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Keyhole Gardens: Efficient, Ergonomic, and Beautiful!

Classic American gardens are usually arranged in straight lines.

But straight lines are boring (unattractive to me), too convenient for insect pests (hopping from one plant to the next to the next), and anti-ergonomic – hurting our bodies during planting, tending, and harvesting.

What’s the alternative?

Keyhole gardens! – with plants arranged into companions or “guilds.”

From Toby Hemenway's book, "Gaia's Garden."
From Toby Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden.”

Keyhole gardens offer the greatest amount of garden space relative to the area needed for pathways.  No other garden shape results in this much economy of space.

Check out the designs here, of a simple keyhole garden and two keyhole clusters.  They can be perfectly round or oblong to fit a space.

What’s best, I discovered, is the ergonomics.

I only realized this benefit after volunteering at our local community farm for six weeks.  After crouching down to pick beans or other veggies for hours at a time, scooting my upended plastic bucket seat a foot or two at a time, I realized how good it was to move the bucket farther and then stretch farther to the left and farther to the right.

At home, my keyhole garden does even better:  It allows me the comfort of twisting wonderfully as far as I can in each direction while letting me forego all the awkward clumping down the row with my bucket seat!

My original garden design had no keyhole gardens – though I knew the concept – because I had only a solid-rock hillside outside the kitchen door, along which I was building stone terraces in a narrow space, essentially forcing me to use lines, though they could meander a bit.

My front yard had been designed for drought-tolerant evergreens, minimally planted in a conservative two-foot border around the perimeter.  Years later, with my partner to share the work, we decided we had a lot of unused space in that front yard and decided to expand the gardens.

DSC04421We expanded all of them to fill every bit of ground except for what was needed for a winding pathway and two chairs and a table near an existing bench to catch both summer shade and winter sun.

Wherever the new gardens were too wide to reach fully into, we created short keyhole pathways to their centers, creating lop-sided keyhole gardenDSC04667s!

In this first, you can see the cat door into the sun room, graced with a pink rose overhanging.

Here’s a side view:DSC04675

I feel very strongly about avoiding straight lines – for one’s psyche.

Think about it:  most of our life has been turned into straight lines:   our rooms, our homes, our furniture, our streets, our books and games – even calendar time!  There’s no reason our gardens, our lovely patches of nature – created just for us! – should be straight!

Let’s get ourselves out of our boxes wherever we can!  Our gardens are our chance to bring nature – and all its wavy, meandering, branching line glory – back close to us!

Yes, I know that rectangles provide some wonderful efficiency:  making standard size shade screens and cold frames to sit on top of multiple beds is easiest when working with rectangles.  But we can also shade our oddly shaped gardens with pruning materials of various plants and use those same materials to hold down plastic in the winter (plastic which can be rolled tightly and take up less space) – and I like those looks much better.

Obviously, I put more value on the psychological healing benefits and the beauty of my garden than its food production.  But it seems I can have both!

How do you arrange plants inside these shapes?  Think of nature:  scatter your seeds.  And combine companion plants.  For ease of access, put tall plants toward the back or outside edge, and place short ones near you.

Like most of life, it’s a puzzle.

Enjoy it!

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Artist, author, and speaker.

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