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What’s the Deal with Keyhole Gardening?

Person dumping kitchen scraps into a compost pile.
lomiso/Shutterstock

Gardening is all the rage now that spring has arrived, and we have more time on our hands. If you are looking for a productive way to garden that requires minimal labor, boy do we have a weekend project for you.

A growing number of people are learning about the rewarding benefits of having a keyhole garden. We’ll teach you all about what they are, and even provide a video that teaches you how to make one.

What Is a Keyhole Garden?

A keyhole garden is a raised garden with a center compost basket and a wedge-shaped cutout along one side to allow access to the center. If you look at a keyhole garden, you’ll notice the shape resembles an old skeleton keyhole, hence the name.

The center basket (or cage) is filled with kitchen waste and other organic matter, which decomposes over time and releases nutrients into the surrounding soil. When watered, the nutrients from the compost spread freely through the encompassing soil, which naturally fertilizes it.

A Little History

Keyhole gardens were first invented and established about 30 years ago, in the 1990s in Southern Africa. The residents of a small nation named Lesotho endured many droughts and soil erosion, making it difficult to grow food or plants successfully.

The design and idea worked, and many locals adapted the design to provide a reliable source of food for their families. Now this concept has spread across the globe, and folks are loving the convenience and simplicity.

Curious about whether or not it works? Expert environmentalist and owner of Avant Gardens, Deb Tolman, is on a mission to develop sustainable approaches to landscaping and building practices. She has a passion for spreading the word about keyhole gardening, and has even had a DVD produced to demonstrate how to build one.

The Key Is Compost

The design of these gardens allows easy access to the center compost cage filled with accumulated organic matter, which decomposes over time. This natural recycling process is one of nature’s gifts to us humans, and these gardens are the perfect way to utilize that gift.

The compost is generally composed of grass clippings, dried leaves, and any veggie scraps. The key is to have a three to one ratio of browns to greens. During the decomposition process, organic material breaks down and transforms into nutrient-rich compost.

Because the organic matter continues to break down in the center of the garden, you can continue to add new scraps to the top.

Benefits of Keyhole Gardening

  • Holds Moisture Incredibly Well: One of the main reasons people love this sustainable gardening method is because it requires less work. The layers of carbon and nitrogen organic material soak up water well, so the garden requires less watering and remains moist longer.
  • Enriches the Soil: As the organic matter decomposes over time, natural nutrients leech into it, and continuously replenishes the soil.
  • No Bending Over: These waist-high raised gardens mean you won’t have to bend down as much, making it easier on your back. The wedge shape and height of this garden makes it more accessible to elderly gardeners or people with back issues.
  • Less Labor-Intensive: The soil renourishes itself and retains moisture, which means less time tending to your garden.
  • Garden Will Last Years: You only need to clean out your compost cage every three or four years and start a new one. That also means you can continue tending to the garden all year round if the weather permits.

Build One Today

If you’d like to make one yourself, the great news is anyone can do it with minimal tools and a small cost. Using organic compost matter like lawn clippings, shredded paper, kitchen scraps, leaves, and cardboard, and stone to build the exterior wall, you can create a keyhole garden in no time.

Most keyhole gardens are usually a 6’x6′ in diameter and do best in a location that receives full sun. Check out the video provided to learn how to make a keyhole garden right in your backyard.


Life keeps us pretty busy these days, which sometimes keeps us from doing the things we love. If you enjoy gardening but worry about not being able to give those veggies the attention they need, perhaps keyhole gardening is for you.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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