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Making a Permaculture Keyhole Garden

No matter how serious you are about self-sufficiency, you probably don’t want your backyard to look like an industrial farm – and you may not have the space, anyway! Fortunately, there are ways to make any homestead look visually appealing, while also  requiring less square footage than you thought. One such method is the keyhole garden.

Making a Permaculture Keyhole Garden
Making a Permaculture Keyhole Garden

What Is a Keyhole Garden?

The basic shape of a raised-bed keyhole garden is that of a circle that’s half-bisected by a path that’s narrow from the edge almost to the center. In that center, however, the path ends in a smaller “circle within a circle.” That leaves the rest of the larger circle to be filled with a U-shaped bed of plants. From above, the whole thing resembles the classic “keyhole shape.” 

In practice, this shape allows the home gardener full access to any part of the bed from the center. (Of course, the plants on the perimeter can also be accessed while walking just outside of the circle.)

Advantages of a Keyhole Garden

The many advantages to permaculture keyhole gardens include:

  • Space-saving. Keyhole gardens eliminate the amount of ground taken up by access paths between rows of plants. In fact, a keyhole garden path requires only about a quarter of the space that a traditional bed of the same size does. 
  • Creates a microclimate. Keyhole beds can act as “sun traps” because of the U-shape of the plan. That helps northern growers, in particular, extend their growing season. To create this warmer microclimate, place taller plants at the northern edge of the circle, with the entire keyhole garden facing south.   
  • Aesthetically pleasing. Whether you’re growing veggies, herbs, a rose garden – or a happy mix of all of these – keyhole gardens create curving shapes that are “fancy” enough for even a street-facing yard. (And if you have the space to have several keyhole gardens on either side of a narrow path, you’ll create a truly inviting and productive garden space.) 
  • Encourages pollinators and confuses pests. The shape of the keyhole garden allows pollinating bees, birds and insects to fly from plant to plant without having to be as exposed as they would a traditional multi-row garden. In addition, having several types of plants within one small place discourages pests like the tomato hornworm or bean beetle, which prefer to chomp on the same kind of plant in large groups.

Making a Keyhole Garden

To get started, mark a circle that’s about 10 or 12 feet in diameter.Shovel out a path to the center that’s about 1 foot across, along with a smaller circle at the end of the path that’s about 18 inches wide. Put that removed soil into the non-path parts of the circle. 

Next, work the remaining part of the circle – the U-shaped garden – until the soil is loose, with any remaining lawn or weeds removed. Add any necessary soil amendments at this time, building up enough layers to make it raised, and mulch the center pathway. 

Finally, plant seeds and seedlings in the non-path parts of the circle. Taller plants should go to the northern, back edge of the circle. The shorter and more frequently-picked plants can take up the remainder of the U-shape, closer to the access path and inner circle.