Keyhole Garden

First made popular in Africa, the keyhole garden is catching on in Texas and other hot, dry places. A keyhole garden holds moisture and nutrients due to an active compost pile placed in the center of a round bed. Although most helpful in hot and dry locations, a keyhole garden will improve growing conditions in just about any climate.

How a Keyhole Garden Works

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From a bird’s eye view the garden is shaped as a keyhole. A notch is cut into a round garden bed. The notch makes for easy access to the center compost well.

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Keyhole garden in Uganda by Send a Cow.

This sustainable gardening method uses kitchen and garden waste and gray water (or wash water) as food for your garden.

keyhole garden

Layering is proven to enhance soil health. Layering suggestions from Texas Co-Op Power: Wood on very bottom, next cardboard, next a bit of compost, next petroleum-free newspaper, manure, worms, wood ash, straw, topsoil. Repeat, compost, straw, topsoil or some such combination until you reach desired height.

When it rains or when you water your compost, the nutrients will seep into the surrounding bed. During rainy spells you might wish to cover the compost so the nutrients in the compost do not leach out too rapidly.

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Keyhole gardens have been made popular by Send a Cow, a humanitarian aid organization which builds keyhole gardens for families throughout Subsaharan Africa. Three keyhole gardens can supply a large family with all their vegetables for a year.

Keyhole Gardens Around the World

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At Keyhole Garden in Central Texas, Deb Tolman uses keyhole gardens as the main source of her own food supply, and is working on ways to keep them producing throughout multiple seasons and conditions. Dr. Tolman incorporates a frame into most of her designs to support a shade cloth during the hottest months. The frame might also be covered in early spring with plastic sheeting to create a greenhouse. Dr. Tolman is available for workshops, consultation, and seminars. Photo by Dr. Deb Tolman.

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Keyhole garden in Lesotho by Send a Cow, which first popularized keyhole gardens in Africa. Send a Cow has helped countless families and schools build keyhole gardens.

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This keyhole garden by Send a Cow looks easy enough to set up, but the bricks do not look like they will take another level if you want to make it bigger someday. The compost adds more and more soil year after year.

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In this keyhole garden by Send a Cow, the builders have lined the center well with sticks, or with chicken wire lined with straw, to separate the two areas. The center well is used to irrigate the whole garden, bringing nutrients from the compost into the surrounding soil. www.sendacow.org.uk

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A keyhole garden in Ethiopia. Keeping a lid on the center well will retain heat and reduce evaporation. Photo via dsnyderphotography.com

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Keyhole garden in Rwanda by Send a Cow.

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Keyhole garden in Lesotho by Send a Cow.
www.sendacow.org.uk

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Keyhole garden in Uganda by Send a Cow.

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Keyhole garden with a surround of sticks in Uganda by Send a Cow.

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Keyhole garden by Send a Cow.

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Keyhole gardens wrapped in wood, by Deb Tolman of Texas. In the winter the compost in the center of the keyhole garden generates heat and holds moisture. See the Keyhole Gardens Facebook page.

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Keyhole Vegetable Garden by Anne Hars, lined with straw wattle.

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Keyhole garden by sixth grade students in the UK, who had been learning about sustainability and the soil conditions in Africa. The children used a combination of bricks and stones to create the garden. They surrounded the center compost with a piece of willow fencing. A garden sieve was then placed on top of the compost area to allow the rain water to seep through the compost and into the garden to help enrich the soil. Each day children throughout the school place their fruit scraps and more into the compost. The children used the proceeds from selling their produce to help buy a goat for a third world country through OXFAM.

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Keyhole garden in Florida by Melissa Contreras. This garden can grow in height, as the compost adds volume, more bricks can be stacked as in the image below.

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Keyhole garden by Freddy Hill of Oklahoma.

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Keyhole garden in Texas by Deb Tolman. Says Deb: “If all the layering guidelines have been followed, watering is at a minimum, evaporation is at a minimum, all plants look nutrient-fed, and productivity is high.”

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Keyhole garden by Morena Hockley.

