Value of Ancient Ways – Dialog with Pat Spray Regarding His Native American Ancestor’s Use of Key Hole Gardens

Growing up, I often watched heard my parent’s generation shake their heads about “The old geezer [Grandpa] had to be right all along”.  For all our stunning scientific advancements, listening to grandparents talk about traditional ways is well worth while.  Sure, some traditions worked out better in the long run than others.  As we push the limits on technical advancements, we are learning which traditions are keepers.  Native American agricultural practices that endured through thousands of years without environmental collapse are worth in-depth study.  We really do need to learn as much as we can before their memories “go to the next life” beyond our reach.  How I regret not spending more time helping my Grandfather with his vineyard.

A case in point is an online chat that I had that included a gardener who is facing a challenging yard and a Native American who provided excellent input.  I am copy pasting the chat inspired by “5 Ideas for a More Earth-Friendly Garden” written by following this introduction. The chat started in response to Lynn Ann Miller responding to the article with comments and questions regarding her yard. Many thanks to , Lynn Anne Miller, and Pat Spray for a stimulating chat.


Lynn Anne Miller

You indicate: “I’m not a fan of tilling or adding deep levels of amendments to ornamental perennial beds — it’s costly and destroys soil structure and life. I do like adding a thin layer of compost and organic mulch (leaf mold, wood chips or the cuttings of dead plants from the spring cleanup) on top of the soil.” I have a small slope and erosion is taking place. Where do I start? I was a city girl, now in a rural community with a house. I have read a lot about what to plant – deer-resistant, drought tolerant, fast-growing ground covers. But, to prepare the eroded soil does not seem like an easy task; and, truly I don’t know where to begin.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Lynn — Use plants! 🙂 I don’t know where you’re located or what your specific conditions are, but we have many, many native sedges (and grasses) that are great at stopping erosion. Sedges (Carex spp — I’ve written on them a lot here) have fibrous root zones that are well-suited at holding soil in place; plus, many sedges are highly adaptable to various site conditions. Plants are great at creating good soil, holding it in place, helping water and air move down, deflecting hard rains from hitting the soil, etc.

Lynn Anne Miller

Hi Ben, Lynn again – Lead, South Dakota. I think I know the plants I want. It’s soil preparation. Do I add bags (many bags) of soil; and if so, what is the best. It is a small area; but, it would seem that no matter what you plant you have to have something to plant it in. So that is my question? Do you just start pouring dirt on the eroded area? Thank you.

Pat Spray

Lynn – depending on the steepness of your slope – you might want to consider terracing. This might be a starting point:

You don’t need to do all the terracing at once! Start with the bottom terrace and work backwards. One a growing season is better than none.

Lynn Anne Miller

Thank you, Pat Spray. I may be in the wrong place to ask advice. I have a 2 x 2 slope so I think terracing might be too sophisticated. You all have acres. My small town may not be as large as some of your acreage 🙂

Pat Spray

@Lynn Anne Miller do you have any pictures?


Lynn Anne Miller

Hi Pat Spray. . .this picture is what I look at from my kitchen window. It just snowed here, so looks better with blanket of snow. However, as mentioned, I don’t know how to even start to prepare this soil to plant.


Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Lynn — Rabbit brush and purple poppy mallow would do well there, I’d think. You said you’re in CO, right?

Pat Spray

Lots and lots and lots of rocks there 😛 If you don’t know much about soil the BEST first step is to get a soil sample to your state Ag department. They can test and tell you what you’re missing. I snuck a peek at your Idea books… so I’ve got some ideas on what you’re thinking about.

Let me roll some thoughts around for a bit… if you’re still getting snow it’ll be a bit before you can do much anyway. (What region of the country are you located in?)

Here is my go to for inspiration for native plant selection (I buy local but it helps me to have an idea before I shop 🙂 ) –


Lynn Anne Miller

How’s this for another dream. Thank you Benjamin Vogt and Pat Spray. I do have a landscaper coming over once the snow blows and goes. I live in the Black Hills of South Dakota at an elevation of 5,280 feet – we use to be the Mile High City until Denver decided they liked the reference 🙂


Pat Spray

@Lynn Anne Miller I have many friends out in that part of Indian Country 🙂

I really like the picture you just posted. I like butterfly gardens – here is some info from F&W South Dakota office:

I’d be planting sage brush, sweetgrass and cedar!!

This is the deodar cedar (cedrus deodara) which makes pine cones that look like flowers!! The “Twisted Growth” dwarf might be nice for an anchor all-season specimen. It isn’t native to SD but would adapt well to that climate. It grows slowly and is 5-8ft tall fully grown.

Sage is gorgeous. I love the smell. The plants give off scent even when not blooming (and especially when wet or the temperature is hot). The silvery-green foliage is a nice contrast and the purple flowers really make evergreens pop.


Sweetgrass has a spicy odor when bruised and can be harvested and then braided and dried to hang in closets or shove in drawers. It is also a natural mosquito repellant and I’ve grown it all over the US under my windows. The bright yellow-green 18″ blades add texture and contrast to any ornamental bed. It can be grown as a clumping specimen or planted in your lawn and mowed like any other yard grass.

Indian paintbrush gives a nice red pop of color that hummingbirds and butterflies are very attracted to.

