How to Combine the Popular Keyhole Garden with Your Existing Raised Beds

A while back, I saw an article about keyhole gardens and thought, “Wow! That might actually work!” But it was going to take a wee bit of planning. See, my husband already had plans for the garden. And they included raised beds, not a keyhole garden.

keyhole garden and raised bed combined

If you haven’t heard of a keyhole garden, they are built on a sort of wagon wheel design, with a large compost pile in the center and your plantings radiating outward from there.

keyhole garden diagram

I can see a keyhole if I think about it, but mostly, I see a wagon wheel. You leave a section open to allow easy access to the compost pile so you can keep adding to it throughout the season. Then every time it rains (or you water your compost pile), all those delicious nutrients flow out to feed your plants.

Fortunately, it is not completely incompatible with a raised bed. Five gallon buckets placed in the center of the garden serve as the compost pile and everything else remains the same. There are some distinct advantages to this combination.

Advantages of this gardening system:

  • The buckets in the center of the garden allow you to water your garden from underneath. This encourages plant roots to go deeper into the soil and you lose less water through evaporation.
  • Every time you water your plants, you fertilize them as well.
  • Raised beds are nice, particularly when you have poor soil. Instead of spreading compost to an entire garden and then tilling it in, you can apply it to a smaller area, right where the plants are.
  • Since the area is smaller and more well-defined, it is easier to work the soil without stepping on it. The soil doesn’t compact as much, keeping it loose and workable.

Building the raised beds.

When we started, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted these to be. Since we were going to be incorporating compost in the center, I went ahead and made them bigger to begin with.

Well, had our church’s youth group make them bigger, anyway. They came out and built raised beds for a day and we donated money toward their summer camp. They each measure 5′ by 5′ and are 8” high. They have two supports on each side that go down 6” below the bed to anchor it in the soil and help keep the pressure from bowing the wood.

My husband took care of setting them in the garden and leveling them. Because he’s awesome like that.

We also added fencing to the west side to support plants like tomatoes, peas and beans. We still need to add the supports, but they are working really well in my head.

Preparing the buckets.

So far, I mostly directed other people. That’s the fun of having other people build your beds for you. But this part I could handle. I purchased a food grade bucket for each of the six raised beds. These serve as the compost pile at the center of each raised bed. I then drilled four rows of holes around the entire bucket, plus one in the bottom. I also drilled a hole in the lid big enough to put the hose in so we don’t have to take the lid off to water it.

The idea is, we will fill these buckets with compostable materials. Since we have pigs, we really don’t have kitchen scraps, but we have plenty of manure and spent hay.

When it is time to water, I just fill up the bucket. Nutrient rich water trickles out of the holes, both feeding and hydrating the plants. Since the compost is diluted before being added to the soil, I don’t really have to worry about it getting too “hot,” and thus can continue adding to the compost buckets throughout the season.

Preparing to plant.

We keep animals, therefore we have a steady supply of manure for gardening projects. Last spring, we scraped the barn floor and left all of that manure, straw and dirt in a large pile next to the barn. It spent a whole year turning into a rich, black compost. We then used the tractor to haul it all to the beds. Since we are essentially planting in compost, I wasn’t too worried about how deep we made the beds. They are just sitting on dirt, not weed cloth, so the roots will go down into the soil below.

Filling a keyhole garden

We placed a hole-y bucket in the center of each raised bed and piled the compost all around. We filled them, but they have since settled to an average of 4 – 6 inches of compost per bed. The depth actually kind of depends on how good the children were at not standing on them while they were planting.

Filling the buckets.

Since our garden is starting off with so much compost, I didn’t actually want to put a whole bunch of manure in the buckets or the soil would end up with too many nutrients. For this year, we put a bit of spent guinea pig bedding in each one to provide a base to start attracting worms and filled the rest with straw we pulled out of the sheep pen. It has a lot of urine and manure mixed in with it, but since it is mostly straw, It won’t decompose very fast.

