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Dialogues - Issue #1

Through the Keyhole

Words and photography by Rachel Booth

How to make a keyhole permaculture vegetable bed using only kitchen by-products and basic garden tools.

This spring, OmVed Gardens, in London, England, hosted the second in a series of five weekend workshops with acupuncturist Lori Hillman.

Lori is an expert in Oriental medicine and food energetics, and she teaches the importance of planetary health and the interdependent connection between humankind and nature. Her workshop explored the quintessence of soil, the important link between soil health and nutrition, and the fascinating relationship between humans and the mycorrhizal network (networks created by mycorrhizal fungi that connect individual plants together and transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals). We also delved deep into the principles of permaculture and whole systems thinking.

Permaculture is a word that has been used since the late 1970s, (originally referring to “permanent agriculture” and more recently to “permanent culture” to acknowledge the important social and cultural elements) and is based on a set of principles that stem from three core ethics of earth care, people care and fair share.

The weekend course was a complementary balance between theory and practical learning, interspersed with meditations throughout the days. The second day was reserved for the practical application of our learnings and we set about creating a keyhole permaculture vegetable bed.

The design, as the name suggests, is centred around a keyhole-shaped space, through which the gardener can access the herbs and vegetables without disturbing the soil. This care and respect for the whole ecosystem and principle of working with, rather than against, nature is an important point in permaculture when compared with more conventional methods of agriculture.

The first step was to map out the simple keyhole design using bamboo markers. Wet cardboard was then laid over the blueprint of our vegetable bed, which covered 10 sq metres. On top of the cardboard went kitchen scraps in their pre-compost phase: peels, cores, and eggshells. Next, the actual compost, which we topped off with mulch. In all, the bed stood about 30cm higher than the ground.

The outer circle of the bed, slightly raised, would be home to sage, an effective slug repellent, removing the need for any chemical pesticides. We planted leeks and onions around the middle, and basil and tomatoes in the centre. The plants were arranged in alternating heights to create what was essentially a self-watering system: taller plants would gather dew that would fall back down to the lower plants.

On revisiting the garden several weeks later, I was impressed by the efficiency of the bed. The cardboard had served its purpose,preventing the weeds from breaking through, and the soil was rich, moist and bursting with life. A whole team of worms were farming beneath the surface.

A small team of lay people had created a high yielding and resilient ecosystem using only the by-products of a kitchen and some basic garden tools. Creating a keyhole permaculture vegetable bed is a remarkably simple process, which provides an ecologically harmonious and efficient production system. It was a heartwarming revelation that even in my own modest urban garden, with no need for machinery, chemicals or complicated maintenance, I could provide a considerable amount of food for my family by working in harmony with nature.

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