Monday, June 9, 2014

Garden Beginnings and My New Keyhole Garden Bed

Well I really have to admit it.  I missed blogging.  Blogging is a creative outlet for me, and I was unable to dedicate time to it while I was working on getting my first e-books self-published.  Now that the book project has been completed, I can start writing about my garden adventures again.

A lot has happened in my garden since I wrote about spring in my last garden post.  For starters, I prepped and planted the garden bed in the existing garden area where I had my straw bale garden last year.  For site prep on top of the existing composted down straw bales that I spread out last fall, I mixed in some compost from our local county yard waste site, and I sprinkled some used coffee grounds as amendments.  I figured that other than that, there was probably still a lot of great organic matter remaining from the composting straw bales, so I’d just go ahead and plant directly in it. 

After site prep in my original garden area, I put two keyhole paths into the garden area with woodchips and wood mulch so that I could easily reach into the garden area from the inside.  The keyhole paths allow for easy reach and access from within the garden, and I can also easily reach the rest of the plants from the outside of the garden by reaching over the fence that I have rigged up to keep rabbits and at least provide a little deterrent to squirrels (although I’m not sure how well that it actually working- doesn’t hurt to try, right?).  I then planted many of the starter plants that I had started from seed earlier this spring. 

I openly admit that I’m probably quite over-ambitious trying to grow so much in such a small space, and I’ll probably run out of room, but heck, why not try stuff?  The plant selection includes: watermelon, cantaloupe, the Three Sisters (with sweet corn, red kidney beans, and pumpkins), broccoli, sweet peppers, sugar snap peas, picklebush cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, and more.  I’m also trying some companion planting using various herbs as pest deterrents, so I’ve planted onion bulbs along the perimeter, as well as some marigolds and calendula, and some basil by the tomatoes.  We’ll see how everything grows.  I love to experiment and learn, so it will be interesting to see what does well.

I also planted some herbs in my herb spiral after adding some of the compost and the used coffee grounds, as well as adding some sticks that have fallen from our very large oak tree in our backyard and some dried oak leaves for bulk and retaining moisture (they were added prior to adding the compost and coffee grounds).  So far, the plants in the spiral seem to be doing okay, and the cilantro seeds that I planted seem to be taking off pretty well.  I also transplanted two strawberry plants that I had covered with straw over the winter in the main garden area.  It amazes me that anything can survive in such cold winter temperatures that we can get here, but they did make it, and they actually have a few green strawberries on them so far. 

The one issue that I have had so far with my herb spiral this year has been the squirrels.  They decimated my small oregano transplants that I had started earlier this spring and planted in the spiral.  This has puzzled me a bit, since the squirrels left my oregano plants in the spiral alone last year.  My thoughts were that either the smaller starter plants didn’t have enough of the essential oils in the plants yet to serve as a deterrent and it was just a tasty salad item for the squirrels, or the buggers were making some sort of Italian or Greek potluck item to share with their families.  If any of you reading this have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.  

My New Keyhole Garden Bed

Then, there is the new garden addition to my yard.  I wanted more planting space than what I had available last year, so I decided to put in a keyhole style garden bed next to my whiskey barrel planter that I have some lettuce planted in, and do the site prep using a sheet mulch technique.  You see, I am all about working smarter, not harder when it comes to gardening, so the sheet mulch technique provides a lot of advantages when it comes to setting up a new garden bed in short order without having to do a lot of work. 

There are a number of ways to approach the sheet mulch technique, but for my new garden bed, I chose to follow the example given in the book Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield.  Basically, you begin by laying down cardboard over the initial area that you are going to build the bed on.  This blocks grass and weeds from growing by excluding light and provides an initial carbon layer for the bed.  The cardboard layer should have no gaps so that weeds cannot grow up between the cardboard pieces and into your garden.  Then, you lay down a 5-10 cm layer of nitrogen-rich material, such as composted manure (which is what I did), and lastly, you lay down a dressing layer on top (about 20 cm) of carbon-rich mulch, such as straw (do not use hay, it has seeds) and dried leaves.  This upper layer will help to retain moisture and provide additional carbon-rich material that your garden bed needs.  As with regular composting, you need both nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials to break down into the ideal organic matter for your garden.  Make sure that all of the layers are wetted down well as you are laying them out to kick-start the composting process. 

After this prep process (and sprinkling some used coffee grounds over the new garden area), I put the keyhole path in the middle, spread out wood mulch on the path, and then I put fencing around the entire garden area to keep little critters out.  Lastly, I planted a number of transplants that I started from seed directly into the new bed, and will be planting some seeds in the remaining space left in the keyhole bed garden over the next couple of days.  A few tips:  You will probably want to punch a hole in the cardboard layer just prior to planting so that roots can get through to the ground below.  You will also want to put some potting soil in the hole to plant the transplants in or just plant your seeds in the potting soil as well.  Make sure that you water everything well after planting, just as with any other garden plantings.

Here are a few pictures of the process of my garden prep so far:

My herb spiral.  We had a few invasive weeds that had grown up around the base of the spiral, so I simply placed more cardboard over the existing area, and added more wood mulch and wood chips.  There was more mulch added after this picture was taken.

The herb spiral, after planting with my strawberry plants, some starter plants, and some herb seeds.

The existing garden area, prior to planting and putting up all of the fencing.  The container in the middle had the strawberry plants in it that were later transplanted into the herb spiral.
A mushroom growing in the main garden bed prior to planting.  Proof that great, rich, organic compost was forming from the composted straw bales left over from my straw bale garden last year.

One of the very important workers in my garden.  Unfortunately, I had to inform it that I couldn’t afford to give it a raise this year.

The area of my yard that would later become the new keyhole bed garden.  The keyhole bed garden has a diameter of 10 feet across, so I measured 5 feet radius points all around the edge from the center, which was marked with my flower pot.

Laying down the cardboard layer over the grass and weeds, and putting up the fencing.

Wetting down the cardboard layer before adding the manure.

The composted manure that I used to add to the second layer.  I needed about 14 of these .75 cubic feet bags of manure, but I probably could have used a few more had they been available.

After adding the manure on top of the cardboard.

The new keyhole bed garden after adding some straw and some dead leaves, along with putting wood mulch on the keyhole path.  I later added some additional fencing to complete the circle around the garden bed.

This post is shared at Healthy, Happy, Green & Natural Party Hop


  1. Great work! I love the way you laid out the circle by using a flower pot as your center point!! Never underestimate the value of good food scraps as "raise material" for your worms :) If you have an open edge along one of your beds you can bury some fresh scraps for them to enjoy!! Followed your link from G+ post on Vegetable Gardening community.

  2. Thanks Natural Jersey Girl! I'll have to remember your tip about using the food scraps. Our compost bin is fairly full at the moment, and that might be a great way to use some of our kitchen scraps.

  3. Neat! I will have to try that herb spiral next year- what a great idea. Thank you

    1. Thanks Nicole! Yeah, I love the herb spiral, and I think they look really nice too. You don't just have to plant herbs in it either. You could plant other things like lettuce and strawberries (like I have). The main thing to remember is that there are going to be different microclimates within the spiral itself, with drier and sunnier conditions at the bottom, and wetter and shadier conditions at the bottom, so you'll need to keep that in mind as you plant different types of plants within the spiral.