At the end of the season, we will empty the buckets and refill them. Next year, I anticipate filling them with compost. I’ve read that when doing it this way, you can even put uncomposted poultry manure in the buckets. I don’t quite trust it, however, so may test that theory in one garden before adding it to all my buckets!

Selecting the plants.

You can put just about anything in a raised bed garden that you can put in a regular garden, you just need to be mindful of the space requirements.  My children each got to select the plants for one box, so we have an assortment of tomatoes and peppers as well as onions and marigolds.

Planting a Keyhole Garden

They sprinkled lettuce, carrot and radish seed over the whole garden in hopes that they will get to harvest those before the peppers and tomatoes are big enough to compete with them.


Anyone who has followed my blog or facebook page for long knows I have a long standing animosity toward mulch. It just doesn’t seem to work for me here, in the 6th windiest state in America. I know it is good for the soil. I know that it helps retain water.

Mulching a Keyhole Garden

And I know that almost all the mulch I lay down will be gone within a week.

Seriously, my kids’ kiddie pool took flight and I never saw it again. How on earth will straw stay put in a garden?

So far this season, however, the mulch seems to have stayed put. I am using mostly straw out of the sheep pen along with some pine bedding that was intended for the guinea pigs but was left outside and got soaked. The real trick, however, is that it was laid down on the soil in a raised bed. None of it reaches above the wood and therefore receives a little protection from the wind.

I am kind of excited.

Watering the garden.

The garden vegetables we plant need approximately 1 inch of water per week. But what does that mean? How do I measure an inch of water as it comes out of the garden hose? According to the University of California Master Gardener Program, you need 0.623 gallons of water per square foot of garden space. For my 5′ X 5′ garden, that comes out to 15.575 gallons per week.

How convenient that I have a five gallon bucket right in the center of the garden!

Now, filling that three times a week won’t quite cover the needs of my garden. My buckets are, after all, full of other stuff. Still, I am doing two things to conserve water: mulching and watering from the under the soil. During the heat of the summer, I may have to fill the buckets almost every day, but they are sized about perfect for this size raised bed.

Or I could use a sprinkler and lose 25% of the water to evaporation. I think the buckets sound way better!

Interested in Keeping Up With Our Keyhole Garden?

This blog is about our life here in the country and educating our children through it. If you would like to see how this garden progresses, why not sign up for my newsletter? There is an option to only receive farm and garden updates if homeschooling isn’t really your thing.

Gardening with children.

As you probably noticed, we do our gardening with our children. It is a wonderful learning experience for them and gives them such a sense of accomplishment. Plus, they just love it. We homeschool so gardening is very much a part of our health and science curriculum, but anyone can teach their children through gardening. I even have a free mini-unit study that helps you teach your children about the parable of the sower while starting a garden together.

Happy gardening! And please drop me a note about your gardening projects. I love reading about what other people are doing in their gardens.

How to Make Mother’s Day More Meaningful

I don’t know about you, but bringing up Mother’s Day as a homeschool mom seems sort of . . .  I don’t know . . . anti-climactic? Where’s the surprise? And a child’s simple joy at surprising mom? I mean, you could gather all the supplies and leave the room. But we all know how that would turn out.

How to make Mother's Day More Meaningful

And it isn’t so much that you wouldn’t want the final result. After all, we all know that whatever mess your little ones make, when they present it with the pride only the youngest of artists can muster and announce, “I makeded this for you!” it will melt your heart. And you will love it. At least until bedtime when you are reasonably sure they won’t remember it in the morning, anyway. It isn’t that so much as the hours of cleaning afterward.

Of course, you could take charge of the situation.

“Hey, kids. This Sunday is Mother’s Day. We are going to have great fun making me something I actually want. Something I found on pinterest that doesn’t actually look impossible.”

