In Praise of the African Keyhole Garden

In honour of National Gardening Week, I thought I’d round up this mini-series on gardening with an international flavour. A while ago, I came across a fabulous concept for creating a small-space garden – the African keyhole garden. This idea ticked lots of boxes for me. I love gardening, and I’m especially interested in growing vegetables, sustainability, and gardening in a small space. I also live in Gambia for most of the year, so I found the whole idea of the African Keyhole Garden very interesting. (I’m wondering about trying to develop my own keyhole garden here – watch this space!). And a keyhole garden would be a perfect way to get kids involved in starting their own garden.

What is a keyhole garden?

A keyhole garden is a raised construction, shaped with a keyhole-shaped recess in the centre, that makes it possible to reach all the plants which are growing there very easily. Some designs leave the centre open – rather like the circular hole at the top of a keyhole. And some have a basket in the centre so you can add materials for composting and water the garden from one point. Grey water can be used for watering, and food waste is made into compost, so the whole idea is very sustainable.


The history of keyhole gardens in Africa

The idea of the keyhole garden was first born in Lesotho. Unfortunately, there were many people in this country suffering from HIV / AIDS, and the idea of a garden which could be worked by someone in poor health grew from a desire to help. An open centre meant that the gardener could lean against the side of the bed and reach the entire growing area without needing to move around – ideal for someone who’s got little strength.


In time, others began to see the benefits of this design, and now they’re commonly used in several countries in Africa. In fact, even some western gardeners have been cashing in on the idea, building their own versions. Sometimes the original design concept is adapted, for example, making a low-level garden, perhaps because materials are limited.


One ingenious idea is to use inverted bottle to create a wall – I’ve seen that here in Gambia to outline paths!


A keyhole garden is a fabulous way for people to grow their own vegetables with limited resources and very compactly.

How can I build a keyhole garden?

If you’re gardening in a small space, or simply like the compact nature of a keyhole garden, it’s fairly easy to construct one yourself. Permanent Culture Now has some great instructions using house bricks, with a ready-made composter in the centre. But you can also make on out of recycled materials, such as wooden pallets, as well as sustainable options such as mud bricks.

Begin by laying out a circle of bricks, with a recess so you can reach the centre of the circle. You can place a composter in the middle, or use wire to create a compost hole, and check you can reach across to the edge of the garden. Then you can build up the layers until the bed is about as high as your waist. Make very sure this is stable before adding compost!

When it’s ready, fill your garden with compost. You could buy this from your local garden centre, or use topsoil from your garden, but if you opt for your own soil, be sure to add some nutrients e.g. some fertiliser. In Africa, gardeners often put tin cans at the base to add iron to the soil, and perhaps add wood ash as well.

Using your keyhole garden

Once completed, you can plant a few examples of a variety of vegetables, or just stick to a couple of basic crops. Water it regularly through the centre (you can use grey water like the Africans), or you could add a simple continuous watering system.


Keep the composter topped up with food waste, grass clippings, green manure, garden waste, or eve cardboard and newspaper. You can also use mulch, such as grass clippings or hay, to help conserve water.


And before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your own freshly grown vegetables!

Donating to charity

Even if you don’t decide to build your own African Keyhole Garden, you can see how fantastic this design is for those living in developing countries.



But sadly, even a few basic materials can be beyond the reach of many people living there. So why not make a donation to charity to give someone in Africa a chance to have their own keyhole garden?


Send a Cow is a charity doing some great work in Africa. It only costs £14.00 to donate a Keyhole garden to a family. You can see lots of information about keyhole gardens on their site, as well as lessons for school teachers, photos, and a video. So take a look, and for a small amount of money you could change the life of someone living in very difficult circumstances.


All images courtesy of Send a Cow educational resources –  used with kind permission.


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