.

On a neighboring ranch you can still see contour lines and swales put in decades ago and the swales hold water so perfectly for a long time after rainfall, but their soil is quite a bit different from ours. I'm just amazed how long the contouring and swales have lasted with no upkeep. The land isn't farmed and hasn't been in decades and has reverted to cedar-infested cow pastures with, perhaps, more acreage of cedars than acres of forage for the cows.

I was thinking about swales more in terms of your son's large property too, more so than in your yard. Some years you have so much rain you don't need swales to hold it---you need for some of the excess water to go away before your plants drown.

I think some of the big eroded areas on our land that we are working so hard to repair and restore were swales that rain across the entire farm back when it was a farm. Decades later, though, they now are badly eroded gullies with exposed soil where plants cannot root in and grow. After putting huglekultur piles on them for years and piling on compostables and letting the compost stay there, they do heal, but it is usually 5-7 years before native plants begin growing up through the hugelkultur piles. Sometimes I throw 4 o'clock plants on there and eventually a four o'clock seed will sprout so some of those areas have an occasional four o'clock plant pop up, but native grasses will shade them out once the grasses are big and healthy. Apparently a four o'clock cannot out-compete bluestem grass.

Pam, Yes, Gaia's Garden Second Edition is the one I have now. I read the first edition when it came out, but I wasn't yet in a permaculture state of mind. I was still struggling to dig clay and turn it into usable garden soil via more traditional soil amending.

I did mean 58 seconds, not 58 minutes. lol

HIgher gardens can be problematic in a hot climate. They can dry out more quickly than grade-level beds. In some areas with very high heat, sandy soil that drains quickly and where drying wind is an issue, they do not use raised beds--they use sub-surface beds like waffle beds. I eventually may use those in the new sandy soil area. This year, for starters, we'll have-grade level beds where the sandy soil is and we'll see how well it holds moisture or it it holds moisture at all. Then I can decide if I want to leave the beds at grade level, or sink them into the ground as waffle beds or make raised beds by having underground hugelkultur with good sandy soil well amended with clay and organic matter in a raised bed above ground directly above the in-ground hugelkultur beds.. With every garden bed I've built here, I've had to watch its performance for a couple of years to see what the soil does in dry years vs. wet years and make the necessary adjustments.

Our rainfall is so erratic that it is hard to say what we usually get here in a year. Our average annual rainfall is 38", but in reality we will have dry years with 19 or 23 or 25" of rainfall, or wet years with 48 to 54", and the dry years outnumber the wet years about 2-1. We rarely have a year when we actually get that 38", and when we do, precious little of it falls in July and August when we really need it.

I've never really believed in AGW, but I certainly believe our climate is changing and changing quickly. I just don't know how anyone can say it definitely is AGW when it might be a regular period of warming that occurs once every few hundred or few thousand years. Whatever it is that is occurring, who can argue that we aren't having more extreme weather, and long and persistent drought periods? Just looking at the drought footprint map that Chandra linked last year sends a chill up my spine when I look at the 2000s, especially since about 2005 for our part of the country. Compare those years to the drought years of the 1930s and 1950s. I'll link the drought footprint page below.

L:ook at the areas of the northeast that were hit by Sandy and then by Winter Storm Nemo. What are the odds those areas or region would have two storms that strong in a period of only a few months' time? Is is a weird coincidence? A sign that global climate change (someone else can argue whether it is naturally occurring change or mankind-induced change) is occurring?

I wonder what people thought in the 1930s and 1950s when parts of the southern plains were hit by multiyear droughts? Did they blame mankind? Did they blame God? Coincidence? Were they thinking it was a sign of the end of the world or the end of commercial agriculture as it was then practiced? Is what we are seeing in the 2000s the same thing they saw in the 1930s and 1950s or is it worse? Who knows?

All I know is that the changes I see in our weather and climate bother me a great deal. It is getting harder and harder for the farmers and ranchers to bounce back from a bad year because there are too many bad years strung together in one decade now. Every time we drive through our neighborhood or virtually any place in our county, we comment on big empty pastures that used to be full of cattle year-round. So many people have cut back severely on their herds, or have quit ranching altogether. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying all the cattle are gone, but there are a great many more empty pastures. The guys we know that raise cattle have to spend a huge amount of time finding hay to buy and stockpiling it for winter because their own land cannot produce as much in drought conditions as they need to get the cows through the winter.

Every year it seems so much harder to keep the garden going in July and August, and I hate to throw in the trowel (ha! pun intended) and let the drought drive me out of mid-summer gardening. It seems more important in recent years than ever before to get the garden planted as early as possible in spring (without losing it to late frosts or freezes) in order to get a good harvest before the summer heat and drought set in.

