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Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

Elizabeth considers keyhole gardens vs. row gardens:

“David,

I enjoy your practical approach to organic/permaculture. I currently garden annual vegetables in rows on borrowed land. I styled the rows with narrow paths across the hill. This works great for me but not for my husband and friends. Anyone else walks on the planting rows. I have permission from the land owners to plant anything in any way I choose. 
Is it practical to transition to keyhole design? The keyhole design reduces the area of paths. I prefer the look of circles instead of rows. I could slightly raise the downhill side of the circle. In your videos, you do make mounds on the downhill side of some plantings. 
At this time I mostly use hand tools. The only power tool I use is a string trimmer. I have dreams of using a BCS.”
A BCS tractor, I assume. Yeah, that would be nice. I could use one of those myself.
Let’s take a look at keyhole gardens vs. row gardens.

Keyhole Gardens vs. Row Gardens

Keyhole gardens are cool. I’ve mentioned them before, but never built one.

That’s because, at heart, I am really lazy about digging and building things. I also like to plant large spaces when I can.

This is a pretty typical keyhole garden:

I mean, it’s really cool and all that—but the labor involved! Holy moly. You could plant a quarter acre of row gardens with that amount of labor in the same amount of time. To me, keyhole gardens are what happens when engineers get overly clever. I generally feel the same way about aquaponics systems, but I’m tired of taking abuse on that front so I won’t say anything more.

It would take me a day to build a keyhole garden—or to put in an entire, much larger traditional garden. I cleared, dug, and planted a half-acre in about six hours with the help of a local farmer last year. Row gardens are easy to weed with a hoe, can be built rapidly, and don’t need all the digging, piling up, and materials. I’m also not sure that a plot of land covered with keyhole gardens would have less path space than one with row gardens, as you lose the space between the circles. Perhaps someone has done the math on that already—let me know in the comments if you have an idea.

Beyond that, don’t get me wrong: There may be a good place for keyhole gardens. Beds close to the house for herbs and salad greens where you can dump your daily kitchen scraps—great! Build ’em!

But your row gardens are already doing well—so why change? Ah! That’s right. We need to face . . .

The Real Problem

Your husband and your friends are terrible people.

Kidding.

The lack of obvious paths in some of my garden beds have led visitors astray. Just because I know how I laid something out doesn’t mean that my wife, children, or neighbors—or the police detectives searching for bodies in my compost pile—do.

Why not stick some sticks in the ground to mark paths? Or just mulch some paths with straw? Or put down a few stepping stones? You could string strings between sticks to mark areas off in just a few minutes. Sure, it’s less convenient for you—but it would be a lot easier than building keyhole beds.

Even if you made dirt-mound style keyholes without bricks and sticks, it’s still a lot of digging—plus you lose growing space in between those circles.

If you’re really keen on some keyholes, I would go ahead and build a few on part of your land and see how they compare with what you’re doing. You’ll probably be tired after that—but, if you find you love them and they work great, great! Convert the rest.

I’ll bet you stick with rows, though. When you look at the keyhole gardens vs. row gardens fight in terms of labor, row gardens will win. And labor is big when you’re farming.

Just my two cents. Thanks for writing, and good luck. If you do build those keyhole gardens and have luck, drop me a line and send pictures. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

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This post was written by David The Good

COMMENTS(5)

  • fibrefarmer546 says:

    Great article David,

    I’ve been playing with an African style keyhole garden (the one with the compost in the middle) for about a year now. There are some serious advantages to it for some crops. And some serious advantages to row gardening. I think the best advice I’ve ever gotten is to experiment – try one keyhole and see if solves your problems. If it does, make more.

    I live somewhere with zero rainfall in the so-called growing season. Imagine waking up the first week in October and looking out your window. The last rainfall was MAY THE FIRST. That’s five months of prime ‘growing season’ without rainfall. In these conditions, the keyhole garden built like a hugelkultur with a worm bin in the middle works wonders for growing with minimal water. Tomatoes and peppers love it, the walking onions are finally thriving. We are finally going to get our first irrigation-free cucumber harvest.

    For water and nutrient dense needs, a keyhole works. It also helps keep people off the plants.

    But for most crops, I’m still enjoying row gardening. Less maintenance, easier maintenance, higher yields. Get the microclimate right for the crop and the water needs are minimal.

    If you find some way to get people to not walk on your plants, please let me know. I’ve tried mulch, and they would rather walk on seedlings. I’ve tried clearly defined paths, and they trample full-grown tomato plants. At the moment, I’m using high fencing and gates with tricky latches. I would love a better cure.

  • nering40 says:

    Always thought that keyhole beds were just fancy raised beds which allowed easy access(no stooping). Being in the dry Southwest, I was recently researching dryland gardening techniques. My current understanding is that they are primarily water conservation structures. The idea of having a compost/water supply at the center of the bed makes sense especially if compost material is limited. Right now I garden in three raised beds and a 20×48 shade cloth covered area. I use t-tape drip irrigation in row plantings. While it is very efficient, I am still limited by low annual rainfall. Think that keyhole beds might be a an additional tool for my situation. Believe that keyhole beds originated in Africa. Could be that the use of row plantings there might have resulted in the gardener being eaten by a lion. A keyhole bed is on my gardening bucket list.

    1. fibrefarmer says:

      there are two types of keyhole beds. One is a fancy shaped raised bed and the other is more like a hugelkulture compost bin with a garden around it which is designed for dry conditions.

      I’m experimenting with the latter and I’m surprised how little work it takes. I’m giving it about 1 gallon of water per week (for the entire garden) and growing crops that are usually too water intensive to do well here. It took a bit of labour earlier to get the bed started – mostly unnecessary – but now that it’s established, I’ve done almost nothing. At the last frost day, I spent 25 minutes cleaning up the winter crops and once the soil warmed up, I spent 10 minutes planting transplants. I had a look in on it again today and it doesn’t need any more work. No weeds, no pests, nothing. Very healthy looking plants. Here are some pictures of my african style keyhole bed – permies.com/t/68883

      That said, in my conditions, it’s only good for water and nutrient-intensive crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh greens, and the like.

  • kaiser says:

    Here is an alternative to keyhole gardens, and is a technique I read was being used at a research area in Yuma Arizona, where it can’t get much drier. Plug the hole of inexpensive 10″ or 12″ clay pots (I used corks) and sink them into the ground up to the rim. Paint the inside of the saucer with a white latex paint to reflect the sun and sit it on top of the pot. Plant one large plant like a tomato next to each pot. Several smaller plants can be planted around each pot. Keep the pot filled with water and the plant roots will grow around the pot and absorb water through the pores of the pot. The plants get as much water as they need, there is no waste, you aren’t watering weeds and there is really very little effort involved once you’ve prepared your pots. Depending on the need of the plant you may have to refill pots once or twice a week or less. So far I’ve had really great results using this method with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, artichokes and cabbage. I did plant in raised beds because the soil in the area was sand and gravel but this would work with row gardening as well. Just remove the pots each fall and scrub with a wire brush to keep the pores open.

  • Cherlynn says:

    To each their own! I have done many different gardens successfully and now I am double digging around trees and planting my garden in that space. I will extend that area next year and plant berries near the trees and garden beyond. It’s working for me at this stage in my life. Very little work after I get the double digging done. I’m hoping by the time I can no longer garden I will have a lovely food forest to walk through and gather food. But I must agree the key hole garden looks like way to much work! But if it works for someone out there,go for it.

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