Great Lakes Permaculture Portal

Welcome to the watershed!

Growing more with fewer paths, keyhole garden by R. Jamrok

Randall JamrokRandall Jamrok is an educator, designer, and permaculturist. He currently is a garden leader with Gardeneers, a Chicago area nonprofit. He received his permaculture training through Midwest Permaculture and Sepp Holzer. He was a presenter at the International Permaculture convergence in Cuba and is author of the booklet “Permaculture Solutions to Climate Change,” based on knowledge gained at the convergence. Here he shares his garden design for this year, based off a keyhole pattern.

GLPP: What are the goals of your garden design?

Randall Jamrok: In this garden, my goal was to find the edge zone between box-thinking and lobe-thinking. I combined the square-foot garden idea of Mel Bartholomew, which uses space efficiently and square-foot plant groupings as opposed

keyhole gardens combined

(Click to enlarge) Randall’s garden for personal consumption

to rows of plants, with the keyhole design.

Although permaculture realizes that there are more yields to be concerned about in addition to food, I DO think that in the next 50 years access to food with be a central theme in a very concrete way for most of us. I set out to create a garden that could produce enough food for one person in a year.

I measured and concluded that if I have 2 ¾ lbs. of food of a diversity of nutrients daily, I will be able to sustain myself. This could be scaled up in a simple way for families and communities and depending on the needs of individuals. I figure that I am a pretty “average” member of society for food consumption, as I am an adult male who is on the smallish side.

Therefore, I developed a keyhole design, trying to create minimal path for maximum growing space.

GLPP: What is a keyhole garden?

RJ: Well, a traditional garden bed has the paths around the bed. With a keyhole garden bed, the path is lobular, or composed of small lobes surrounded by the garden beds. According to Bill Mollison in “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” they only need <30% of the ground for paths, as opposed to 50% for traditional parallel-path garden designs.

keyhole garden

Single keyhole with dimensions

Toby Hemenway in “Gaia’s Garden” explains well the process of designing keyhole beds. It is a great example of how understanding pattern language can aid us in creating systems that utilize edge in a way that is beneficial to all the parts of the system.

For my design, I divided each keyhole bed zone (there are eleven) into 4 planting sections of a varying number of square foot spaces. Two at the neck of the keyhole have four square foot spaces, and the other two are laid out in horseshoe shapes around the knob of the keyhole and have seven and thirteen sections, respectively.

This gives a total of 28 square foot sections in a 5’ x 7 3/4’ space. But, most of these square-foot sections are larger (because they are ‘stretched’ around the horseshoe shape) than an actual square foot. So, in each keyhole square-foot bed, there is only about 5 ¼ sq. ft. of path, which is 13.5 % of the area of each bed.

GLPP: How did you come up with the theoretical yield?

RJ: First, I measured the amount of food that I eat over a week period by weight. And, because my personality and habits tend to be very consistent with certain things, I was able to see that I do easily stay alive by eating, on average, ¾ lbs. food for breakfast, a 1 lb. lunch, and a 1 lb. dinner. I can eat more or less, but if I look at the entire year, 365 x 2 ¾ = 1003 ¾ lbs. or if I had to, I could make it on 1000 lbs of food for the year.

Dill and kale planted together, a simple polyculture.

Next, I attempted to figure out how much space I would need (how many square foot key hole garden beds) that I would need to produce that much food. In my research on the internet and in books and past workshops, in addition to my experience gardening, I came up with a figure of three to eight lbs. of food per square foot of garden space in a polyculture system.

I calculated the total yield on the low side of 3 lbs. per sq. ft. (~367 sq.ft. for plants x 3 = 1101).  Industrial agriculture monocrop can yield up to 1 lb. per square foot according to my research. This seems to make sense based on my hands-on gardening experience as well as my close observation of the waste of space and opportunity in industrial agriculture systems in Northwest Indiana.

One small example, I have a bike trail that goes from my town to Crown Point that I often ride. Part of this passes through industrial agriculture corn and soy fields.  Though I haven’t weighed the yields from these fields specifically, my observational skills show me that they harvest less than 1lb. per square foot of corn, and much less of soy in a year’s worth of time.

