Tag Archives: how to grow vegetables


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.


Potatoes in a Growing Bag

Child-Friendly Gardening: How to Grow Potatoes in Containers

I must admit I feel a little sorry for the potato. This humble vegetable often gets a bad press, labelled as fattening and unhealthy. In fact, it’s often the first thing people decide to ‘cut out’ when they want to lose weight. But potatoes are one of the healthiest choices you can make – it’s only what you eat with them that can make them unhealthy! They’re an important source of fibre, and filled with vitamins such as Vitamin C and Vitamin B6. They’re also very versatile – you can use them to accompany a meal such as your Sunday roast, as a staple ingredients of affordable meals (e.g. Cottage Pie or Cornish Pasties), and nothing tastes better for lunch on a chilly day than a jacket potato.

So with so much going for the potato, why don’t people grow them more? Well firstly, if you grow them in traditional rows, they take up quite a lot of space. You may also have heard they’re tricky to grow, needing ‘earthing up’ and other such strange practices. But in reality, they’re not difficult to grow at all, and there are many ways to cultivate them that doesn’t mean giving up half your garden!

The most important thing to remember is to prevent light from getting to the potatoes as they grow. That’s why gardeners pull the soil up around the potato stems (the fabled ‘earthing up’). But growing potatoes in a container avoids the need for all that, and also saves on space too. And kids will find it much easier to get involved with growing potatoes if they’re in containers.

Simply fill your container half full with compost, place the seed potatoes in, and cover them up with a bit more compost. As the new leaves poke their way through, add more soil, little by little, until the bag is full. Keep well watered (but not soggy) and once the leaves start to droop, your potatoes are ready to be dug up. Harvested potatoes will keep for a long time by in a bag or sack – just be sure to put it in a cool, dry place that’s completely dark.

Of course, you can go out and buy a fancy potato grower, but if you want to grow potatoes on a budget, here are seven alternative containers you can make or use.

1. An old sack

You can get two or three plants into a large sack, which makes this a good option if you just want a few potatoes. Hessian or paper sacks are perfect – just make sure you’ve dusted them out inside if necessary before you plant your spuds. Naturally, you can always plant up several sacks if you want more plants.

2. A large shopping bag

Large shopping bags are also a good choice, and a great way to recycle bags that are a bit worn out. Natural materials are best, because they allow for good drainage, but even synthetic ones (like Ikea bags) are fine if you punch a few holes for the water to escape.

Potatoes Growing in an Ikea bag

Photo courtesy of Charlotte Powell at Flickr Creative Commons

3. An old compost bag

Have you ever wondered how to use up your old compost bags? Well, now you have the answer. Potatoes grow superbly in old compost bags, but again, remember to make some holes for drainage, because potatoes can rot easily if the compost is too damp.

Potatoes growing in compost bags

Photo courtesy of Emma Cooper at Flickr Creative Commons

4. A strong dustbin liner

You need quite strong dustbin liners to grow potatoes, as the thin ones can split too easily, spilling your compost everywhere. Look for heavy-duty or rubble bags, punch a few drainage holes, and away you go!

Potatoes growing in a bin liner

Photo courtesy of Nodigio at Flickr Creative Commons

5. Weed suppressant fabric

Weed suppressant fabric is superb for growing potatoes, because it allows water to drain through it but stays strong even when wet. Staple the fabric into an impromptu sack shape, making sure there are no large holes for the compost to leak out. These bags won’t last forever, but they’ll certainly do you for a couple of seasons.

6. A large cardboard box

Again, cardboard is great because it allows water to drain through easily, so your potatoes won’t be rotting away in water-logged compost. However, you may find the base gets a bit fragile after a while, so choose your location carefully and don’t move the box once it’s planted up.

7. Car tyres

You may have heard talk about growing potatoes in old car tyres, and this was certainly quite a common practice years ago. You begin by filling an old tyre with compost and planting your potatoes, then add more tyres and compost as the plants grow. It’s true you can grow potatoes well this way, but many people have concerns about the fact that chemicals could leach out from the tyres and affect your crop. Research so far has been inconclusive, but if you are considering using car tyres, think carefully before going ahead. Some of the other options above are far more natural.

So why not give growing potatoes a try? There really is nothing like digging up potatoes for a meal and eating them straight away – they taste delicious and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re eating home-grown produce.

Feature photo courtesy of Jeff Bryant at Flickr Creative Commons

Coming next: 10 Fabulous Ways to Save Money by Recycling in the Garden

Tomatoes showing seeds

Six Simple Ways to Get Vegetable Seeds For Free

So now you’ve made the decision to ‘grow-your-own’ food, and you’re ready to get started. But you might be in for a bit of a shock! If you head to the garden centre and buy a handful of seed packets, you’ll probably wince when see the total at the check-out. Although it’s an easy way to get started, it’s certainly not the cheapest. So here are six simple ways to get seeds and plants, either for free or at a very low cost, which will help any budget-conscious gardener.

1. Share seed packets with friends

Packet usually contain quite a lot of seeds, sometimes too much for the average family, especially if you’re short of space. With some crops, such as salad leaves, lettuces or radishes, you can save seeds for sowing later (known as ‘succession sowing’ so you have an ongoing supply of your crop), but often there’s just too many to use. So why not get together with some friends and share the cost of your seeds. You could even agree to take on growing a couple of vegetables each and then swap plants when they’ve grown a bit. And it’s always good to work with others for a little moral support.