Creating a Drought Tolerant Keyhole Kitchen Garden

By Sherry McGary

The year was 1997, 20 years ago

I had been in the house for several years now, the first year I had pulled up all the weeds and discovered a bit of a garden underneath, that was a nice surprise. Then I acquired a bunch of old windows from our family cabin and built a funky ole green house. It was there next to that greenhouse, a big weedy spot that called out to me every time I passed…. That’s the spot… I’d been looking at….. and turning over in my mind… for months. That’s where it all began for me….my starting place.

That’s about the time I stumbled upon keyhole gardens while leafing through a book at Harmony Farms. The book Permaculture one explained the benefits of this style of design. As I read it with a critical gardener’s eye, I was trying to figure out if it would actually work. After going back to the store for the 3rd time I was finally certain it would work. I decided it all made so much sense. I would do it! I was certain, although I did feel a little guilty about not buying the book.

Before the rains came

I had drawn a sketch of the keyhole design and made my plant list, this was my map. There was a central path with generous garden beds on each side. I designated a compost area at the end of the path. That was the layout. I was ready.

So I prepped the garden beds: I started by double digging the beds on both sides of the path and adding lots of fluffy garden compost, I did this to increase the waters infiltration rate and at the same time increase the soils water holding capacity (basically to store more rain water). Next I added the following amendment: crushed oyster shell, rock phosphate and wood ash. I did this to ensure that the fruits and vegetables would be full of calcium and minerals. Next I waited for the rain.

After the rains came

I was ready to plant …first the fruit trees; An Asian pear, Fuyu persimmon, Satsuma plum and a Satsuma mandarin. Then some drought tolerant vegetables: tree collards, sorrel, chard, arugula and mache. Lastly some self perpetuating annual flowers: Rose campions, California poppies, Love in a mist and forget-me-nots. Then everything was seriously mulched to keep the ground warm, retain the rain water and keep the weeds at bay.

Fast forward the year is 2002; It was five years after planting that first keyhole garden when I realized that I frequented that area more than any other part of the garden. So, of course being the curious being that I am I started to analyze my trips to that area. This is what I found… as I suspected I was going there more often because of the compost pile, but also I noticed… I was picking fruit on the way back to the kitchen this caused another trip the next day for more fruit. Then I started bringing a basket sometimes two baskets.

Fast forward to 2017 present day; For 18 years now this garden has filled our bellies as well as our pantry with harvests of Nectarines, Peaches, Plums, Asian pears, persimmons, artichokes, and lots of greens. The success of this first project inspired me study Permaculture in 2003 and on it went from there. Today I show people how to create these kinds of gardens.

You’re invited to a free garden workshop beginning Wed April 5th. For more info:

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Sherry McGary is a Certified Permaculture Teacher (2004) and a Certified Master Gardner (1989). She founded Garden Angel Design in 1995.


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