Friday, June 1, 2018


Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey


Desperate times called for desperate measures!

I’ve been making both keyhole and H├╝gelkultur gardens now for many years.  Due to poor soil and the tremendous amount of tree roots and boulders, I quickly found it much easier to make raised beds than try to work the soil like the “normal” garden methods I had done all my life.  The soil is ground to dust, which not only helps suffocate the seeds in their own way, but it could not maintain moisture either.  When it rained, the water literally ran off the surface.  My seeds failed to germinate and whatever I transplanted shriveled up and died.  As a result, I started putting my brain to use and started problem-solving.  One year of a failed garden was enough.

Being an observer and lover of nature, I started to think, “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection”.  The following year, I planted most of my garden in pots, pails, jugs, hollow logs, etc.  That way, I had a few nibbles here and there, but that wasn’t a garden-garden.  I went to work and collected natural debris from the landscape around us.  I dragged logs, sticks, and branches through the woods for hours a day. I lugged 5-gallon pails and filled them full of rotten tree debris.  I stripped ferns of their fronts, leaves from downed trees, and pulled grass from the sides of the road the whole 8-mile trip to town.

When home-home, I mow grass, wait a day or two and then rake the field out back.  After a day or so, I collected the grass in large trashcans and bags.  What would not fit on the back of the truck, I saved for another two-hour trip another day.    Not only that, I composted everything imaginable from food scraps to magazines, cardboard, and junk mail, too.  I was so desperate that I even raked dead leaves within the woods itself, the camp yard, driveway, and hell, I even raked leaves from the camp road each spring and fall.  We have a composting toilet system, so after letting our poops age for two years, I even used that.  Urine, too, is filled with lots of nutrients and those nutrients help decompose natures debris at a much faster rate, so yes, I started to keep a pee pail near my compost piles.  I still do!  Desperate times called for desperate measures!

My first garden beds were pitiful, to say the least.  If the sun was out, the plants would wilt almost instantly.  When it rained, as mentioned above, the water ran away from my plants and did nothing to help them.  Finally, I decided to plant a few seeds around a few compost piles and that worked!  However, the piles needed to be “turned” frequently, which posed a wicked danger for my plants, but that gave me an idea.  How about if I corralled my compost and made an entryway to access the piles without disturbing my plants?  Little did I know there was a name for that method! In a round-about way, kindah-sortah, it’s called a keyhole garden!

Again, resorting to my knowledge about soil, nature, and how it has its own lifecycle, those dragged logs I mentioned earlier?  Well, I knew how to make them work for me …the decayed wilderness, too!  Dead logs, unless in the sun all day every day are always moist.  So moist, that worms dwell in them, as well as some newts/salamanders.  What they all have in common is that they absorb moisture through their skin to survive.  What do worms do a lot, because they eat a lot?  They poop.  Their poop is some of the best fertilizer in the world …and without chemicals!  So, I brought as many worms back to my gardens as I could, too.

My first thought was to keep the logs rotting near my gardens and as they broke down, I’d add them to my compost piles.  Then, I thought, why not just help them along a bit and lay them out where I want a garden bed, cover them with compost material, a bit of soil here and there, and help speed the decomposition?  Any compost and/or soil brought from home-home, I’d add to a corner and plant a few seeds.  Little did I know that method had a name for it, too.  It is called the Hugelkultur Method!  Upon posting pictures of my idea, a friend commented on my Hugelkultur style.  I had to go look it up.  Tah-Dah!  That was exactly what I had created!  I must admit that my pride bubble had a little hole in it just then, but still, …someone was smarter than me, before me, even!

Below, I’ll explain both the Keyhole Garden Method and the Hugelkultur Method.  Then, I’ll explain why I combine the two systems for successful gardening methods here in the North Maine Woods.

When you read the word “keyhole”, your brain probably visualized a keyhole in a door, and it would not be misleading to do so.  If you can picture an old skeleton key and the slot that it fits into, you’ve pretty much pictured what a keyhole garden looks like.  The basic idea of a keyhole garden is to maintain fertile soil in a small area, usually no larger than six to nine feet in diameter, that also maintains moisture control.

The keyhole garden is basically a raised bed with a three-foot-wide compost pile in the middle of it that extends to the bottom of the “hole”.  The keyhole itself extends upward above the soil level. The entire garden gently slopes away from the keyhole.  Usually, there is a pathway that interrupts your design so you can access the composting keyhole without walking on the garden bed itself.  I have some that do, some that don’t.   I consider it a waste of garden space to have a walkway, but for some, easier walking, and then, dumping is important.