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Keyhole garden in Texas. “Layered in the bed are bones of two cows, ash from one brush pile, aged dried poop from a dozen cows, five bags of clover, a pile of forest floor mulch, cardboard, rusty items, and 15 buckets of two year old compost.”

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The reuse ideas are endless—cans, metal, old row boats…earthbags…logs. This is a wine bottle keyhole garden by Mary Martine of Phoenix. “800 wine bottles, one year from conception to completion, and a lot of faith that this crazy idea would work. The diameter of the circle is approximately 7 feet.”

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Beer bottles in cement. No keyhole. Love the bottle reuse, looks sturdy. Frame is for a shade cloth. Via www.facebook.com/keyholegardens

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Keyhole garden by Jim. Via www.organicgreendoctor.com

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A keyhole garden built by students in the UK. Flowers surround the vegetables. Via
www.sendacow.org.uk.

How to Build a Keyhole Garden


Step by step video of a keyhole garden build from Liberty Garden.

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Sloping the soil away from the center well allows better transfer of water and nutrients and adds to surface area. www.sendacow.org.uk

A two-page, printable, very visual, keyhole garden building guide from Send a Cow. Bright, colorful, good for kids.

A visual but slightly more dry two-page printable keyhole garden building guide from the Baker Institute.

Photos and a 10-step keyhole garden building guide from Texas Co-Op Power.

Written instructions on how to build a keyhole garden from TECA, a program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

KeyholeFarm.com sells a keyhole garden kit, starting at $289.

The Best Keyhole Garden And Small Garden Books

Plant Your Garden In A Keyhole by W. Leon Smith

Soiled Rotten: Keyhole Gardens All Year Round by Deb Tolman, Ph.D.

The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year by Spring Warren

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

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Author: keiren

Keiren is an artist who lives in New York City. A lover of animals, nature, science & green building.

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37 comments

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1
Prof. Bansi Lal Puttoo

I am delighted to see beautiful key hole gardening pictures growing different vegetables,flowers etc using the locally available waste /junk material. It is a novel method of recycling the domestic wastes and built up of clean surroundings. I wish to extend this concept in my area of residence and recommend it to others for adoption . It is simple and least expensive.

2
Silverhawk Irvine

Looking to improve our gardening skills. This whols keyhole format looks do-able. Thanx Much-o

3

I'm totally blown away by this concept! Great Idea, Good Job! Thanks for sharing it

4

Wonderful idea.

5

Non ho capito niente o forse ho compreso tutto perché mi pare ottimo, oltreche' molto valido sul piano estetico

Stefano

6
Laura Rodriguez

Awesome idea for best use of limited space and adaptability to extreme weather, thank you!

7

These are so wonderful! Never heard of them and been a gardener all my life! Love them!

8

All this stuff is amazing, but where I live I'm only allowed a 'flower bed' type garden around my house. What kind of ideas do you guys have for This?

9

muhteşem yaptıklarınız bende denemek istiyorum küçük bahçemde teşekkürler

10

It is very informative and interesting post.

11

Novel and very interesting concept; we need to spread this across globe.

Nagesh,

Bangalore,

India

12

I like that the composting is incorporated into the garden rather than being a separate activity.

13

What a concept! I will pass this on to all my gardening friends.

I can see this in the front yard with beautiful flowers and some veggies hidden among them.

If you have a blender you could blend all your kitchen scraps, minus any meat or dairy, and pour on the compost. Cuts down on decomposing time.

14

Great idea

15

Re: your situation of only being allowed to grow flowerbeds - You might not be able to build a tall keyhole garden, but I used to grow a 'camouflaged' veggie garden in my front yard. A mix of flowers: marigolds to deter pests, alyssum to draw beneficial insects, plus carrots (pretty fernlike foliage, tucked in among the flowers), potatoes (they flower & look pretty, & most people don't recognize the plant), rainbow chard, ruffled kale, etc are beautiful background to the flowers, etc. You could grow berry bushes, too: look like landscaping, but provide food. Blueberries in the sun, currants in the shade. Best of luck to you!

