From fields in Africa to Central Texas yards and beyond, the idea of “keyhole gardens” has been spreading as a way to grow vegetables while conserving water and effort.
Keyhole gardens are circular raised beds, with a path to the middle for easier access and a compost area in the center, so water and nutrients can spread throughout the bed. From above, the garden resembles an old-fashioned keyhole.
Anne Wiebe of Central Austin recently heard about keyhole gardening on a neighborhood listserv and saw a video about an African community building one to feed themselves. Taking inspiration from that, she had a keyhole garden built in her front yard.
“Seeing those women and children coming together and building that thing. Wow,” she said. “I find that wonderful.”
Travis Gould, a friend of Wiebe, offered to help, and during several spring mornings, he got busy installing a garden at her Brentwood neighborhood duplex.
Gould measured a circle 7-feet in diameter and cleared the ground. Then, he built the first of several tiers of a wall, embedding 9-inch-long bricks in the dirt, one resting atop the next at an angle around the circle.
“(The bricks) are also leaning slightly toward the center,” said Gould. “It will be more structurally sound because there is going to be dirt pushing outward.”
On one side he made a curved indentation, making it easier to reach the plants and add water and compost to the center. In this instance, the shape resembled a heart, more than a keyhole, though such gardens typically look like a pie with a slice removed.
Inside the garden wall, he put down the first of multiple layers. First, he placed cardboard from broken-down boxes on the ground. On top of that, he placed old scalloped border bricks that formerly lined a pathway; this will help with drainage in the garden.
Gould cut off a length of chicken wire and formed a long cylindrical tube, which he placed in the center to contain the compost.
“It’s all going to get nourished by the compost in the middle,” Wiebe said.
The project required some problem solving as the work progressed. Gould used sticks scattered about the yard to hold the chicken wire in place.
Then he added about a foot-deep of wood mulch, free from the City of Austin, around it.
Next, Gould added a second layer of slanted bricks to the wall. He broke off pieces of concrete to wedge in between spaces in the wall for stabilization — a technique he learned at an Irish monastery.
“Technically, I think these bricks are supposed to be at a 45 degree angle, and these are a little steeper than that,” he said. “I’m learning as I’m going.”
He also lined the interior of the brick wall with cardboard. The finished garden will have layers of top soil and mulch, as well.
The project was inexpensive, built with mostly free materials, said Wiebe, 59, a medical transcriptionist. In addition, the raised bed will make gardening easier for Wiebe, who has orthopedic problems. She also hopes that the water savings will reduce her utility bill. Last year, her water bill for one month came to $100. But the money isn’t her only concern.
“For me it’s a matter of stewardship of the Earth,” she said.
Likewise, Gould, who teaches tennis and does part-time landscape work, has an interest in sustainable gardening.
“It would be a wonderful thing for the whole world to be more closely connected to their food source,” he said.
Keyhole gardening has been gaining popularity.
Send a Cow, a charitable organization based in the United Kingdom that helps impoverished African families to grow and sell food, has taught people in places such as Lesotho and Uganda to build keyhole gardens. Videos of the groups building these gardens are posted on YouTube.
As well, two brothers started a business, Keyhole Farm, based in Granbury selling kits to make keyhole gardens online at www.keyholefarm.com. Interest has been steady.
“We’re selling lots of kits all over the United States and Canada now,” said Lyndell Smith, who estimates they sell roughly 20 to 30 each week.
Smith said his brother, W. Leon Smith, of Clifton, had originally built a keyhole garden with stones, and decided he and his sibling could create an easier way, experimenting with several designs before settling on their current product. The complete kits include a metal frame, ridged side panels and a wire mesh cage for the center compost, or customers can buy just the frame. Once assembled, the garden is 6-feet in diameter, Lyndell Smith said.
“Whenever you are feeding your compost basket, the nutrients are only going to leech out about 3 feet in each direction, so this way it is going to feed the whole garden,” he said.
Lyndell Smith said this method is successful for many reasons.
“Because you are planting close together, there is virtually no weeding,” he said. Additionally, it cuts down on the need for watering and fertilizing.
“Table scraps have moisture in them,” he said. “The basket is the engine that drives it. … Fertile compost will leach out and feed the plants.”
To see this method in use, a keyhole garden tour is scheduled for April 26 in Clifton, northwest of Waco. Information can be found at www.cliftontexas.org/
Meanwhile, in Austin, Wiebe looks forward to the vegetables she will be growing in her new garden. She envisions winter squash vines spilling over the side of the bricks. She can’t wait to harvest tomatoes, chives, basil and other produce.
“I’m thinking leeks,” she said, “because it’s a vegetable I like that’s so expensive at the store.”