Add some black-eyed susans and some annuals and you have a multi-season garden that will look natural in a rock collection 😉

Lynn Anne Miller

Pat Spray – Thank you. I like all your ideas. The thought of color compared to soil and rock would be a welcome change 🙂


Mary Dellavalle

I like the pictures of your dreams. Given the nature of your site have you considered key hole gardens? It looks like you have perfect materials on site. Keyhole Gardens are a Proven Strategy for Working With Caliche in Arid Regions
More Awesome Links for Key Hole Gardens

Lynn Anne Miller

Thank you, Mary Dellavalle. I’ve not heard of Key Hole Gardens and have started to look at your links. Also, since Pat Spray’s recommendations, I envision a “Twisted Growth” dwarf cedar (or two) that would definitely serve as a fence and hide the hideous area behind my property. I dream about landscapes now 🙂

Pat Spray

@Mary Dellavalle “keyhole” is a new name to me but not the concept.

This is how traditional Natives (like me) are taught how to garden. A mound is built. The modern adaptation is to put a large can with holes punch in it in the center (the well?). Gramma said before cans we used thick slabs of wood bark. This is where the water goes in when there isn’t enough rain.

Corn is planted – 5 hills – around the well. Runner beans are planted outside the corn and the corn acts as a trellis. Beans fix nitrogen and corn needs a lot of that. The parameter of the mound is planted with squash/pumpkins/cukes/gourds to shade the ground and help protect the beans and corn (some of these vine plants can have rather noxious thorns). We call it a Three Sisters Garden.

After harvest the stalks and such are covered with leaves and pine needles and pushed back into the earth for the next year’s planting. Over the years the mounds can get quite large.


Lynn Anne Miller

When I started to read about the key hole concept and look at images, I had seen pictures before – just didn’t have a name for it. Just new, fancy names are given what you have done for years 🙂


Hi Pat Spray

Thank you for sharing your family’s and your people’s experience with gardening. I personally think we will find ourselves reverting to ancient farming strategies sooner than we think. When my Grandfather started farming in the San Joaquin Valley, all he needed to do to build a swimming hole was to dig a hole. Water from the soil seeped in to fill it up. The current condition of the Garden of Eden that I grew up in is enough to break my heart.

I had heard of the three sisters, but your description includes critical information that is often left out. Yes, the cans or slabs of bark you mentioned would serve the same function as the compost well in keyhole gardens. Equally important are the layers of wood or stone that protect water stored in the soil from evaporation.

May I reblog your response on my site? Would you be willing to recommend links to sites on your people’s experiences for me to study and reblog? I really did enjoy the plant pallet that you suggested. I am seeking comparable local native plants for my own yard.

Pat Spray

Certainly. Knowledge should be shared. We will need knowledge to be widely distributed sooner rather than later. I have watched the seasonal patterns change markedly over the past decade. Migrations, blooming times, stormfronts. Everything has been out of kilter for some time. The public is only just now becoming aware that things “might be” changing.

Another interesting factoid: corn, bean and squash + native wild rice (which is actually a grass and not a true rice) contain all the nutrients for a balanced vegetarian diet.

Winona LaDuke is an awesome reference.

WELRP is a good resource for the sort of information you seek:

The story of the 800 yo squash

The clay pot they talk about is a traditional seed pot…. made of clay using the pinch pot method. It is the way I was taught that is the proper way of storing seed.


Mary Dellavalle

Thank you for your generous spirit. I have recently viewed u-tube videos that attribute desertification to as much or more of climate change as release of carbon into the atmosphere. I will post our conversation for now, I have finals coming up. Then I will dig in to study the links that you provided.



About Caliche Chick

I retired from a career as an Environmental Scientist and Botanist. My first career was teaching science and English as a Second Language (ESL), and content classes for ESL students at the middle school level. I also taught introductory biology at the community college level. I have an avid interest in plants that grow with little to no irrigation. I also keep a vegetable garden, fruit trees, and back yard chickens. When I am not in my yard, I am taking Construction Technology Classes at Victor Valley College and working on my "fixer upper" home.
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3 Responses to Value of Ancient Ways – Dialog with Pat Spray Regarding His Native American Ancestor’s Use of Key Hole Gardens

  1. Pat Spray says:

    Hi Mary! Thanks for the mention. Last year I did a number of weekly broadcasts about Native issues – I did one on Native wild rice (which isn’t really in the rice family – it is an edible grass seed which is higher in protein than true rice). Here is a link to that episode:

    I’ll be starting the series back up once we are settled in the new house towards the beginning of the fall.


    • Awesome broadcast.


    • Thank you for visiting. I enjoyed your broadcast. It is getting towards the end of the semester, so I didn’t get to study the links that you provided in depth. I found mentions of how the three sisters help each other, but not about techniques for building up their hill. I found a video of how modern land management is resulting in spread of deserts. Strong correlation between ecological collapse and violent conflicts.
      Another interesting series of videos is that feature permaculture techniques that are reversing desertification in the Dead Sea Valley. Once your new home is settled, would you be willing to watch the videos and then interview Native American Farmers and Native American Land Managers in response to the videos? I think the perspectives and experiences of international indigenous peoples on these topics need to be heard – and soon.


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