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The Garden Scoop

Featuring weekly articles by Ryan Pankau, University of Illinois Horticulture Educator.
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Keyhole Gardens

I had never heard of a keyhole garden until this past year but I quickly became enthusiastic about a garden that does not involve lots of digging, needs less water than a conventional garden and produces its own compost. Ok –a live person actually has to feed it kitchen scraps to make the compost thing happen.

So what exactly is a Keyhole Garden and where do you get one? They are the brainchild of charitable groups looking for a way to help people in Africa become self-sustaining. For many families, keyhole gardens have made a huge difference enabling them to grow enough food despite poor soil and a lack of water. They are growing in popularity across America. We recently built three on a Saturday morning at the Douglas Discovery Garden in Danville, using kits purchased by Keyhole Farms.

How to start? After you trace a horse shoe on the ground you build your walls. The rule of thumb is to keep the circle under six feet so you can easily reach all areas of your garden. Anything from cinder blocks to broken concrete, bales of straw or wood can be used. One of the advantages is that you can build them from whatever materials are available. That is why they are ideal for villages with few resources.

Next you can add a base. Cardboard is the perfect material for covering the ground because it will smother grass or weeds and decompose over time adding nutrients to the soil. You can then add layers of newspaper, straw, grass clippings, leaves and soil.

A tube that is generally made from chicken wire and is about a foot across is placed in the center. When looking down on the design it should look like a large keyhole in a circle where the gardener can easily walk to the center and drop compost down the tube. You can add coffee grinds, grass clippings, shredded leaves, vegetable and fruit scraps and other compost materials like dryer lint and egg shells to your garden.

In areas where water is a precious commodity, grey water can be poured down the tube. This can be rainwater, kitchen water or any household water other than toilet water. That last one should be a no brainer but you know someone is going to ask. It is best if the garden is slightly sloped away from the center to help nutrients from decomposing materials flow through the soil.

The garden is continuously fed a diet of nutrient rich compost and can produce an astonishing amount of produce. The constant supply of organic matter to your garden will attract earthworms. Because the garden is rarely disturbed the earthworms multiply and you have a very nutrient rich, healthy soil.

You don't have to bend or kneel to weed and the best part is that you have combined your compost bin with your vegetable garden freeing up some space in your yard. By using kitchen scraps and grey water, keyhole gardens are the ultimate poster child for a garden recycling center.

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very good article and an interesting project.
by Mary Jo McDonald on Thursday 10/30/2014

Thanks MJ
by Jenney Hanrahan on Friday 10/31/2014