May 11, 2020

African Keyhole Garden

While I took a week's break during the book giveaway, I worked on my own book and we finished our African keyhole garden. I told you about our plan in my Spring Clean-Up post, and Dan got right to work on.

What exactly is an African keyhole garden? It's a brilliant concept for raised bed gardening. It combines growing, composting, and watering into one manageable system. It's ideal for areas that have inadequate rainfall. The round bed is roughly 6-feet across with a compost container in the middle and a built-in path to easily add compostable materials and water. It can be any height one chooses.

Resembles a keyhole overhead, hence the name.

The keyhole wall can be constructed from anything: stone, logs, boards, sticks, wattle fencing, metal or fiberglass roofing panels, even sheets of plastic. Dan decided to use brick for ours because we still have a huge pile of bricks leftover from when we tore down the old fireplace and chimney ten years ago. Here's how he did it.

The first step was to level the ground and calculate how many
bricks would be needed for a 6-foot diameter keyhole garden.

He leveled a base for the footer with gravel and sand.

Brick footer filled in with clay subsoil.

The brick wall goes on top of that.

It took about three days to get to this point.

Compost bin made with ½-inch hardware cloth. It's about 20" across.

Keyhole gardens are typically filled lasagna garden style, but we
did ours more hugelkultur style with chunks of wood on the bottom.

Spaces between the wood chunks were filled with woodchips & topsoil. I
tossed in old corn cobs and husks, and bones leftover from making broth.
Almost done. Topsoil, compost, and fine woodchips continue
the fill. A cover could be added to the compost bin if desired.

The beauty of this system is that the compost bin is built in specifically for the keyhole bed. Contents of the compost are higher than the soil, which is sloped from the edge of the compost to the keyhole wall. Because the bin is made of hardware cloth, moisture, nutrients, humus, and organic matter automatically leach into the soil.

Planted with calendula, sweet basil, Jericho lettuce,
borage, and Five Color Silver Beet Swiss chard.

And there it is. Every day now, I'm out there inspecting for little seedlings! I'll keep you updated on how well it works.

Parting shot: Dan got his blueberry bushes transplanted too.

For more information, pictures, and ideas, check out this article, "Keyhole Garden" at

African Keyhole Garden © May 2020 by Leigh


  1. Looks interesting. Never heard of it before.

  2. Wendy and Michelle, thanks! I can't recall where I first heard about these, but it's been tucked away in the back of my mind for quite a few years now. If it wasn't for Dan, it would still be there!

  3. That is the bee's knees! I have a turning compost bin and of course, I keep adding to it so it mixes the old with the new but the keyhole garden is awesome! I am so impatient though. I'm not sure I could go to all that work. It is also pretty to look at but so functional! I love it!

  4. Sam, thanks! Google "keyhole gardens" and look at images for ideas. Lots of ways to do this!

  5. So how do you make use of the compost created? Seems to me it would take longer to compost, and then the material you needed would be nearly inaccessible.

  6. I love the look.
    Not to be a Debbie Downer, but how do you keep critters and flying insects out of the compost since it's not covered?

  7. SmartAlex, good question! Compost is made to add to garden beds, so the beauty of this system is that the keyhole's compost bin is built in specifically for the keyhole bed. Because the compost bin is hardware cloth, it automatically adds compost nutrients to the keyhole bed as the nutrients humus, and organic matter leach into the soil. No need to dig and move compost! Yes, it is a slower method, but it's been a proven success by those who have used it for some time now.

    I'll also mention that this is not our only compost bin. The big ones for the main garden are located in the chicken yard.

    Daisy G, we've never had problems with critters and flying insects in our open compost bins, so I'm not exactly sure how to answer your question. But I take it this is a problem you've had, hence your question. There probably isn't anything in our compost that would be of interest to critters and insects. We filled it with woodchips, dried leaves, coffee grounds, and dried goat manure. Our kitchen, canning, and garden scraps go into our large (uncovered) compost bins in the chicken yard, where the chickens pretty much take care of any edible "goodies."

