As the granddaughter of a farmer, I spent many of my childhood summers “helping” my grandfather work his land. My sister and I rode on tractors, strengthened our hands learning to irrigate and walked behind Grandpa as he surveyed his rows of corn and beets. I’m proud that some of what farmer’s like my grandfather raise goes to help vulnerable people around the world, like where Food for the Hungry (FH) works in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
What I enjoyed most about my farming days was helping Grandma with her vegetable garden. People didn’t know about keyhole gardens then.
When I read about Maria’s keyhole garden—along with those of many others with whom FH works—I decided to take a stab at this unique design in my Arizona backyard, where growing vegetables has been difficult. Through this blog post, I’m going to help you learn how to do the same thing.
The concept of building a keyhole garden close to a kitchen has both simplified lives and transformed the health of thousands of families worldwide. Many of these families live in drought-prone places, similar to the U.S. desert where I live. Others live in lush areas of the world with higher humidity. In both kinds of locales, these gardens are making a difference, and they’re becoming popular in developed countries like the U.S. because of their efficiency and high yields.
Why a Keyhole Garden?
Keyhole gardening overcomes the issues that have thwarted my previous attempts to replicate Grandma’s vegetable garden. I figured, why not try a technique proven to work in the drought-prone areas of the world for the benefits of healthy eating, better tasting vegetables than I can get in a typical grocery store, and caring for the environment?
My Inspiration: Maria’s Keyhole Garden
Reversed a Lifestyle of Malnutrition!
Maria and her family of eight live in the arid highlands of northwest Guatemala. The area’s infertile soil, along with the lack of space and water that Maria needed for growing food, had a devastating impact on her six children. Without necessary nutrients, young children suffer irreversible developmental losses, including low IQ, inability to concentrate and stunting.
Six of every ten people in Maria’s community suffered from chronic malnutrition, including her own children.
The health of Maria’s family improved once she was finally able to grow enough high-nutrient food with a keyhole garden.
FH staff helped Maria’s entire community learn how to build and maintain keyhole gardens. The idea was well received because this design requires less land, water and manual labor—but it produces higher yields than conventional gardens.
Maria’s first harvest proved the value of this sustainable and efficient way to produce the high-nutrient crops that FH taught her to grow.
“Having our own garden helps my children in their development,” Maria says. “We don’t use chemicals; all is organic and healthy. Plus, they like to eat the salads we prepared with our vegetables. Now, my little son Wilder is growing well.”
Benefits of Building Your Own Keyhole Garden
This sustainable garden is highly effective in producing good-tasting, high-nutrient crops with very little water and in a small space (like my backyard). They’re especially needed in dry climates where growing other crops is difficult, because the design nourishes the soil and maintains moisture.
A keyhole garden is a round, raised bed—six feet in diameter with 2- to 3-foot high walls so you don’t have to bend over too much to maintain your garden.
The combination of the access area and the compost area looks like a keyhole when viewed from the top, like this one from FH’s program in Guatemala.
You can use different kinds of material for the walls, including rocks, bricks, wood or recycled materials like old tires. In the U.S., you can buy full kits—or you can use whatever you can find to keep the cost down (that’s what FH teaches people in our programs to do). I decided to match the rest of my landscaping.
A pie-shaped piece of the wall is cut out to allow you easy access to both your garden and the center compost area—where you layer organic materials for soil enrichment and longevity and, along with techniques such as mulching and saving seeds from what you grow, helps to make the garden more self-sustainable.
Another thing that convinced me to go this route was reading about a woman in Texas who uses the keyhole garden technique to grow most of what she eats year-round, producing soil from cardboard boxes, phone books and newspapers.
How You Can Build Your Own Keyhole Garden
I asked our staff and combed the Internet to put together “How to Build a Keyhole Garden in 5 Easy Steps,” which you can download for free to bring the benefits of keyhole gardening to your home. In this document you’ll discover how to:
- Grow nutrient-rich vegetables in a small space
- Plan, build, fill, plant and maintain your keyhole garden
- Create “soil” from cardboard
- Choose the best location and plants for your garden