In my garden, I have a density of plants (stocking), a variety of yields, and multiple yields throughout the year (succession). Space can be used wisely and authentically, since it is managed on a human scale as opposed to a large farm equipment machine scale.  

Mollison points out, “yield is not a fixed sum in any design system. It is the measure of the comprehension, understanding, and ability of the designers and managers of that design.” (Designer’s Manual, p.19). This idea takes so much from indigenous wisdom! In Mollison’s conception of Permaculture, indigenous wisdom IS at the forefront.

In the “Western world” we think that yield is some fixed average that can be scientifically determined by math and measurement. Using polyculture thinking, that is, understanding that all systems are interconnected, we realize the social component within the concept of yield is very important! I believe a permaculturist with some skills can yield 3 lbs per sq. ft., equaling ~1000 lbs of food. If they can preserve the winter portion effectively, they are set for the year!

Lastly, I like how this square foot keyhole guild method allows for the designer to use the template to group plants in a number of ways. It frees the gardener from the wasted-space row planting method, but also allows for plant varieties to be planted in groups to allow for ease of harvest and management.

Ground cherry, a self seeding plant edible when fruit has completely ripened

GLPP: What about calories?

RJ: Calories are a valid way of determining how much to plant as well. In my experience, however, trying to count calories is very difficult. I also think that it isn’t practical to determine how much food is required of a person to be healthy, that is, calorie counting often leads a person to neglect their intuition on how much food they personally require by a somewhat arbitrary number.

Intuition is something that we need to value more in many aspects of our lives. In my experience, the feeling of being satiated by the food you eat is directly related to the amount you eat of that specific food. If you are eating a diversity of garden-grown food – and not processed potato chips – to a point of fulfillment, you will likely be consuming a healthy amount of calories.

GLPP: What if someone eats more/ less than you?

RJ: The design can be scaled-up for personal variation. Since it is a fractal design, beds can be added or subtracted (adding about 84+ lbs. of food for each bed), and fruit and nut trees and animals can be incorporated in a number of ways and sizes. I also have created a pentagonal design which is a scaled-up version of this for communities & families to use. Of course, as already mentioned, yield is related to the skill of the designer, so the management and planting strategies can also be altered to yield the amount of food that is desired.


Calendula, a beautiful pollinator with medicinal properties may be planted around the keyholes

GLPP: What are some considerations in implementing the design?

RJ: I wanted to be able to plant guilds of plants that would benefit each other and be able to have a substantial portion of perennial plants evenly distributed throughout the garden so as to both benefit the soil throughout the year and benefit the annual plants that would be their neighbors.

Creating a polyculture system that would improve the environment over time was also a priority. Mulching, keeping all organic matter on site, possibly integrating animals into the system, the cycling of urine (nitrogen and phosphorus) and humanure in a responsible way, and incorporating fruit & nut tree guilds along the perimeter of the system would all aid in this end.

GLPP: What’s the difference between vining and bush squash?

RJ: There are vining varieties and bush varieties of squash. Black Beauty Zucchini is a bush variety that grows and stays in about a eight or nine square foot circle. Other varieties such as Zucchino Rampicante have a vining habit, and will randomly spread their tentacles over ten to twenty feet throughout the garden!

squash in the keyhole garden

Baby yellow straightneck squash. The blossoms make an excellent salad garnish.

I like to grow yellow straightneck squash as my bush variety, as it seems more resistant to mold problems where I live. The two vining squashes I grow are the fat and stout Odessa squash and the long, thin, and prolific Zucchino Rampicante.

To learn more about bringing indigenous wisdom to the forefront of permaculture is one of the solutions to climate change that Randall learned at the IPC in Cuba and that I included in my booklet “Permaculture Solutions to Climate Change” which I will be distributing at his permaculture talks in Michigan!

Diagrams by GLPP,all photos courtesy Randall Jamrok –  Creative Commons License, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Great Lakes Permaculture Portal © 2013 Frontier Theme