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keyhole garden in summer drought  RSS feed

 
master steward
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This rain star is from a station qute close to me.  Because of the hills and valleys, I'm actually two microclimates away and on the border of two others. Three microclimates intersect about where my house is, depending on the time of year which is great when we invite people over and show them how much it's raining out the back window, dress them up in big rain clothes, get the umbrella ready, and send them out the front door where it's sunny and hot.  Spring and fall are great for this, especially April. 



I think the measurements are in millimetres.  We get quite a bit less rain than that station in the summer and a little bit more in the winter.  For example, we usually miss the August and June rain and April is often wetter here than there, but it's enough to give a general theme. 

Last killing frost is usually before April 16, First killing frost, late Oct.  Warm enough to direct seed summer veg, last week of May.  Usual last day of rain, April 30th. 

It doesn't get very humid here in the summer, but being on the coast, we do usually cool down at night.  Even in the summer, on a usual summer, we can get 30C in the day, but often about 10 or 15 at night.  It's lovely. It also makes for a really good dew in the summer. 

I like the idea of building my next one out of rocks to see if it can capture the dew but the rocks here don't stack very well.  I wonder if I lean the walls in 5 degrees or so, if the soil would support it. 
 
r ranson
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One month later, interesting results.

The day I finished it was the start of an exceptionally hot and dry period which lasted about three weeks.  It's so hot and dry that the radio and papers are interviewing some of the local organic farmers who say it's the dryest we've had since the 1940s.  Funny thing memory, as I think it's actually pretty moist this year.  Winter lasted until the second week of June and we had more winter rain than normal.  The trees are still showing vigor to indicate there's soil moisture.  We're still getting overnight dew which is usually gone by now, and the .07mm of rainfall we had in July, is .07mm higher than the average for the month. However, there is a much higher demand on the water system which in some areas have strong water restrictions as they are either running out or their filtration system can't keep up with the demand.   But the heat was very drying. 

The seeds I planted failed because I didn't keep the soil surface moist.  The leeks I transplanted died because I didn't keep the soil surface moist and I think that the soil is a bit rich for them.  The Good King Henery is thriving!  Nice deep, quick growing roots.  The walking onions are finally starting to grow.  They were dormant when I put them in there.  Some peas are growing through the wattle walls, but the chickens quickly eat them.  I started some kale, Brussel sprouts, komatsuna, and chard inside, and transplanted the starts out last week and watered them in.  I think they quickly got their roots into the moist level.  All but one are doing well. 

I'm pouring about two gallons of mucky (from washing out the animal's buckets) water in the compost every two days.  This is more than I wanted to need, but I think because of the heat and not getting thing moist enough when I built it, it's necessary.  The compost bin is flurting with full.  I think it will be at maximum capastiy by fall. 
 
r ranson
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The wind took the shade cloth from the garden and the chickens discovered the delicious veggies who were thriving up to that point.  Now only the Good King Henery and a few of the walking onions are left... sigh. 

Time to grow more transplants. 
 
r ranson
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I found an old sweet potato in the back of the cupboard.  Lovely long shoots on it, too weird looking even for me to eat.  So I put it in the chicken ravaged half of the keyhole garden. 

Thankfully, they only destroyed half the plants, so I still have half left.  That's a small comfort. 
 
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Usually, I avoid mulch as in our climate, it reduces dew collection in the summer
  Perhaps this is so where you live, but I think that in general dew collects on the surface of things and mulch, like the hay mulch I use, collects a massive amount of dew because of the huge surface area of all the individual strands.  Dry leaf mulch (particularly with leaves not chopped) on the other hand, will only collect some dew on the upper surface, and this collected dew will quickly evaporate. I find that when we had extended drought the deeper the mulch, the more the soil surface held moisture, and the more dew the mulch seemed to hold (by observing relative dampness on different mulched areas).  Where I live, though, the air is often cool at night from the mountains draining cold air, and the warm beds natural condense a lot of moisture.  So it might have something to do with the type of mulch you experimented with, or your relative day to night temperatures.  Definitely it's a climate based thing, but I'm surprised by your assertion that mulch reduces dew collection.  It is often used by geoff lawton in desert designs partly for this reason.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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oh... now that's an idea.  I wonder how I can incorporate that into the next garden.  It would be pretty easy if I used an old plastic compost bin, but natural materials?  Not sure. Something to think about.  
  You could weave an arch around a disk of firewood that sort of acts as a plug/door that just gets pulled out of the arch or placed in the arch.  If it rots, get a new one.  
 
r ranson
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I find that when we had extended drought the deeper the mulch, the more the soil surface held moisture, and the more dew the mulch seemed to hold (by observing relative dampness on different mulched areas). 