    I think the only problem we've had with uncovered compost piles has been nutrient leaching. About 15 years ago, we lived on top of a hill and the compost was on the edge of a wooded area that sloped down to a creek. We had the biggest and healthiest poison ivy growing down the hill from the compost pile! After that, we started covering our piles, until we moved them into the chicken yard. That was the best composting decision we ever made.

  8. Edit to my reply to Daisy G. (since Blogger doesn't have an edit feature for comments.)

    "There probably isn't anything in our compost that would be of interest to critters and insects."

    That should read, >>> "There probably isn't anything in our keyhole compost that would be of interest to critters and insects."

  9. Beautiful job of brick work and building that Dan did! (As usual, of course. If he ever has a hankering to experience some time -- and hard work -- in northern Minnesota, just give a holler!) Very interesting concept and an added landscaping feature to your yard. Something like this would have to be within our fenced in gardening area and we'd have to be careful what we put in the composting center because of crows, ravens, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, etc. we can't fence out.

  10. Interesting the keyhole garden. Makes sense. I will enjoy reviewing your posts as I just found you today, and am following along. I love to hear how people farm on their homesteads, I have much to look at.

  11. Mama Pea, Dan will be pleased to hear that.

    As with all things, it must be adapted to one's individual growing climate and conditions! I should have mentioned earlier, that the compost could easily have a roof on it if desired. We chose not to at this point, but would certainly change things if necessary.

    Faith, hello and welcome! Thank you for your visit and kind comment!

  12. I wasn't quite following how the compost was supposed to work but I see you answered it above for another person. It will be definitely interesting to see how this develops. I've always wanted to do some masonry work (where it doesn't really count) similar to your keyhole garden. I've often wished I lived someplace that had more rocks.

  13. Ed, I find that questions for clarification are the best feedback on my writing! I've edited the blog post, so that it hopefully explains better and makes more sense. :)

    I'd like to live where there's more rocks for the same reason! Dan would say he enjoys masonry work, but that this is about the extent of his abilities. I think it came out just fine.

  14. That's a great concept. I'll have to file the idea until we move as our current house doesn't have any space left for such a bed. It looks great though. Nice job.

  15. that looks amazing! Can't wait to see how well it produces for you. :D

  16. Wonderful!

    Love the brick construction of it. Another potential project for the “great idea” cabinet in my brain. No if I just don’t forget where I put it 😊

  17. I love seeing things made out of brick. What a good way to repurpose your old bricks too.

  18. I've not heard of that either but it looks truly interesting. Can't wait to see how it works.

  19. I think I would have used 1" hardware cage wire for the composting. Hardware cloth will rust out within a couple of years. It also is not enough room to allow earthworms to enter and exit(1/2" cloth). Those suckers get mighty large. Red wigglers might work. Yes, compost will breakdown over time without worms, but you are missing out on the vermicomposting.

  20. Sharon, thanks. I think it's a great idea to file away.

    Renee, hopefully, it will produce well!

    Goatldi, keeping track of great ideas is half the battle, lol.

    tpals, I think the brick looks good too, although Dan says that the next one will be made out of something else. :p

    FFG, so far it's been easy to add compost and water! Anxiously awaiting the seeds to sprout!

    Jo, I don't think it matters what's used for the compost basket. Metal rusts, wood decomposes, and plastic dries out and breaks. Eventually, it would have to be replaced, although by that time, I'd just replace the basket at the top. We did add worms as we found them, both to the bed and the bin. But I can't say I've seen any around here that are fatter than half an inch!

    1. OMGOSH 😂

      Rolling just noticed the where’s Waldo of Captain M consumer of mice everywhere!

  21. What an excellent concept. Its been thought out from every angle...literally. Happy growing's.

  22. A great looking accent piece, and an attractive way to compost.

  23. Wow. A lot of work but so wonderful! Great Job!!

  24. Amazing finished product (Great masonry, Dan!). This is always the great problem for me, how to integrate the compost I have and have minimal impact on the soil. Looking forward to the results.

  25. I've seen those before, but Wow! what a nice job on yours. Anything that makes composting easier and quicker is a win.