If you can picture a shallow domed cover to one of your pots, then you are visualizing a keyhole garden quite well.  Now, let’s say your cover has a knob instead of a handle to slide your fingers through to lift the pot.  That “knob” is the keyhole compost part of the garden bed -in the center and raised with a gentle downward and away slope that reaches the edges of the bed.

The bottom of the keyhole sits the entire depth of the bed and extends as a hollow “knob” if you will, where your food scraps, brown and green nature debris are placed for decomposition.  Ideally, as you design your keyhole garden, you should start with the center keyhole and work outward.

Once you established the general design, on paper or in the head, lay down a rock layer for your keyhole. The rocks provide drainage.  You need drainage in the bottom and sides of your keyhole, so whatever you choose for the keyhole composting material holder, make sure it can “breathe” and “leech” when it rains.  It can be anything from up righted sticks, to a screen material, uprighted grass clumps, pail with holes, or like I use, a woven basket made of tree roots.

The purpose of the keyhole is to house the compost material in a way so that as it decomposes, the rain will help wash nutrients outward into the soil around and beneath your garden plants.  Thus, it will encourage your plant roots to grow downward in search of moisture and more nutrients for healthier plants. Healthy plants yield more fruits/veggies.

The gentle slope outward encourages moisture to “run” downhill to help spread the nutrients further away from the keyhole.   Too much of a slope and you risk erosion or water runoff instead of seeping into the soil.

A keyhole garden should not be more than nine feet in diameter, but that depends upon the size of your keyhole, too.  The nine feet is a general guideline for me when I design a keyhole garden.  If I make a larger bed, I either make the keyhole itself larger or, I strategically place smaller keyholes to ensure the decomposed nutrients feed all my plants as time passes.

I tend to lay cardboard and paper at the bottom of the bed itself as I go.  The cardboard and paper will break down quickly once covered with soil.  Paper goods help aid in moisture retention, homes for worms, etc.  Because this type of garden maintains moisture very well, it is no wonder it is a preferred method of gardening in the arid regions around the world.  Where NOTHING would grow, can now grow incredible gardens simply by using this keyhole gardening method.  It is quite impressive and works wonderfully, even here in the north Maine wilderness.


The word, “Hugelkultur” took me a long time to remember.  Until I learned that it was the “official” name for the garden style I already used for a few years, I called it a log garden, because, that is just what it was.

As mentioned earlier, I have an eager habit and hobby of collecting natural debris.  It is probably the same habit that my father had as he walked through tall grass that was ready to seed.  He’d always strip the seeds off the grass tips and let them fly away in the wind.  Or, if it was a calm day, he’d slowly let the seeds trickle from his fingers as he walked.  It took me years to figure out just what he was doing.  Instinctively, I guess, I do much of the same thing, except with tree debris …kindah-sortah. Only, I lug, drag, or flip end-over-end logs to an intended garden spot in hopes that one day, I’ll be able to plant vegetable seeds.


Hugelkultur gardens can be made in different ways.  For those who follow my postings on our camp page, you know that as I walk through the woods on our property, I often fill depressions with dead trees, limbs, and twigs.  Eventually, all that will break down and become soil, thus fewer ankle-turners as I walk.  I do the same with pine needles as I rake the camp yard -all those go into leveling out the landscape for Paul.

Some people fill low areas with such debris as mentioned above.  When they reached a flat plain, they top with a bit of soil, stuff any gaps with more soil, and then plant their crop.

Some Hugelkultur gardeners mound such debris and make raised beds of them.  The mounds can be as high or shallow as needed or wanted.  Often, though, it depends upon the need of the person creating that style of garden.

Like with Keyhole gardens, the Hugelkultur garden can have any desired outside shape that suits them.  If you are one to keep in mind of a long-term project and landscape ideas, think along those lines as you design this style of garden.

The concept of a Hugelkultur garden is quite simple.  Depending upon your location, “debris”, and the amount of material will probably do more dictating than creative designing.  This is where “thinking outside the box” helps greatly!

This type of garden style is what this camp landscape needs.  It needs a way to maintain moisture and nutrients alike …at the same time, even.  A pile of leaves is just that …a pile of leaves.  A pile of logs is just that, too …a pile of logs.  Without moisture of some sort, the breakdown of those materials will take seemingly forever!  Add a little moisture, such as rain, occasionally and if that moisture is prevented from evaporating, you’d see decomposition at a much faster rate.

Remember, leaves, especially the shiny/waxy kind, oaks, beech, and maple are a few that take longer to decompose. When such leaves are compressed, such as under the weight of snow, they prevent moisture from working its way to the soil.  You need air gaps.  Unless you are considering the anaerobic method of composting, you want air circulation.  Those air gaps allow oxygen that the microbes need for survival.  If oxygen can travel, it brings in moisture with it, thus you have the aerobic mode of composting, which I find is a much faster process.

