Keyhole Gardening Tips

Try this inexpensive, green solution to growing food in drought-prone terrain.
Keyhole garden by Dr. Deb Toman

Keyhole garden by Dr. Deb Toman

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dr. Deb Tolman,

Image courtesy of Dr. Deb Tolman,

Irrigation and crop rotation are some of the ways farmers and gardeners have addressed drought in arid regions in the past.  But a new method of gardening is proving to be less labor-intensive and more affordable for individuals who grow their own food. A keyhole garden introduces a no-dig, permaculture design in the form of a raised bed with a continual feed at the top for manure, vegetable scraps, paper and other brown and green matter. 

An overhead view of this type of raised bed would look like a large keyhole in a circular plot with easy access to the center basket where vegetable scraps and other green matter containing water are added. Most of the hard work is done by the micro-organisms in the garden which convert the compost to healthy soil.

First introduced in arid African regions by the U.K. organization Send a Cow, keyhole gardening began as a grass roots movement to help poor families develop the skills they needed to grow crops on infertile land. The concept has proven to be so successful that it is now being practiced in areas of the U.S. where droughts are common such as Texas. One of the strongest advocates of keyhole gardening is Deb Tolman, Ph.D., Environmental Scientist and Landscape Designer, and Co-Founder and Director of the Silo Project, a non-profit organization centered on sustainability.

Tolman lives in Clifton, Texas, which now has more than seventy keyhole gardens thanks to her educational outreach and workshops. Tolman is passionate about this new way of growing food, not just because it is a progressive ecological concept for arid climates but for altruistic reasons. "It's for people who can't afford to go buy bags and bags of potting soil," she says. "I'm in it for the process of making compost and being able to make it fast. And being able to make it without any store bought materials if possible. Gardening has to be accessible and more people need to garden because the art of gardening is going fast."

cardboard for compost

cardboard for compost

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dr. Deb Tolman,

Image courtesy of Dr. Deb Tolman,

Tolman's own recipe for a successful keyhole garden is a ratio of 3:1 in the composition of brown and green material which forms the core garden and breaks down rapidly due to the heat generated by the natural decomposition.

Recommended brown material:

  • Brown or yellow leaves and grass
  • Paper and wood products like phone books, newspapers and twigs
  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Dead plants
  • Lint from the dryer or vacuum cleaner debris
  • Lots of cardboard and a small amount of wood ash

Recommended green material: 

  • Kitchen scraps (vegetables, fruits, eggshells)
  • Coffee grinds and tea bags
  • Manure
  • Fresh green grass clippings

There are a variety of recycled or natural materials you can use to construct your raised garden bed in the keyhole style. Broken up concrete, rocks, discarded lumber or plastic can be used to create the horseshoe-shaped bed. Just make sure you build enough room in the keyhole to easily access the central basket which can be constructed from chicken wire and should be 1 foot in diameter, 3 feet from the outside wall, and 1 foot higher than the finished height of the outer wall that is 6 feel in diameter.

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Despite the dry, desert-like weather of North Central Texas, Tolman has been able to grow an abundance of fresh vegetables like kale, chard, Malabar spinach, tomatoes, carrots and berries and drastically reduce her grocery bill. What she grows changes with the seasons and she produces 70 percent of what she eats. Other members of her community are doing the same.

"To be able to turn a big cardboard pile into compost in a month, that's huge," Tolman states. "I've never been able to keep myself in enough compost but now I won't do anything unless it has composting underneath it. The last one I did was a keyhole garden with plexiglass and that is huge because you see that the four week time period is really a function of the root systems on the top where before I thought it was composting from the bottom up. It's really composting from the top down. And if you construct the keyhole garden in the winter, you've got an instant heated greenhouse."

For more detailed instructions on how to build a keyhole garden you can refer to Dr. Deb's Field Guide or DVD and for instructions on how to care for it you can refer to this article on the Texas Co-Op Power website.

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