I thought these butterfly footprints from Mommypotamus were adorable.

butterfly footprints

Then again, that seems a little self-serving. Sure, the kids will love it if it is messy enough. And you will love it because you picked it out yourself. But where is the fun in that?

OK, so you could wait and hope that dad remembers the holiday and thinks of something grand, whether it is burnt toast in bed with half a cup of coffee (try not to think where the rest might be) or dinner out. I’m not trying to say that dad can’t handle it. You just may be blessed with a husband more like mine. Who believes that mom should be honored and loved every day.

Which sounds great and all until you realize that it just means that he has no intention of doing something special on this or any other day.

So, no messy glue creations for me unless my children happen to take the initiative or I give some direction.

But really, what is it that I want to teach my children through this? Sure, appreciating what I do for them is great. But I get that already in their sweet little smiles, the artwork on the fridge and the dandelion bouquets presented as if they were the finest roses.

Really, I want them to learn to value others, to put the needs of others before their own and to recognize the importance of the contributions that they can make, regardless of how small. Basically, I want them to learn to serve.

That’s why I thought this year I would forgo the subtle (and not so-subtle) hints, the mess of art supplies and any thought that something I found on pinterest would end up anywhere but the trash once I tried to do something with it. Instead, I’m going to take them shopping for another mom.

A mom we don’t even know. And we’re going to drop it off at the Crisis Pregnancy Center to be given to a mom who may not be feeling very celebrated right now. Hopefully, many heart warming, messy crafts are in her future, but for now, we can help out with diapers, formula, some cute little outifts and maybe a toy.

Because serving others is the greatest gift.

Plus, it means I don’t have to stand in the two hour line at the restaurant!


How to Overcome Challenges in Your Homeschool

We all face challenges in our homeschools. Whether it is special needs, unmet expectations, attitude, behavior or our own lack of motivation, we all have those days when we wonder whether it is all worth the effort. How do we overcome challenges?

How to Overcome Challenges in Your Homeschool

Unfortunately, for most of the challenges in life, there is no magic formula. Otherwise I could title this post Five Steps to a Problem Free Homeschool! Except the only thing I can think that would accomplish that is actually a two step process:

  1. Remove the children.
  2. Remove the parents.

So this is really more about focusing, prioritizing, giving yourself (and your children) grace and praying while you are working through solutions. And to do that, you have to start out by defining the problem.

What are your challenges in your homeschool?

Go ahead and write them down. All of them. I’ll be waiting right here.

After Mattias died, getting out of bed was a challenge. You can imagine what just about everything else looked like. Each day was this monumental task before me with only one real goal: Get through it. I noticed my children were falling behind. I noticed that they were starting to get out of work they didn’t like because I didn’t have the energy to fight them about it (much less train them). All of the life was draining out of our homeschooling because it had pretty much drained out of me.

And I was starting to fear that they would be better off in public school.

Thankfully, that’s not where I’m at now. Hopefully it’s not where you are at. (And if you are struggling with the loss of a loved one while trying to homeschool, please feel free to contact me. It can be a dark and lonely journey and so few people truly understand what you are going through.) I’m sharing this to say that this was my darkest place and yet here I am on the other side. All of my children are still homeschooling. My 18 year old will graduate on time and may be launching her career in less than a month. My children are still catching up on math, but they’re catching up. Things are pretty good. And I’m glad I was able to hang on.

It took years, but we’re in a good place now and I have a different perspective on the journey now than I did walking through it.

Why are you homeschooling . . . right now?

I don’t mean all those grand and lofty goals you may have had when you started or the 101 reasons you shared on facebook. I don’t even mean the ones you tell yourself to talk yourself down from the ledge. I mean really. Right now. You’ve likely thought about sending your kids to school at least once. If you’ve read this far, you may even be fantasizing about it. What has stopped you up to now?

Be honest with yourself, even if you burn your notebook after writing it down and keep your thoughts between you and God forever.

For me, it was a mixture of reasons.