As woodland debris breaks down, it maintains the moisture levels to perfectness for gardening.  The Hugelkultur method depends on that breakdown, moisture, microbes, and air to enhance the soil-in-the-making.

Due to the numerous rocks and tree root systems here, I make raised garden beds.  I start out with larger logs (dead trees) for the frame.  Often, the size solely depends upon my log length.  I can only drag, carry and flip logs so long and so wide and so heavy.  My goal is a garden bed with logs at least 10 inches diameter.  Any narrower and I stack two high as my garden border.  Within the frame, as I clean up the fallen branches, I cut them to fit inside my frame and stack largest at the bottom and each layer added, I add smaller and smaller diameter pieces until the last layer is twigs.  Where I can, I fill gaps with smaller twigs, a handful of grass and a handful of compost here and there just to add to hasten the decomposition.  Finally, when I have the height a good foot taller than I want the bed in a couple of years, I’ll top with compost and allow the rains to wash it through the stack.  When a gap is revealed, I add some grass or more soil there.  Plant whenever you feel the bed will hold soil around your plant roots, even if the roots grow into the decaying wood underneath or in a cool, moist gap between the logs.

If you want to test the soil for moisture below the surface, find a gap between a couple logs and wiggle your fingers through it to feel the moisture levels.  If you can, grab some decaying wood and give it a squeeze.  Don’t be surprised if you feel water dripping between your fingers.  That’s the moisture retention you want!  The plants will love that stuff!

Some people use large logs and just toss soil on top of them every once in a while, or covers them with a tarp for a few days after each good rain.


Combining the Keyhole and Hugelkultur Methods of gardening have greatly enhanced my garden production.  Not only do I have higher yields, I can fit more plants closer together because I have both nutrients and a constant moisture source.  

Ima-Compost-Lovah!  Making compost from nature's debris may seem tedious, but it is a lifelong hobby for me.  To take "debris" and turn it into "black gold" is such a great reward.  All natural, too.  How can it get any better than that?

No matter the type of garden, your plants need nutrients.  Those who do not make compost often resort to purchasing fertilizers to help replenish their soil.  Sure, that's the easiest and fastest method, but like so many people like to point out, I tend to do thing the "hard" way.  I have patience and I don't mind the work involved.  If a compost is made correctly, there is no smell.  I know what goes into the soil because I make it all by hand by gathering and aging nature's debris ...the lifecycle of the plant world, manipulated by collection and hastened with "turning".  

Many towns have a compost pile for free access.  It is a place where grass clippings and fall leaves are brought, piled and turned by a machine every once in a while.  Though free, I've known of people who have to wear gloves and sift through the compost in such places because glass, nails, pieces of metal, etc. are scattered about the piles.  One woman lost her entire garden of over $100 worth of plants because someone donated some grass or leaves that was tainted with something that killed everything she planted in the free compost.  She was not happy.  I don't blame her.  When such clippings/leaves come from a lawn and set beside the road for pickup, you don't know what else is mixed in.  Maybe they used grass/leaves to sop up oil or some spilled chemical.  Unless you make your own, you never know what could be mixed in ...both good and bad.  That's not a risk I'm willing to take.  But, that could be because I enjoy making my own, too.

Just like when you compost, you only need FOUR ingredients to make soil:

NITROGEN – “Green” (kitchen scraps, green leaves, grass, urine etc.)
CARBON - “Brown” (papers, cardboard, dried leaves, wood)
MOISTURE - (rain, dew, buckets of water, snow)
OXYGEN – (air)

Some will argue that you do not need oxygen, and they are right.  However, I assure you, oxygen speeds up the process greatly.  Some will insist that you use the lasagna layering method of composting, but no, not if you want compost within a year.  The greens must mix with the browns.  It is the combination of the two touching each other, that help them break down faster.  Layering them keeps them separated and only the parts where the greens touch the browns will decompose first, then work their way around from there.  Turning ("mixing") the ingredients mixes the browns and greens, keeps oxygen in the mix and helps spread the heat more evenly.  Think of it this way, you can plop all cake ingredients into a bowl, but if you don't mix ...well, I guess you'll still have a cake in the end, but you get my meaning, I think.

Heat helps speed the process, but do not exceed 160-degrees.  Any warmer inside that compost pile and you’ll kill the microorganisms that are doing the work in there.  When you see worms as you turn your pile, your compost is ready to use.  At that point, I sift to sort from the ready-ready stuff and anything that doesn’t sift through a 1/3” mesh, I toss into another compost pile.  I keep rocks smaller than a golf ball.  You NEED those rocks to help keep air flowing, as rocks are always shifting and when they shift, that means more oxygen.  Like you, the roots need them, too!  That wiggle-room allows them to travel in search of more nutrients.