Building a New Way….in Community Gardens

I was musing yesterday as I was visiting a budding community garden. Most follow the model of outlining beds using timber and then filling in with soil. Sometimes there is a compost pile and compost and mulch are applied sparingly. What if there is another model that is yet to be implemented which is water-wise and drought tolerant? Much like the beds I saw (and posted a picture of them) in the southern Dallas county garden – outlined with logs from the property, filled with mulch several inches deep and with ollas for watering. What if hugelkultur beds became the norm – like a community garden in Plano is working toward? Or keyhole gardens? or other techniques borrowed from drought-stricken areas around the world? If we are to continue to install gardens for the community – and promote and practice farming in the city – then we need to think outside the box as water restrictions become the norm rather than the unusual.

hugelkultur bed

Hugelkultur comes from Eastern Europe, and mimics the forest floor – with wood then twigs then leaves then grasses, all of which compost and then dirt on top.  As the wood deteriorates, it creates a rich environment for the micro-organisms and fungi that are necessary for drawing nutrients from the soil and making them available to plants.  Also, as the wood deteriorates it becomes spongy and holds water.  The net result is that a hugelkultur bed, once established, needs much less watering than a traditional garden bed.  A great reference from a pioneer in the refinement of this technique is “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening.”


The keyhole garden technique was developed by nonprofits working in dry-land Africa. The goal was to create a garden bed that would grow the maximum amount of food crops for families with a minimum of water. It is essentially a compost pile within a wall.  Once the bed is established, the central wire cylinder is the place that compost (kitchen scraps and other compostables) is placed, and any watering that is done is in the cylinder.  The moisture is then pulled out into the soil where the roots are as it is needed.  A structure of bent PVC pipe creates a framework to support either shade cloth, to protect plants from searing summer sun, or poly to extend the growing season from early spring to late fall and possibly through the winter here in North Texas.  Dr. Deb Tolman, from whom I learned the technique, says that you start with a dumpster load of cardboard that goes into the garden, along with piles and piles of leaves, newspaper, food scraps, manure, old cotton t-shirts, straw, grass clippings, and anything else that is compost-pile fodder.  These are carefully moistened as they are stomped down and compressed before additional layers are added.  Then the whole thing is topped by compost and top-soil.  And planted.  Building a keyhole can be a group party – with a large group, once the wall is built, it only takes about 2 hours from start to planting!

One important advantage of a keyhole garden is that it is perfect for someone who cannot bend over to weed or plant, yet wants to continue to garden.  It’s a raised bed extraordinaire!

Contact me if you want a hugelkultur bed or a keyhole garden to be part of your gardening experience this year!

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