Pam, The news of the efforts to save the bay is so depressing. It is hard to effect such changes on a large scale, and we see that in Gulf Coast areas too where various forms of runoff severely affect the seafood.

Thanks for the keyhole garden link. I love the illustrations.

Did y'all catch the line about how the NWS foresees more long-term and more severe drought. (sigh) It is the drought years since 2005 that have me working harder on permaculture techniques. In the drought of 2008, people who had gardened here their whole lives actually turned off the irrigation and "gave up" on their gardens in June for the first time ever in their lives, and these are friends of ours who were in their 60s through 80s and had gardened "forever". In some cases, they are feeding 3 or 4 generations from their gardens. They are well-experienced and don't give up easily. If they cannot overcome the drought's effects and keep their gardens producing well, then we less experienced gardeners know for sure that we cannot. They were really sort of down and depressed about walking away from their gardens, but we all were spending more money to irrigate than we'd get back in a harvestable crop. When you cannot water enough to produce a big enough crop to pay for the water, then why do it? Then, good rainfall beginning in late April 2009 revived our garden plans and our spirits and we thought the worst was over and we were back to gardening as usual. Then we had 2011 and 2012. Enough said about that because everyone here knows what they were like. I think we have to do everything we can now to find ways to have productive, healthy, sustainable edible gardens even in the presence of tremendous heat and drought.

I used to use the Texas pot method to water my tomatoes in dry years, but kind of got away from it. I'll probably use it this year in the new sandy areas that I think are going to be difficult to keep watered. It is just a more modern and less expensive technique than the traditional ollas.

Larry, I have more problems with wet soil in winter than with actual soil temps. Plants that do well for me in dry winter soil still will suffer mightily in wet winter soil, so when you work on your area for a winter garden, do what you can do to make it drain well and I think you'll have more success. After all, we can build a low tunnel, or throw row cover over plants during a cold spell, but we cannot suck the excess water out of the soil in the winter and there sure isn't enough heat and sunlight to dry out the soil. I have spots behind the barn that have been muddy all winter....not because we were that wet, but because dew dripped off the barn roof every day, and because of the angle, the sunlight doesn't directly hit that ground in winter, though it does in summer, so that area stayed wet enough to grow moss. It isn't a spot I'd have a winter garden for sure unless I wanted to grow algae and moss.

Sometimes I wonder if one of these days we'll all be reduced to hydroponic gardening because that will be the only way to ensure an adequate water supply. The last couple of summers no matter how much it has rained or how much we've irrigated, the water evaporates out of the soil so fast that it is like you never had rain or you never irrigated.


Here is a link that might be useful: NY TImes Page of Drought Footprint Maps

    Bookmark   February 15, 2013 at 12:54PM
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Hi Larry: I know what you mean about pics on cell phones. When my daughter showed me photos on her phone - the screen is about 2" x 3" - all I see is a blur. I got her an iPad for Christmas - that's helped a lot!

I'm way behind the curve on permaculture and the different garden styles. They are interesting but I need to dig deeper into permaculture, then think about how to implement here, given my growing conditions, etc. I'm blessed and cursed with several acres of open land. If we have a year with normal precip, cutting grass is nearly a full-time job.

Dawn, I'm sure you're right about problems with higher gardens and heat. Higher gardens are often described as "accessible" for people with disabilities, so that idea stayed in my mind.

When you read the first edition of Gaia's Garden, you weren't "in a permaculture state of mind" - that's funny. I wasn't in a permaculture state of mind either - hadn't heard about it until you and Carol began discussing it. Thank you both very much!

I don't think I would be as alarmed about changes in weather/ climate if I hadn't learned about other changes - ice caps melting, glaciers vanishing - those things can't be undone even if our current weather is a temporary blip.

Normally, I'm an optimistic person. I expect things to turn out okay. I try to fix things that are broken - which is why I am reforesting the land. But I'm not optimistic about our climate or the environment. We've done serious damage to our environment, and there is a connection between environment and climate change. I don't think anyone who has lived half a century or longer really thinks that what we are experiencing now - the heat, drought in places that rarely have drought - is normal.

I haven't mentioned rising sea levels. We used to sail to uninhabited islands, put down an anchor, throw out a line, catch dinner, watch the moon rise over the water before falling asleep. In a period of 10-15 years, most of these islands - islands that have been here since Capt John Smith mapped out the Bay in 1608/9 - are gone or nearly so.

I could go on but won't. Thinking about these issues causes me to feel profoundly helpless. I think that's how most ppl feel. We try to block it out, think about other things.

Planned to sow seeds tonight so I'd better get started.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2013 at 8:10PM
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