Sunday, 6 October 2013

Poly culture and keyholes - summers over

As I explained earlier in the year I have been experimenting with poly culture beds and a keyhole bed. My keyhole bed isn't a proper keyhole bed (no keyhole) but does include the principle of a central compost heap providing nutrients and water to the rest of the bed.

This summer started wet and then get hot and dry. My radishes and lettuces bolted for this reason. They were both in the main (normal raised bed) and I was lazy when it comes to watering. When it was really hot and sunny I think I used a lot of water and lugged several watering can fulls of water over to the main bed. Stuff bolted because I got lazy. It was no great loss about the radishes - housemate likes them but I don't, and the chickens LOVED the greens. I did get a lot of salad out of the main bed before it was all too far gone. Although I pretty much had one harvest after another (limited choice) it felt like I got a lot out of each harvest. The main bed really did suffer from a lack of water. I had added a water butt to the garden but in another spell of long, hot weather like this one I don't think it would be very long before it would run dry.

As for the keyhole bed and water it was a dream come true. When it was very wet water drained out of the bottom and when it was dry it kept plants watered as long as I kept the compost topped up regularly with stuff that had a high water content. There was a dry crust to the soil but below the crust it was moist, the soil was a mix of homemade and bought compost. Early in the summer I had a couple of tomato plants in a pot. They were dying because I couldn't get enough water to the roots. I put them both in a corner of the keyhole bed. One was too far gone by the time I moved them but the other took off happily. From that day to last weekend when I pulled the last of the tomatoes off before they rotted off, I did not water them once. Not once. Normally growing tomatoes means careful water management, but the bed did all of that for me. A lovely example of "look after your soil and your soil will look after your plants". I only got one or two off the plant ripe and ready to eat, you can see the rest below. Not bad for a plant which wasn't watered. But as you can see most of them are green rather than red, I blame the nasturtiums.

The picture below shows why I blame the nasturtiums. Actually I blame myself, I didn't realise how much they would grow and grow, but as you can see they did a good job of taking over and limiting the sunlight for the rest of the bed. The fence is on the east side, it's in the house's shadow during much of the day, and the nasturtiums limit the light getting through for the rest of the day and into the evening. I will grow tomatoes again next year, but I will give them a spot which gets more light.

Despite the challenges of light there are some lovely beetroot in there, the lettuce grew okay, and aside from the caterpillars the kale's okay too. About the only thing which didn't grow well was the green beans. I was expecting them to do well because there's a lot of carbon in the bottom layer of that bed, but apparently not. I'll try again next year and see how they do. Ah, the pak choi wasn't the happiest in there, so that's two things. This became the adopted home for a number of my plants. The tomatoes, then kale and then some chard plants being sold cheap at the garden centre. I'm really happy with the way it's gone. Plants would have benefited from more light, but as it's needed no watering and until recently (as things have thinned) no weeding I will say that I feel that this is about as simple as I could make gardening. My techniques need improving but the method is sound.

The poly culture bed. 
Currently it's been taken over by marigolds, and I think they've now self seeded themselves too. 
Unlike the keyhole bed, which was mainly filled with bought plants, this was largely sown all at the same time. Despite how tightly packed everything is, it has felt like a productive bed. Next year I will grow fewer lettuces and radishes, more carrots, no marigolds, and I haven't planned what else yet. The only "weeding" that has been required has been from the wheat which self seeded from the straw mulch and removing plants that have finished. The sprouted wheat, the radish tops, odd lettuce leaves etc have all gone immediately to the chickens so I wouldn't really say that I weeded as they were all useful. Chickens learnt to stick their heads through the chicken wire to pick stuff, and the bamboo frame kind of really fell apart a fair bit. The soil has shrunk a fair bit so I will add compost to the top at some point in the winter. Thanks to the chickens I have a fair bit to add from the compost point. 

These beds, and this style of gardening might not have yet produced me too much in the way of food, but it has required very little of the way of maintenance. In return I've had enough salad for myself and to share, the joy of freshly picked carrots and beetroot, chicken food, a constant pesto base, flowers, and the pleasure of looking out into my garden and seeing my own mini jungle. Now for next year I just need to get those chickens enclosed but happy so life isn't just confined to caged areas.  

For more information of how I originally constructed these beds please see this post:

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