I had been a relatively successful homeschool blogger. My blog was never a “big blog,” but I enjoyed the conversation and the extra money that wasn’t included in our budget was nice. There was a feeling of expectation and failing to live up to everything I had ever written about if I quit. And I did feel like I would be quitting.

Most of my friends homeschool. I am sure most of them would have understood if I threw in the towel, but what would we have in common if I stopped homeschooling? I didn’t care to listen to any lectures on how I was turning my children over to Pharoah’s schools. It was hard enough being told that I should question my faith if I did anything but rejoice at my son’s death.

And you know what’s really kind of funny now? I was just as scared of people telling me, “It’s about time!” As if it took this to recognize the error of my ways rather than realizing it was a sign that I was really struggling just to cope.

I also was afraid of having them out of my sight. I am not kidding when I say I wanted to tie them all to the couch and not let them do anything at all because they were safe there. In the first two months after Mattias’ death, I had heard at least 200 ways for a child to die. Straight from that child’s mother. I was neurotic. I obviously never acted on those impulses, but that didn’t mean I was ready to put them all on a bus and not see them for most of the day.

Take a close look at your reasons.

Are they any good? What do they tell you about your thinking? My thinking was clouded, but do you know what I noticed? A sense of failure . . . social expectations . . . fear. None of them were very good and all of them were about me. None of them were about what was best for my children.

So you would think that would mean that I would have marched them straight down to the school and enrolled them.

But I didn’t. Why? Because I hadn’t thought about what would be best for them, yet.

Why should you send your child to school?

Public or private, whatever your next step would be. Private school was never in our budget so it wasn’t an option. But be honest about what your child would gain being sent to school.

For me, it was academics. They would get the daily repetition they needed to improve their math skills. They’d have more structure than I was able to do on a consistent basis. Maybe my eldest would finally learn to spell well. I could take the time I needed to grieve and figure out this “new normal” everyone talked about and they wouldn’t fall any further behind.

That was the only reason I could come up with. For some people, that may have been enough. But fortunately, I had written out my educational philosophy long before any challenges had cropped up.

Why do you homeschool?

This is the true power of having a formalized educational philosphy or a mission statement, written out and stored in a notebook or even hung on the wall. Consider it your core values of homeschooling.

If you don’t have one now, in the midst of trials, it will be harder to walk through the process. Stress clouds judgment. Try to think through the basics of what you think “education” is. What is its purpose? What is the role of your children? What is the role of the teacher?

Take those answers and ask yourself if those goals are better met through homeschooling or some other form of education.

If you clicked over to peek at mine, you will notice that academics aren’t really at the forefront. They are important, but not for the same reason they are important in a public school. I have different goals in educating my child than the state. And while there certainly may be a point when an alternative to homeschooling is viable, for me, struggling in math was not compelling enough to give up everything else I believed about education.

And then there was the fact that I wasn’t the only one grieving. My children were grieving, too. Perhaps, they needed that time to heal just as much as I did? Perhaps we are where we are now because we took our time, even if it plagued me with feelings of guilt and failure.

So the key to overcoming challenges is?

Different for everyone. But you can’t get there without knowing precisely what your challenges are. Face them, define them, remember what you are striving toward. Never forget that the journey is part of the goal. It strengthens all of us. Confront your challenges head on and hold fast to the vision of the end goal. That is what gives you strength to keep going even when it seems too hard. You have to believe the struggle is worthwhile to keep struggling.

And pray. Asking yourself these questions will give you a clearer picture of what you are praying for, but He understands the groanings of our spirit, even when we do not.

This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Check out what I’ve written so far!

Yes, I actually let my kids watch Beauty and the Beast

OK, so not that Beauty and the Beast. Without having seen it, I’m not sure what to make of it or the controversy. It seems odd that Disney’s big coming out would involve the comic relief and the villain, but whatever. I kind of hope it is as bad as all that because I’m kind of tired of Christian groups sounding the alarm over nothing. Sometimes, it seems like they’re part of the marketing. Float a little controversy in front of the right people and you have instant buzz and instant curiousity. Because seriously, it’s like the second highest grossing film EVER. Right behind Harry Potter. The controversy isn’t driving too many people away.

