Tag Archives: Growing food


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.


Recycled seed containers

Growing Vegetables on a Budget: 10 Imaginative Ideas for Recycled Containers

Now you’ve collected seeds to get started on growing your own vegetables, you’ll be desperate to get going. Again, you could go to the garden centre and buy a stack of seeds trays or small pots, but this can be an expensive option. However, with a little imagination, you can find free or very low-cost options for growing your plants, which will help keep things within your budget. And as an added bonus, you won’t be contributing to the world’s plastic mountain by buying plastic pots and trays either. You don’t have to have containers that are perfectly shaped or necessarily rectangular – almost any shape will do! So here are ten free alternatives to shop-bought seed containers.

1. Food trays

Flat shallow trays are best for seeds, and ideally you need a little depth too – the very shallow ones won’t give room for the tiny roots to get properly established before you move them to larger pots (known as ‘potting on’).

If there are larger holes in the bottom, line the tray with newspaper or kitchen paper – this will stop the soil swilling out when you water, and help retain water for your thirsty seedlings. If there are no holes, punch a few with a skewer, otherwise your compost will get waterlogged and your seedlings will drown! You can also use egg boxes  or cut sections of toilet roll – great for starting individual seeds such as squash or pumpkin!

2. Large plastic milk containers

The largest-sized plastic milk containers also work well as seed trays. Use a very sharp knife (e.g. a craft knife), to divide the container in half vertically, then lay each half on its side to make a container – two for the price of one, but be careful when you’re cutting!

3. Cereal boxes

You’re not going to have your seeds in their initial containers for very long, so biodegradable containers are a great choice. A large cereal box with one side removed makes a superb seeds tray. However, it won’t be very stable once it’s wet, so you may want to place it somewhere where it doesn’t matter when water runs out of it, such as on a plastic kitchen tray.

4. Juice containers

Cardboard juice containers also make good seed trays, and they’ve got the added advantage of having a waterproof lining and being relatively stable. Remove one side and lay the container down, before filling with compost and sowing your seeds.

5. Used food tins

Many food tins nowadays have ring-pulls to open, which means you don’t have sharp jagged edges around the top like the tins when I was younger. Remove the label and rinse the can out well, then punch a few holes in the bottom – try using a bradawl or even a stout nail and hammer for this. Again, they won’t last forever, but they’ll do very nicely for a while.

6. Newspaper origami

If you’re a bit creative, have a look online for instruction for making origami boxes, and make some out of newspaper, Again, they won’t be very stable, and won’t last forever, but they’ll certainly do the job for the amount of time you’ll need them.

7. Newspaper pots

It’s also possible to make small pots out of newspaper. These are superb, because they’ll hold their shape reasonably well when they’re wet, but biodegrade easily. In fact, you can just pop the whole pot and seedling straight into the ground when it’s time, so the roots won’t be disturbed, which can slow the growth of your plants. You could use an expensive wooden ‘mould’, but why not try a cheaper option? Check out this great tutorial on Garden Betty.

8. Fabric or canvas bags

You can buy canvas bags or sacks for growing vegetables, but they’re not really a cheap option. However, if you’ve got some old shopping bags you don’t need (Lidl or Ikea bags are great), you can use these to plant vegetables. These are especially good to plant potatoes, but you can grow all sorts in them with a little imagination!

9. Stone sinks or trays

You may be lucky enough to have an old stone sink or tray laying around that you don’t need – buying a new one is definitely not very affordable! Make sure it has a drainage hole – a plug hole will need to be covered with a piece of broken pottery or something similar, so you don’t lose too much soil when watering. A layer of gravel in the bottom will also help with drainage.

10. Use your imagination!

It’s probably true that you can grow vegetables in almost any container, providing it’s deep enough to allow good root growth for the crop in question. Try wooden satsuma crates, an old wheelbarrow, shoes and boots with holes in, or an old washing up bowl. Once you start imagining, there’ll be no stopping you!

Check on the internet for growing instructions for the crops you want to grow. You can start lots of them indoors, such as on a sunny windowsill, if you don’t have a greenhouse. And if you do sow some seeds in an ‘alternative container’, do let us know in the comments!

Coming next: How to Grow Your Own Potatoes on a Budget

Photo courtesy of Sharon McGriff-Payne at Flickr Creative Commons