Keyhole Gardens: September 2019 Chapter Meeting

by Sue Ann Kendall

We had a large turnout for this month’s meeting, where Linda Friedrickson and Aloma Clayton spoke on keyhole gardening (modified raised bed). They are members of the Little River Basin Master Gardeners, so many of our members who are in both organizations already knew them. Both of these women have lots of knowledge about keyhole gardens, and Linda even built one this year at her new property.

Here’s the book!

The book to read if you want to learn more is Soiled Rotten, by Deb Tolman, who is a fascinating person currently living in Texas and basing her life on creative recycling and reuse. Linda pointed out that keyhole gardens are a perfect example of Tolman’s philosophy, because you can build then from discarded material. Tolman makes gardens out of all sorts of things, including an abandoned speedboat.

Aloma and Linda appreciating their speaker gifts.


Aloma started the presentation all off by giving us the history of keyhole gardens.

They started in southern and eastern Africa, because trees were all gone and the soil depleted from years of mismanagement. It was a mess. Africans starved while we wasted our food.

Linda giving her presentation.

Mahaha Mafou (not sure of spelling) in Lesotho (luh-soo-too) invented keyhole gardens to feed her family. She made hers from rocks with characteristic shape. They were popularized by CARE (an NGO) and USAID (US government), who helped spread it. They did this throughout the 1980s and on. It spread throughout eastern and southern Africa.

Here’s some more I found on Wikipedia:

The keyhole garden was developed in Lesotho by the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency (C-SAFE), based upon a design that originated with CARE in Zimbabwe. In the mid-1990s Lesotho had one of the highest AIDS/HIV rates in the world. C-SAFE designed the keyhole garden for people who suffered from AIDS or were otherwise unable to tend a traditional garden. They are tall enough that people do not have to bend over while working in them, sturdy enough that a person who is weak can lean against them while they work, and small enough that the entire bed is within arm’s reach.

They are great erosion prevention, because of their shape. Also, they turn waste food into fertilizer. The clever design of the water catchers reduce the need for watering. One garden will feed three people for a year.

In the US

As mentioned above, Deb Tolman in Clifton TX has popularized keyhole gardens here. Her location is Avante Gardens, which is full of art, sculpture and plants. She lives in silos that she modified herself. She has given

She recycles and re-uses everything. For example, Tolman has a wall of water-filled wine bottles that heat up an aquaponic garden. She is pretty cool (Sue Ann’s opinion).

Linda shared some lovely pictures of the gardens from a visit she and Aloma made.

How to Make Them

Next, Aloma shared how she made her own garden on her property.

She used a messed-up hay ring as her base. They put a layer of twigs and branches on the bottom, then added lots of cardboard, paper, etc., anything that will rot. There’s a mound of rocks right under the compost, for the drainage. 

Aloma’s garden in its prime.

Then they put topsoil, cow manure and such as the soil to grow the plants in. Her basket to hold the compost is chicken wire, hardware cloth, and window screen. Note: if you build one, do not use colored or glossy paper.

She has been putting all her compost in the middle (but no animal stuff).

Her garden did well this year, and she has learned a lot. They are getting ready to make a fall/winter garden now. As time passes, the soil sinks down, because the paper is breaking down. They will add more.

Tips and Tricks: One idea is to make them out of wine bottles. Sprinkle corn meal on fire ants if they show up. Shade cloth would help if you are in a dry and sunny place, like to many of us are.

For Further Information

In addition to the Soiled Rotten book, Tolman has a website on all her projects. She also has an email list you can join, but I’ll have to find that information out and get back to you. Find out more on the keyhole gardens Facebook page, too.

Here’s a basic outline of the structure of a keyhole garden.

3 thoughts on “Keyhole Gardens: September 2019 Chapter Meeting”

  1. Reblogged this on The Hermits' Rest and commented:

    In case you aren’t following the Master Naturalist blog, I thought I’d share what I wrote up there about keyhole gardens. I’m going to get that book, for sure.


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