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.

keyhole garden

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.

29 Outstanding Keyhole Gardens Around the World

1) Keyhole Garden With A Frame

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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.

2) Lesotho Keyhole Garden

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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.

3) Garden From Colorado

A keyhole garden in Colorado. This one is six feet in diameter. The homesteader used three layers plastic milk cartons filled with dirt to form the garden wall. She rolled together hardware cloth to make the center area for compost. Then she layered, first with rough organic matter such as pine needles and bits of wood. In compost basket, she put decomposing leaves. She didn’t add kitchen scraps because at the time she built it, bears in her area were just coming out of hibernation! Later she added black plastic to prevent leaking from the cage when she watered.

4) Edible Estate Garden

The keyhole garden was only one part of large renovations to the property. Casey Boyter Gardens designed this garden with the family’s love of entertaining in mind.

5)  Low-Bordered Keyhole Garden

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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.

6) Keyhole Garden With Center Well

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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.

7) Dry Stack Wall Garden

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A keyhole garden in Ethiopia. Keeping a lid on the center well will retain heat and reduce evaporation. Photo originally found on “,” visit for more information on David Snyder.

8) Keyhole Garden In Rwanda

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Keyhole garden in Rwanda by Send a Cow.

9) Garden Made Of Cement And Glass

Keyhole garden a'la" Paseo #permaculturedesign #keyholegarden #bohollife

A post shared by Jesse Acebes (@paseodelmarbohol) on

The borders of this keyhole garden are made of cement and glass, eliminating the need to worry about compost eroding the garden walls.

10) Flourishing Keyhole Garden In Lesotho

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Keyhole garden in Lesotho by Send a Cow. Found from

11) Garden In Uganda

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Keyhole garden in Uganda by Send a Cow.

A Rooftop Keyhole Garden

Yes, you can build a keyhole garden on a rooftop. This bed has squash and tomatoes. The exterior is made of rocks. The center area is a Smart Pot Compost Sak, a reusable but porous container.

12) Keyhole Garden From Sticks

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

13) Overflowing Keyhole Garden

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Keyhole garden by Send a Cow.

14) Keyhole Garden With Compost

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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.

Introduction To Building A Keyhole Garden

This introductory video explains why a keyhole garden is especially good in the hot, dry American West and South. Then, it shows in time-lapse format how to make the garden. After using marking tape to outline the shape, pile bricks three feet high for the exterior wall. Line the inside surface with cardboard. Make the compost bin with 2 x 4 wire, about one foot in diameter. He then shows how to layer and form the soil.

15) Raised Bed Keyhole Garden

The arrangement of these gardens is stylish and functional. The owner mentioned that the design incorporates a 3 foot walkway around the center garden for comfortable access to every plant.

16) Garden Using Straw Wattle

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

17) Keyhole Garden Made By Students

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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.

18) Florida Garden Made With Bricks

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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.

19) Desert Garden

This homesteader has two fences to keep pests from invading their garden. The walkway is longer than most keyhole gardens, allowing for better access to plants.

20) Freddy Hill’s Keyhole Garden

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Keyhole garden by Freddy Hill of Oklahoma. Freddy wanted to build a keyhole garden after being fascinated by their use in arid places.

21) A Productive Keyhole Garden

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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.”

22) Steel-Walled Keyhole Garden

These designers used steel for their raised keyhole garden. The steel is a good option for colder climates because the material retains heat.

Keyhole Gardens Explained By Doctor Tolman

This video shows Deb in action, piling pounds and pounds of wet cardboard for the filling of the garden. She is demonstrating at one of her keyhole garden classes. She says: “You will always get beautiful soil and good-looking plants, because they’re exposed to compost, and a good balance of microbiology.” Kids help out with piling cardboard, leaves, magazines and dirt to form the base of the garden. The exterior of the garden is made with cinder blocks. The video also shows Deb’s homestead, where she experiments with gardening ideas. Deb (who has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science), says that anything can be grown in a keyhole garden, even trees. The “key” to the keyhole garden is the compost that retains moisture and creates healthy soil. The soil is key. “The health of the soil predetermines how water moves. It predetermines how healthy your plants are. Healthy soil begets healthy plants which begets healthy animals which begets healthy people. It’s all very connected.:

23) Morena’s Garden

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Keyhole garden by Morena Hockley.

