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About the cover


Unlocking a Garden

Martha Blacklock and her marvelous keyhole garden.

by Twana Sparks



Martha Blacklock relocated from a place where nearly any seed dropped on the ground grows into something lush in short order. It's even known as the Garden State. She eventually landed in the southeast quadrant of Silver City, known as Brewer Hill, named after its most notable resident, the medium Rebecca Brewer (1868-1969). Brewer made potions for love, cast spells and curses, and told the future for thousands in her colorful life, but that is a whole other story.

Martha Blacklock places a hardware-cloth wire cage for compost in the center of her newest keyhole garden.

Brewer Hill is a pile of gravel on top of rocks on top of bedrock. It looks to be mostly Early Proterozoic coarse-grained (really fragile) granite. San Vicente Creek is a large fault, so the rock on the eastern Brewer Hill is completely different from the western Boston Hill. It is said that this phenomenon is due to the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field meeting the Burro Mountain uplift during Jurassic rifting and subsequent Laramide compressional deformation. But, as one might guess, that is another story, too.

So despite being near the relatively fertile Big Ditch, most soil on Brewer Hill is too sandy, alkaline and shallow to grow much of anything except native cacti and grass. It is a challenge for a wannabe gardener.


Blacklock's research into raised-bed gardens gleaned an interesting concept first popularized in southern Africa. Their weather is dry and soil poor, too.

In Lesotho, the design of the "keyhole garden" was found to allow those too weakened (usually by AIDS, which afflicts 25% of the population), those confined to wheelchairs, or even schoolchildren to grow their food and contribute to their communities' needs and produce income. By entering a slot in the circular shape, or moving around the perimeter, the grower has access to all the growing surface. About six feet in diameter and three feet deep, the keyhole allows the gardener to reach all the produce even from a chair or without bending much. In the middle is a conical wire cage where one places composted or compostable material.

According to the BBC, a humanitarian organization in Lesotho, in southern Africa, developed the first keyhole gardens. Each originally had a hole in the middle from which to work, and no compost cage. A bird's eye view looked like a keyhole, hence the name. In America, buzzwords such as sustainability, non-GMO, organic techniques and permaculture are intriguing. In practice, in Lesotho, the household expenditures for food and use of chemical fertilizers and chronic hunger/starvation have been greatly tempered where keyholes have flourished.


Blacklock sought online advice from Dr. Deb Tolman, who started the trend in central Texas and basically has a PhD in dirt as related to survival. Blacklock filled her papercrete structure with logs at the bottom, then cardboard, phone books, aged (not hot) goat and horse manure, compost, homegrown worms, and finally about a foot of soil at the top. The results were very satisfactory, with copious fresh greens available for six months.

"Dr. Deb" claims three keyhole gardens can feed a family of 10 all year round. At a gallon or two a day, it requires much less water than a conventional garden. An umbrella or shade can be added during the hottest times of the year to reduce water loss and plant drying. In Africa, fresh water is used on the plants, but gray water is used in the compost cage. This higher-nitrogen-content water keeps the plant roots headed toward the center instead of deeper or outward. Thankfully, now drought and food crises have little affect on the keyhole gardeners.

Blacklock set about building an experimental keyhole garden in mid-2012 using papercrete blocks left over from a house she built on LS Mesa when she first arrived in 2006. They are very lightweight and fairly permanent, becoming harder as years pass. Her prior 10-by-30-foot dwelling was off the grid, solar powered, and had composted toilets and garden, but that is yet another story.

Keyhole gardens can be built of many things. The external framework may be posts wrapped in heavy plastic or woven grass. For the two new structures of her expanded keyhole garden, Blacklock had access to a great deal of discarded fractured concrete and upcycled it into permanent walls, with the help of talented local rock workers. In an emergency, the structures could also become hot tubs or gun towers.

Both of the current raised-bed gardens have at their ground level recycled cardboard, and a year's supply of Sunday New York Times newspapers. Surely that publication has rarely gone to a more noble use, but that is really, really another story.



Twana Sparks, a Grant County native, was conceived by two former Arkansas farmers.
She is a surgeon, humorist, storyteller, writer and, she says, "mediocre photographer."




Life in a state of nature…


Inspired by the reader response to our long-running "Postcards from the edge" in Desert Diary, we're kicking off another reader-photo feature. Here in Tumbleweeds, we're inviting readers to submit their best pictures of wildlife snapped in southwest New Mexico. Show us what you've seen out there, large or small, from hummingbirds and scorpions to eagles and elk. Send to editor@desertexposure.com or mail to PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, and include your postal address for a little thank-you.







We kick off this feature with this eye-catching photo by Mike Moutoux of Pinos Altos, taken in his backyard. He writes, "Lots of folk around here don't like javelinas, but we really do. Someone said they have a purposeful look about them — even when tiny."



The Tumbleweeds Top 10

Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. To make up for a slow news month, except for the heating-up immigration-legislation debate, Top 10 is adopting Disney's ill-fated effort to trademark "Dia de los Muertos." According to the LA Times: "The company filed 10 applications with the US Patent and Trademark Office for ‘Dia de los Muertos,' including applications pertaining to toys, cereals and jewelry. The May 1 filings came in anticipation of an untitled movie about the Mexican holiday, known in English as Day of the Dead."

      1. (-) Disney + Dia de los Muertos — 16,900 hits*
      2. (2) New Mexico budget — 390 hits (▼)
      3. (1) Gov. Susana Martinez — 260 hits (▼)
      4. (-) New Mexico + immigration — 254 hits (▲)
      5. (3) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 173 hits (▼)
      6. (6) New Mexico wolves — 158 hits (▲)
      7. (4) New Mexico drought — 148 hits (▼)
      8. (8) Sen. Tom Udall — 136 hits (▲)
      9. (7) New Mexico wildfires — 128 hits (▲)
      10. (5) Virgin Galactic — 119 hits (▼)


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