16

I love this idea so much. Cheap to build, the right height and no need to bend, and you can reach everything.

17

This is a great idea. Especially for people with bad backs and inexpensive to build. I just love it.

18

This is great. I love the height, so no need to bend. You can makeit with any thing and grow what ever you want. Great concept, will pass it along. Thanks to whom ever thought this one up.

19

In the instructions I've seen it says that the compost leaches out and you can continue to build higher and higher. Does that mean that it does so naturally or does the person need to physically spread the compost out to build up the bed after each growing season?

20

I'm amazed at the beauty of these. I love the creativity and seeing the gardens flourishing is absolutely wonderful

21

This an amazing idea. I would like to sort out whether we can use it for for our community. I'm member of a Dutch Charity (http://www.projectsnow.nl) helping a very poor community on the border of the Zambezi in Southern Zambia (just 25 km north of the Kariba dam). Can someone help me out with some kind of checklist to see whether the locations are suitable for this kind of gardens? In june we will visit the villages again and we will be able to check this out.

22

This is truly a unique piece of article post i found.. and for that i hearty thank you.. from the entire team of (http://www.packngo.in)

and we appreciate the effort you made.. and taught us very unique and creative idea to have a small garden like this..

Thank you..

23

I am so pleased that Stumbleupon recommended your beautiful web-site to me. The keyhole gardens are amazing. I just cannot understand why I have never come across them before. I shall tell everyone and share it on my FB page. Thank you so much. Oh - The post on Hugelkultur is great also. That I am familiar with.

Barbara from clevercomposting.

24

This is a wonderful idea for recycling and repurposing materials to create a garden. I am going to make one for herbs and medicinal plants at my home.

25

I've NEVER seen vegetable gardens designed in this way, it is FANTASTIC! The use of recycled materials and also incorporating composting into the design is really really clever. Have shared 🙂

26

This is an excellent idea; ridding oneself of unsightly compost areas in the garden and incorporating into the garden in a more attractive and efficient manner. I'm hoping to have a garden again in the next 2 years and I'm definitely going to design a garden like this.

27
Tuincentrum Van Eeckhaut

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and adore finding out additional on this topic. If feasible, as you acquire expertise, would you thoughts updating your blog with much more details? It is extremely useful for me.

28

kindly send me how to construct a key hole garden

29

Thank you for the great images and information. I have been inspired and fired up, and if the temperature wasn't right at freezing point I might be tempted to start laying out the new keyhole garden today. I live on a hard-scrabble farm in the Ozark hills, and our weather is only marginally better than Texas, so a garden that fares better in drought is right on target. Thanks again for all the useful information.

30

Very nice design: just wondering on one detail, since we need to access the very bottom part of the compost pile when it's ripe, an easy opening of the center volume is required or at least advisable, am I correct?... otherwise would you perform any compost turning? Thanks for the insight. Thumbs up anyway !!!

31
Karlene valente

I can't wait to have one.

32

I love this way of growing a garden. I want to try it this year.

33
pilar ahumada

hello!! the keyhole garden is really amazing! i will try it here in my country, Chile. I would like to know who is the original creator of this technique. Thank you very much for opening my eyes to new paths. 🙂

34

It is also quick and easy to make a keyhole garden out of a long strip of corrugated iron, bent back inwards at each, that meets at an old dustbin. The dustbin should be taller of course to make a slope to the outer edges. Three banged in sticks, one in the dustbin, and one in each corner of the inward bends, will hold it all together while you attach everything with some wire through some pre-drilled holes, and then fill it with your soil, compost and other bits.

Be advised that some vegetables and fruits do not grow in certain locations, so do start with growing plants that you are familiar with and grow well in your chosen location.

35

Fire ants are prevalent in Texas. How does one keep them out of a keyhole garden?

36

Awesome idea! I have been searching for a way to have a good garden without taking up so much of my back yard. This doesn't require a tiller either. At my age, the tilling is becoming more difficult so this is great idea. Thank you so very much.

37

Is the center compost bin ever emptied or how is the compost removed or spread from the center. Does the compost dirt just seep out on it's own from the chicken wire?