Beauty and the Beast

The 1991 Disney version is bad enough. I mean really, it’s a bizarre mix of bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome held together by a cast of talking tableware.

Or is it?

What is the main message of Beauty and the Beast?

If you are to believe Disney’s marketing, it’s only the greatest love story ever told. It has everything. A father held captive by a beast. A girl who offers herself in his stead. A curse that can only be broken by love . . . a love that has to somehow be able to see past a beastly exterior. And a beastly temperament. And, you know, that whole being held captive thing.

Most people will tell you it’s a fairy tale with an important moral: Beauty is only skin deep.

But Disney is Disney. They’ve built an empire on harvesting fairy tales and cleaning them up for the mass market.

What was the original Beauty and the Beast about?

My 10 year old actually read the original (or one of its many versions) and was quite disappointed in the movie. It strayed too far in too many key points. Rather than Gaston as a counterpoint to the Beast, you have narcissistic, worldly sisters as counterpoints to Beauty’s perfect femininity. And the spell breaking love is demonstrated through a tear rather than a kiss.

But this, too, was a story with a message. It is also controversial, though not quite so much for the plain features of the text. The controversy comes more from not being able to agree on the inspiration for the story to begin with.

So what was the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast?

Camp 1 says this a prepatory tale for young ladies awaiting arranged marriages. Don’t fret about his looks or manners. Learn to be happy in your new prison. The man may be a dolt, or even a genuine beast, but your femininity and social graces will captivate him, change him and turn him into your prince. I think the most compelling case for this is the social milieu of the major characters. They are neither peasants nor royalty. They seem to belong to the closest thing to a middle class that feudal Europe had to offer. I don’t know how many of the original fairy tales you have read, but this isn’t really typical.

Camp 2 says it’s a fairy tale inspired by real life. Petrus Gonsalvus was a very real man with hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome” for the excessive hair growth that occurs all over the body. He first came to the court of Henry II in 1547. He became quite famous due to his condition, moved from court to court and was studied across Europe. While in the Netherlands, he married the very beautiful Catherine. Although he lived as a nobleman, he was never quite accepted as fully human. I think the most compelling case for this view is, well, the “beauty” and the “beast” aspect of the history.

Or maybe it’s a bit of both. I could totally see some well-meaning 16th century parents telling their daughters, “Look, at least you’re not marrying that guy!”

And what does that have to do with the movie?

Disney chose to play up the being-held-captive side to the movie. Themes involving arranged marriages don’t go down so well these days, but Belle is not the only prisoner. The Beast is cursed. His temper is an expression of his own captivity. He continually convinces himself that there is “no point” to pursuing Belle or doing anything to encourage her to like him. And then he lashes out.

He was cursed for not sheltering an old woman. Now he is forced to live his life as the witch saw him. He’s hideous, forced from human contact and held captive in his own castle. With Belle’s arrival, he protects what dignity he has left by pushing away the one thing he needs to make it all go away. He is the one who chooses to open his heart and allow himself to love. He makes the first step and ultimately releases her from her bond to him. The great act of love is him releasing the one thing that could release him.

So what’s the real moral of Beauty and the Beast?

I think it is clearer when you compare the Beast to the beastly Gaston.

On the one hand, you have a cursed man.  His very humanity was taken from him, he’s been driven into a solitary castle with no human contact and his only hope is to somehow find love. On the other, you have the very model of manliness. Strong, good looking and the desire of almost every woman in town. One is a beast because of the prison he was forced into. One is just a beast.

So the Beast takes Belle captive in exchange for her father’s freedom. Maybe more in hopes that the curse can finally be broken. But the climax of the movie is not when Belle returns. It is when he, out of love, releases her from her bondage. He is the one driving the story forward. He is the one with a major conflict. He is the one who changes.

