Posted in 1 Garden, 2 Home

The Evolution of a Design

One of the “rules” of Permaculture is that every design evolves.  And it should, as needs change and plants grow.

house front orig
I called my new home “the ugliest house on the block.”  Today’s sitting garden (pictured below) is where the gold truck is parked.

When I first moved into this house, I knew I didn’t want an extensive garden to take care of, because the house itself needed so much work, and I had other things I wanted to do.

What I needed for the front yard was 1) sunlight to reach the south-facing windows, 2) year-round beauty, 3) privacy, and 4) low-maintenance.

The solution was to erect a fence, and plant evergreens near the street that wouldn’t grow higher than 8 feet, so the lowest winter sun can still heat the house; use shorter plants and deciduous trees near the house, so the sun can shine over or through them in winter; and plant perennial and native flowers everywhere I could.

mesquite2Keeping things simple (I’d complicate it later), I created narrow gardens, 2- to 3-feet wide, all around the perimeter of the yard, next to the house, next to the road, and around the one enclosing side.  Done.  Simple.

Later, after the water harvesting and solar features were developed, and the kitchen-side garden terraces were built and planted – and even after I added a mesquite tree and bench to the front yard – I found the big empty space was just not inviting, even surrounded by greenery and flowers.  Besides that, the granite gravel needed weeding!

The Permaculture solution to weeds is to plant more of what you want.  So I expanded the garden space to every square inch that wasn’t needed for a walkway or for sitting.

Not that I wanted the extra work of creating or maintaining more gardens, but this felt like playwhen the time was right – and I did it little by little.  The payoff was huge!

And it actually resulted in less work!  Gardens, as living communities, tend to take less work than single plants or spare gardens.  The plants in a more complex community provide each other nutrients, shade, moisture, mulch, and more – and that’s work we don’t have to do.

Widening the gardens meant that I’d need to utilize the “keyhole

From Toby Hemenway's book,
From Toby Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden.”
one winter squash will be nestled in each lobe of this adapted
See the keyhole on the left, near the hose? The original garden is back where the roses are, on the right.

garden” design (creating short walkways into them every six linear feet or so, so that every part of the garden is within a three-foot reach.

front yard
Since this photo was taken last year, we’ve laid down cedar mulch over the gravel, giving the yard a much softer “forest-like” appearance.  Sunflowers have been positively amending the soil (thanks!), but also rather dominating the space, creating a much wilder picture! And the central mesquite (rather obscured in this photo by the elderberry behind it) is bigger this year too – one day providing more serious summer shade.

And here’s the garden today, so lush, I begin nearly every day, summer and winter, sitting here, feeling oh so blessed!

Posted in 1 Garden

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!