This is really neat.  I'm curious, how long is an 'extended drought' for you?

Mulch is really good here for the first month to 6 weeks after the rains stop.  If I can apply it within a day or two of the rains stopping.  If it's applied too early, the plants tend to drown.  The Mediterranian herb garden seems to do the best with chipper mulch.  It's one of the only places I use mulch directly on the plants.  But I do keep trying and observing. 

 
Roberto pokachinni
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An extended drought around here is a few months... nothing like you are dealing with.  With raised beds like the ones you are designing, you will not have drowning plants.  All my beds are raised, and untilled.  Tilling also is a major cause of soil dessication.  I know you too are experimenting with no till methods, so I wont get into details too much, but any soil disturbance whatsoever will decrease soil moisture.  I'm assuming that chipper mulch that you mention is woody material run though a chipper.  (side note:  which chipper do you own, how big of material can it handle, and how much did it cost?) I put that sort of stuff on my path, but my gardens get a mulch made of a lighter material, like straw/hay, which breaks down faster, and provides more habitat for spiders, rove beetles, and worms seems to really appreciate it.  I even have had ground nesting birds nest in my garlic patch.   I find that with mulch, only a small amount of water is needed to keep soil damp, whereas without mulch the wind and sun dessicate the soil surface and this will create a wick that slowly dries the bed from the top down.  With mulch, the bed seems to remain hydrated, and is easy to keep moist with only small additions of water or non at all.  Mulch seems to act differently if it is not deep enough.  Super thin mulch is pretty much useless to me. It dries out, and dries the beds out.  Mulch of three inches or more begins to really have a positive effect, and it keeps the weeds away or very easy to pull.  

I love your experiment, by the way.
 
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Here are some pictures of my ARK2 bed from the late spring before I planted:
ARK2-buckets.JPG
[Thumbnail for ARK2-buckets.JPG]
 
Jay Angler
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Clearly, posting more than one picture is beyond my ability - sorry!
ARK2-keyhole.JPG
[Thumbnail for ARK2-keyhole.JPG]
 
Jay Angler
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This last one shows the compost barrel with the lid off, and you can see the old wheel rim used to keep the barrel round. The punky wood was about the same height as the first row of buckets, so I'm really hoping that next year it will act like a combination keyhole bed and hugel bed. It isn't anywhere near tall enough to be a self-watering hugelkulture bed, but if the compost makes up for that by keeping it moist during the drought/growing season without significant added water (I expect to water in any transplants at the very least) I will consider it a success.
ARK2-compost-barrel.JPG
[Thumbnail for ARK2-compost-barrel.JPG]
 
r ranson
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The compost bin filled up too fast, so I pruned some trees and built it up.



Fruit tree water shoots like being baskets.  Cottonwood does not.  Too brittle. 
 
r ranson
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Wind blew off the cover, chickens ate nearly everything and scratched out much of the dirt.

That's my winter veg gone.  They were doing so well too.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Oh no!    So sad.  I hate it when a project is going so well and then something like that happens.  Well, at least the infrastructure is in place for the future. 
 
r ranson
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Lost most of my soil too.

This is the worst gardening year ever.  BUT, I checked on the veggies that morning and they were thriving!  I was so excited that it looked like I would have Brussel sprouts for Christmas
 
Jay Angler
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OK, I read the frustration and desperation in your writing R Ranson, and I *totally* get it. Get it as in a friend of the family was moving big trailers around for my spouse and took out half my ARK1 bed.
I also agree that it's been a *really* weird weather year and that's affecting gardens all across Canada leaving many frustrated gardeners in its wake.
You are *not* alone, and there are no quick fixes - just hard work and problem solving - and maybe throwing a bit of money at the problem if that's possible.

1. Your large and lovely center composter will be creating "dirt" over the winter and might be good enough for late spring planting. Will you be able to shovel it out through the top? Would one of those clam-shell post-hole diggers help do so?

2. If you can save up some money, Lee Valley Tools make some superb stainless steel clothespins that I use a lot in the garden and they look as if they would help hold your row cover to your frame. (Yes, I also totally get how strong the gusts of wind can be, sometimes springing up out of nowhere.)

3. I absolutely will *not* use the dreaded "S" word regarding the chickens, as I clearly "S" have known that mink could come through in the middle of the afternoon and kill all 4 of my Khaki ducks who were near my garden beyond the patrol area of the geese, but have you considered getting surrounding the bed with 4 feet of ugly chicken wire? I know there are permaculture ways of handling many problems, but when you've got an experimental bed and need to know if you're on a useful track in your ecosystem and for your farm, and if you do it right, you could just leave it in place while the plants are young enough that chickens are a major risk.

