Keyhole 2.0

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” ~ Dalai Lama

I wasn’t always a plant person, a gardener. My green thumb was hit or miss most times. Ultimately, Nature shed light on Her perfect ways, leaving me to question mine. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes.

If you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, you know that I was first wowed by the keyhole garden in 2012. A severe Texas drought the previous year had forced me to (albeit accidentally) learn the ways of the underground microbial world in my own backyard. With only kitchen scraps and yard debris as inputs to a compost cage, plants began bursting forth from seed in and around the compost pile: volunteers.

These seeds, I learned, were getting a jump-start by microbes, microbes that both decompose the organic material in the vicinity and deliver materials in the form of basic elements to their plant hosts. Plants and fungi have been really good at creating cozy little tit-for-tats for hundreds of millions of years before humans came along.

Squash and Tomato Volunteers

The concept is easy enough: provide a cafeteria, apartment building, and safe work environment for all the microbial ‘workers,’ in turn, they do all the work in growing plants into healthy, tasty edibles. It’s the way of organics. It’s the way of nature. Our own food sustainability is — always has been — reliant upon healthy, living soil.

This isn’t new science. This symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants — arbuscular mycorrhiza — has been well-known for decades. But what may be convenient for us is not necessarily good for all parties involved. In our petroleum-based economy, the fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and gas-powered machinery regularly used is harmful to soil creatures. They prefer to be tended nature’s way, and the more natural ecosystem that results is critical for plant survival.

The keyhole garden exploits nature’s relationship between plants and fungi — naturally. Built entirely with free organics, the layered substrate will, in time, become soil; it’s basically a giant hot compost that is built all-at-once and planted right on top of. The only regular ‘inputs’ thereafter is the occasional layering of more organics (as it loses height) and additions into a center compost basket. Even without adequate rainfall, kitchen scraps will provide enough water and nitrogen; leaves, twigs and cardboard provide all the carbon. Fungi and bacteria — along with a host of other soil animals like earthworms — provide the work to break it all down.

For more information on the keyhole garden, click on the article at the end of this post or explore other posts on the topic as a category on this blog.

Keyhole Garden 2.0
Lettuce, Mustard, Broccoli, Kale

Mycorrhizal fungi do the bonus job of delivering water and all the necessary micro nutrients directly to the roots of plants. The body of the fungi becomes an extension of the plant’s root system, getting a plant host more of the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium from the soil than it could ever do on its own. It’s easier to count the plants that don’t rely on this symbiosis; more than 80% of earth’s terrestrial plants and trees have evolved with this relationship.

Gone are my days of expensive fertilizers and fancy mixes; set are my ways of leaf-hoarding management.

Gone are my days of watering; set are my ways of composting.

Gone are my days of weeding; set are my ways of yard-eating (especially when ‘weeds’ become food!)

Gone are the days of tilling and resetting every season; set are my ways of leaving the earth. The heck. Alone.

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12 thoughts on “Keyhole 2.0

    1. It is ‘the good news’ by my standard. The more we begin to steward living soil, the more other practices (have to necessarily) fall by the wayside. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

      Christmas was great…spent it unplugged in the nearby ‘country’ with good friends. Yours?

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      1. Relatibely quiet. Had family over for dinner then went to visit an aunt. Have no plans for tomorrow night but we will go to friend’s house on Tuesday to hang out a good part of the day. I’m ready for the new year… 😉

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      2. Relatibely quiet. Had family over for dinner then went to visit an aunt. Have no plans for tomorrow night but we will go to friend’s house on Tuesday to hang out a good part of the day. I’m ready for the new year… 😉👼🥂

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  1. I still remember how fascinated I was when first introduced to all this. I had to smile at your use of the phrase “nature’s way,” since it was John Ferguson of Nature’s Way Resources who provided the introduction. There’s a good bit of the science I still don’t understand, but only because I haven’t taken the time to do some careful reading and study. But it’s on the list of to-dos for January and February: that fallow time when colder temperatures and longer nights allow for more indoor pleasures!

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    1. I share your amazement. And, yes, the science can get rather crunchy. Teaching child-friendly concepts to 1st-5th graders, I’ve learned there really are just a handful of things to lock in on soil conservation:

      1. Organic materials as others’ waste abound!! Tap into it.
      2. Don’t disturb the soil, or you’ll wind up with weed problems.
      3. Layer beds regularly with light organics (leaves, grass clippings, etc.).
      4. After harvest, fertilize with a trowel-ful of compost per sq ft of space each season.
      5. Use liberal mulch on walking areas rather than stones.
      6. M-words to know and recognize: Mushroom (fungi fruit), Mycelium (fungi body), and Mycorrhiza (fungi plant friend)
      7. Water requirements are reduced; fungi and soil carbon act as an underground sponge.
      8. Work SMARTER, not HARDER. Nature does all the real labor if you do it right!

      One of my favorite garden books to read is ‘Talking Dirt’ by Annie Spiegelman . It’s a really fun read! I’ve given away many copies.

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    1. So true, Tanja. I have had so many ‘ah-hah’ moments these last few years. Finally, I began reading college texts on soil ecology, microbiology, and entomology; turned out what I DIDN’T know filled volumes and volumes!! Now all I can think about is going back to school to dive in completely, perhaps even do some work and research on larger scale organic compounds. Intuition and experience only goes so far in educating others.

      If we are to feed ourselves sustainably into the next century, we really should look to nature’s way. The North American natives that built civilizations here (before our forebears arrived to conquest) used that knowledge for millennia. We forget it was they who taught US how to successfully grow food crops in our new homeland. It’s hard to subsist on tobacco and cotton alone!

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