  26. Goatldi, yay! Somebody noticed! ;)

    Frugal, I'm not sure who originally came up with the idea, but it is extremely clever. And useful!

    Mary, it did turn out to be an asset in our front yard! Especially considering the mess that used to be there!

    RT, thanks! Dan did a great job. :)

    TB, this certainly makes the work of maintaining a compost pile easier! Hopefully, it will prove to made gardening easier as well.

    Lady Locust, I've wanted one of these for a very long time. I was thrilled when I mentioned it to Dan as we discussed the front yard and he made it happen!

  27. Leigh, thank you so much for popping over to visit, and you left a comment. How wonderful is that? I appreciate it so. I hope you stop back again sometime.

  28. Looks great! I know Keyhole Gardens go way back in permaculture. I had one years ago in another house and it worked great. I've never seen one with the compost pile in the middle though that's different. it's kind of like the spiral herb gardens used in permaculture, really nice Aesthetics. Congrats!

  29. Faith, you're welcome! I always enjoy meeting new folks in the blogosphere. :)

    Nancy, the compost pile is why I called it "African." That's where the concept is largely used as a permaculture solution. :)

  30. My eyes popped out and antenna went up at your hugelkulture set up! I just did the same thing in some new raised beds: 4 x 4 beds we just built. I looked around the yard for what I could fill them with. Saw our piles of logs and remembered reading about hugelkulture. So we started with that too. Thinking I remember that they will keep the soil warmer too as they decompose. Since I'm planting mostly strawberries in he beds, they don't have deep roots and should work out just fine

  31. Unknown, you can't go wrong with the hugelkultur approach. It works!

  32. Great job to Dan, and what a beautiful addition to your front yard, Leigh.! Since I saw your original post on the keyhole garden., I had some old garden timbers that were not being used, so I ventured a project! It is 6x6 with the wire basket in the middle. We have tomato starts in it, and they seem to love their new home. I have really enjoyed adding the veggie cuttings to the new compost basket, because it is closer than our big compost bin. We did fancy an old metal pie pan for a lid, Lol! I would love to have a brick one, some day, but as you always say, we used what we have on hand. I do like the fact that this little garden is a perfect height, at 3 feet, which will be awesome to pick tomatoes. There may be more of these in my future! How’s the wheat doing? Have a terrific week, and thanks so much for the update!

  33. Wyomingheart, I'm glad to hear you made one too! You are very correct that the best materials are the ones at hand. Just between you and me, Dan wants to make more too, but not with brick again! lol

    The wheat is just starting to turn yellow. It should be ready to harvest some time next month.

    Debby, I agree! Of course I can say that, since we borrowed the idea too. :)

  34. I thought long and hard about building a keyhole garden a couple of years ago, when planning my next Very Raised Bed. Ultimately decided on a different approach, but would still LOVE to build one of these. Yours is the fanciest one I've seen - actually, it's the only one I've seen that wasn't in pictures from Africa! I bet you'll be reaping the rewards of your (and Dan's) hard work for many years to come.

  35. Quinn, if it wasn't for Dan wanting to do something with that pile of bricks that's been sitting around for the past 10 years, mine wouldn't look so fancy either! A lot of them seem to be low beds, roughly one brick (or rock) high. I'm very happy with a taller one; it saves bending over!

  36. I love the stacked functions in this design. Many make a keyhole garden, without the central compost funnel. But if you're someone who doesn't generate a lot of fresh scraps, this is perfect. No turning compost, as the worms do it for you. I also love that you used your leftover bricks. This is something we'll be embarking on soon too. As we have a fun little project in the pipeline. But really enjoyed seeing this idea, come to life! So many advantages to raised beds, as long as there are some micro-climate elements to protect them from exposure. I notice your keyhole garden, is semi-buried in the sounding soil. Which is a great temperature moderator.

  37. Chris, I've seen those keyhole gardens without the compost container and think they're missing something important. That's why I specifically identified mine as African, because the idea is so popular there. I reserve this compost bin for coffee grounds, weeds, and onion skins - things the chickens won't eat! They get the main compost goodies in our big bins in the chicken yard. :)


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