These are just suggestions, and only you can decide in the end what to do. I admit that to me, your bed looks gorgeous, but you've just had a major set-back and whatever you decide to do when moving forward from here, you have the right to make that decision. In the meantime, consider hugging those dratted chickens and give them a few worms, as I can't think of anything more likely to bring a smile to my face than watching chickens slurp worms.
 
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Just finished building one of these keyhole beds with my students in the garden at school!  Still need a hat for the compost tower in the middle, and cover crop seeded in.  It will sink a lot, since it's filled with a lot of fluffy stuff, but we can revamp a little in the spring before we plant.  The kids are mighty pleased with themselves! 

Now I'm going to build a more substantial version in my garden at home.  Maybe these higher raised beds are also a good way to have duck and dog resistant plantings.  I want the ducks in the garden, but those big feet squash a lot of things.  Ducks don't climb something with steep sides, as far as I've observed. 
Finished-keyhole-bed-.jpg
[Thumbnail for Finished-keyhole-bed-.jpg]
 
r ranson
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Rats, ravens, and worst of all raccoons have made this garden an official failure.  If my computer was working, I would tell you more.

In short

  • plants had exceptional growth.  better handling the extreme weather than any other garden i tried.
  • raccoon gang tore apart compost basket.  Trampled plants during a freeze.  Destroyed the cover that protects plants from chickens.  much sadness!


  • Re-evaluate plans for second version of this bed.  100% convinced this is the kind of bed for our area, just need to deal with the compost centre differently.  So glad I tried this bed and learned so much.

    So sadness this machines has no spelling check-in.
     
    pollinator
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    That is what I can't understand of the concept either. You raise your bed it drains better and dries out more. That gets even worse when you replace the stone wall by some airy weaving. To me it seems a lot of work too. I can't really understand the advantage, other than that the compost is a good idea as it heats the bed early spring. But I don't want to be the one who shovels the compost out. You stand in that narrow keyhole and your wheelbarrow is behind you.
     
    r ranson
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    The lower layers retain moisture like a hugelkultur in summer.  Drains well in winter.  Working very well from the growing point of view.  Basketry is less effort for me than lugging rocks.  Faster too.

    But never mind theory - experimenting is where the proof of the pudding lives.  From this experiment, I see this bed structure works well in my conditions. Grows better greens for the effort than any other method tried.   It's just the compost basket and vermin that is causing grief. 

    As for moving the compost, I don't think it is part of the plan.  The expected  life of this bed is 5 to 10 years, with no movement of compost.  Compost rots in place, when spent, it's time to make a new bed.  A bit like a short term hugelkultur.
     
    Jay Angler
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    I agree with R Ranson that for certain weather patterns, this bed reduces the amount of work to grow certain veggies. The idea is to put lots of "wet green" compostable matter in the center and just as certain composts will "leak" juice, in this bed that moisture is supposed to be just enough to keep the bed from needing additional water. I was afraid to add grey water to my compost core because I thought my compost was already very wet, but doing so would have helped my more demanding plants such as celeriac, which didn't do well. My leaf cabbage, kale and green onion did wonderfully. The year I planted a couple of pumpkin plants in the two north corners, they each produced a single pumpkin. Planted in my manure pile with olla pots, each plant produced several pumpkins, but I had to make sure I filled the ollas twice/week. I had draped the pumpkin vine along the upper edge of the bed to discourage the deer, so I didn't mind that I only got two pumpkins as I was stacking functions. Considering the ARK bed receives far more shade than the manure pile, there could also be other factors, but my gut feeling is that the compost produces enough moisture for less demanding plants.

    I am somewhat surprised that the raccoon were interested in the compost. Were you adding things that would have smelled of chicken (bedding?) or kitchen scraps that attracted them? I'm wondering if it's a bad raccoon year, as I've heard of other people having problems in this general area. I've seen some signs of raccoon, but haven't had a problem and truly hope that I don't.  Had your compost generated a large crop of worms that might have attracted them? I do hope you think of some solutions, as I think this bed could be useful to you.