Belle is the same young woman at the end as she was at the beginning. He was the one with a love powerful enough to change, and powerful enough to allow her to see his humanity.

I don’t see “Beauty is only skin deep” so much as “True love changes you for the better.” It’s like that greatest of all love lines in As Good As it Gets, “You make me want to be a better man.”

And that is totally a message I want my children to ponder.

How to Help Your Child Navigate Life

Children grow up. They move out. And they bring with them the not-so-quiet confidence of youth not yet tempered by experience. How they navigate life through the transition depends a lot on the relationship you have built with them up to this point.

helping children navigate life

We are standing at the cusp of this transition with our eldest. The subtle shifting from directing to offering advice has been easier than I expected. Then again, she’s a pretty responsible and driven young lady. I imagine there would be much more trepidation coming into this phase of parenting if I didn’t agree with the decisions she is making!

Help them lay a solid foundation.

We all want to see our children weather the storms well and not have their values swept away in the first strong crosswind. In our home, we look to Christ and what He taught and how He lived.

And we fail. Especially the last several years, I feel like our lives have been marked more by just getting through it than actual involved, proactive parenting. Sometimes, I feel like my daughter has become this courageous, dedicated, loyal, determined, faithful young woman in spite of me and the years the locusts have eaten.

But then I think maybe there are some things we did right. Before Mattias’ death and after. Chief among those, I believe, was the determination to help them lay their own foundations, not grow up sheltered by ours. Besides, the Holy Spirit and a desire to live for Christ will take them so much further than fear of what we might say if we ever found out.

Give them a good compass.

After all, you can’t navigate without knowing what direction you are heading. I have worked hard to replace my somewhat reflexive, “What were you thinking?!” (which really just implies that they weren’t thinking) with a calmer, “What were you thinking?” (which invites them to reason through their own decision making process). What I want is for them to learn to analyze their own motivations, know their own weaknesses and consciously learn to own their own actions and reactions.

And to apologize well. That we’re not so good at. A couple of my children are actually quite adept at the apology that makes it quite clear that they are not at all sorry. Any tips on that one are welcome!

Practice using the life boat.

I try to make our home a soft place to land. I strive to strike a balance between supervision and trust, guidance and freedom. They need enough structure and “fences” to form healthy habits and draw nearer to God. But they also need enough freedom to fail while I can still help them talk through what happened and guide them through making better choices. Experience may be the best teacher, but she isn’t very kind and she has very little grace. I believe it is better for my children to gain that experience a little at a time as they grow and move toward independence rather than moving suddenly from being under my complete control to absolute freedom overnight.

I want my children to know that while I may not always be pleased with their decisions, our home is always safe. No matter what happens, we will be here to help them figure out the best next step.

Help them release the docklines and see them off.

There is a time when a child is an adult, whether they are ready for it or not. I think we have to respect that, even if we disagree with the choices they are making. Ironically, I think the more quietly we step away from the helm, the more likely they are to return to ask for our advice and listen when we give it.

This is when we get to make that beautiful transition from being a parent to being a friend.

This last bit is not something I have had to deal with just yet. My daughter is making that transition and is doing it quite well. I’m sure this would be far more difficult for me if I felt like she were straying too far from the values she was raised with. But my role changes when they are an adult regardless. And I think of an interview I did with Lisa Hodgen (Me and My House Ministries) for one of my first magazine articles. I doubt she knows how much her words blessed me as I was barely starting out on my homeschool journey and she shared with me her heart after having a child leave home and walk away from the faith.

“She still has these things, a foundation to return to, when God opens her eyes, bringing light to deliver her.”

She reminded me that we all have to decide on this faith for ourselves and that building that foundation is not in vain. Christ is never more than a step away, no matter how far or how hard we run.

And we get the privilege of loving them through it all.

This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Click on the tag to see the rest of the series!