24) Preparing Garden Soil With Compost

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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.”

25) Wine Bottle Garden

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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.”

26) Beer Bottle Keyhole Garden

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

27) Garden With Walkway

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Keyhole garden by Jim. Via

28) Large Keyhole Garden Array

In Prague, this keyhole garden is being used to grow vegetables.

29) Keyhole Garden In The United Kingdom

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A keyhole garden built by students in the UK. Flowers surround the vegetables. Via Send A Cow.

African Style Raised Keyhole Garden

This video from the non-profit Send A Cow shows, step-by-step, the construction of a keyhole garden in Uganda. It lists the materials needed: Cleared ground near a kitchen, bricks or stones, topsoil, compost, straw/leaves, wood ash, sticks, and string. Then it gives specific instructions for laying out the area (all you need is sticks and string to measure a radius). The video shows a group of local women tilling the soil, building the foundation of the garden from the bricks, building frame of the garden out of sticks, and then filling it with help from their daughters.

How To Build A Keyhole Garden (Parts 1 & 2)

Here in part one, host Casey Hentges shows the finished product and explains the keyhole garden concept. Next, she shows the materials to use—straw, leaves, raked grass, branches, compost, old cardboard, and some animal bedding that will add nitrogen to the compost. She shows the tools necessary, which are pretty simple: just a box knife, a tape measure, twine, and marking tape to mark the perimeter of the garden. She shows how to measure out the garden, then explains the considerations behind the size of your center cage. She lays out the exterior of the garden, including the keyhole.

In part two, we see the filling of the garden. Because she is building atop grass, she recommends setting cardboard over the grass to keep it from growing in the bed. This serves the same function as weed fabric, but will decompose and add nutrients to the soil. Cardboard also retains water well. Sticks form the next layer. She recommends 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inch branches—anything larger may not decompose as well. Next up, leaves and other dead plant material. Next, a layer of nitrogen-rich animal bedding, and a final layer of dead grass. Finally, six inches of top soil that you’ll be planting on. Water in-between each layer–this helps start the decomposition process. Berm the soil, with the highest point at the center of the bed. This will help the compost flow toward the edges of the bed. The last step is putting compost in the cage area. Again, it’s layered—first with food scraps, then shredded paper, then green cuttings. Water again. Now you’re ready to plant!

An Oklahoma Keyhole Garden

Jim Long shows how he built his keyhole garden, with wooden fencing as the exterior. He shows the filling he used beneath the soil. The round hole where compost and water goes is made from chicken wire. He places a lid on top of the round hole to help retain some of the moisture. Jim saves the compost to use in other pots and future use in his keyhole garden.

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

Resources For Building A Keyhole 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.

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

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Author: Keiren

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

  1. 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. 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?

    • google: purple basil, variegated sweet potatoes, edible flowers… sunflowers red lettuces and cabbages/ colorful kales and frilly dill and other herbs. Also scarlet runner beans and a few other beans are easily mistaken for flowers
      = )

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

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

  8. 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 ( 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.

  9. This is truly a unique piece of article post i found.. and for that i hearty thank you.. from the entire team of (

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

    Thank you..

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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 !!!

  17. 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. 🙂

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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?

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  23. This is wonderful, thank you. However I’m concerned that some of the materials used maybe toxic when absorbed by the vegetables.

    • Hey Randy,

      You’re not wrong to be concerned but it would really depend on the type of product. Plastic would be questionable. Metal perhaps less so. Treated wood, possibly. Untreated wood, probably not. Cloth probably not. Clay no.

      The second half of the question is – if those materials leech anything into the soil, would the plants accumulate it? I would choose more natural materials over plastic in general, but if you’re talking about a developing country scenario and that’s the easiest material to get a hold of, I don’t know if it would be a reason to not do this.

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  29. My brother & his wife recently started a keyhole garden in Texas and I was fascinated. This post is incredible! I love all of the examples you shared, and the explanation of how a keyhole garden makes it easier to grow almost anything, especially in dry, alkaline Texas soil.

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