    Re harvesting finished compost: People who build these beds out of rock usually do it dry stacked, so if the compost really needed shoveling out, I suspect they'd just dismantle part of the bed and then re-assemble it. I also figured that a clam-shell post hole digger would get some of the compost out of a deep core, but because I'm building a high bed to help my knees and back, my compost core is only ~50 cm (20") deep to keep the moisture near the plant roots, so I figure I can just shovel it out from the top in the spring if it seems indicated. I haven't used this style bed for long enough to comment otherwise and as R Ranson mentions, it could easily be 5 years before it becomes an issue. I do think that in the summer I was running the compost too high in "greens" to get the moisture and that the compost process itself would have done better if I'd added something like dry leaves. I added dry plant stems in the early fall to the ARK2 bin, and that compost was looking happier when I checked it the other day. I will try to be a better scientist and find my compost thermometer and do some measuring!
     
    r ranson
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    Apparently, wild raccoons favourite food is rats, but these seem to be urban transplants so they are after the kitchen compost at the bottom of the basket.  But we are slowly and steadily transforming the raccoons into soil - if we don't, there will be in the henhouse next.

    Thinking more about the plastic compost bin mentioned upthread.  But worry it won't transfer water and nutrients so well.  Maybe, instead, the same design, but with purely vegetarian compost. 
     
    pollinator
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    Perhaps if you wove your basket and walls into circles of fencing it would be more resistant to invasion. If the fencing extends above the woven part on the outside of the bed it would also give you more structure to keep the chickens out.
     
    r ranson
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    One of the things we liked about this design was to make it out of 100% bio-degradable materials.  That way, in 10 years, when the garden is spent, we wouldn't need to fish out any plastic or wire - we could just get the tractor, push the garden over and return it to the soil.  Either that or plant a tree in the middle of the compost pile - with the dream that self-seeding veg from the garden plus trees nicely spaced would be a good start to a food forest. 

    This is why I love trenching compost - no problems with rodents, ravens, or racoons. 
     
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    Ugh, I hate those blood monkeys.  I've lost too many chickens to raccoons to think they are cute.  The only thing I know that works is a good dog, which seems to mean a female dog.
     
    r ranson
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    What is left, is still growing well.  I took the cover off and all the racoons are now composting nicely elsewhere. 

    keyhole-garden-in-november.jpg
    [Thumbnail for keyhole-garden-in-november.jpg]
     
    Julia Winter
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    That is still such a lovely vegetable bed!  I love the weaving.
     
    Jay Angler
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    Wow! R Ranson your veggies look awesome!

    As promised, I collected data, but promptly had my own coon problems and that took my extra time up.

    Some data from last week:  Air temp 48 F (my compost thermometer only speaks Fahrenheit – sorry)
    Brooder compost - ~1 meter X 1 meter X 0.7 meter high
    Temp  98 F

    ARK1 compost – ~1/2 meter diameter by ½ meter deep
    Temp 52 F

    ARK2 compost - ~1/2 meter diameter by ½ meter deep
    Temp 53 F
    Approximately  10 cm into the ground the temp is 50 F

    Today I dug some of the top veggie scraps aside today and found active worms at the layer where the veggie scraps had turned to mush. This suggests to me, that my ARK bed composts are acting more like a vermiculture bin. The holes I drilled into the barrel are large enough to allow the worms to come and go if conditions require that, and in fact I’d rather hoped they would do that, moving nutrients from the barrel to the plants and aerating the soil in the bed.  The temperature today was a little cooler at about 46F. I'm not sure what temperature will cause worms to hibernate. We've had near freezing at night twice this week, but today the worms looked awake and ticked with me for "removing their dark".

    My ARK1 bed is still producing lots of green onion and a tiny bit of kale. It may get a bit more light once all the leaves are down.
    My ARK2 bed has a couple of cabbage plants that are mostly sitting there, and some daicon radish that are looking quite happy. I actually harvested some daicon leaves for a stew I made yesterday. I will try to take a couple of pictures if it stops raining long enough.
     
    Jay Angler
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    We’ve had several weeks with over-night lows of freezing temperatures, so I thought I’d repeat my temperature readings:
    Air Temp 41F
    Compost 61F – not a good composting temperature, but good enough to keep the worms active.
    Ground temp 45F in a shaded area
    ARK1 compost bin 44F
    ARK2 compost bin 48F

    This shows me that the relatively small compost cores in the ARK beds aren’t able to maintain an active temperature range with the cold, dark December weather. It’s wet enough at this time of year that any plants in the bins are not dependent on the cores for moisture.

    I took some more pictures today, but tried 3 times to upload them and clearly I'm missing a step and despite trying to use the search feature to hunt for the instructions, I can't find them. If someone will point me back to them again, I'll try again.....sigh...I'm a techno-dinosaur! I guess I'd best figure out how to book-mark those instructions.

     
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