Keyhole – The Smarter Garden

Is it a coincidence that I hear about an entirely new gardening concept, from two different people, within two different contexts, in the span of a day, and the same person gets mentioned as the expert on the subject?

I think not.

Keyhole gardening. I’ll be adding it to my sustainable gardening repertoire. Keyhole gardens are built where water is scarce, where people don’t have abundant food sources at a local grocery store that they can easily waste choose from, or where land is locked in perpetual drought conditions and food cannot be easily grown.  They are named for the shape — which looks like a keyhole from above.

Texas Co-op Power Magazine: Keyhole Garden

My most awesome cousin, Elaine, shared with me an article she wrote on that very subject for Texas Co-op Power Magazine a few weeks back, where Deb Tolman and her keyhole garden were both featured. It was the first I’d seen anything like it, and I immediately thought Duh! why the heck didn’t I think of that?   Fact is, people do think of it…every day. It’s called staying alive. Here in Texas, we are recovering from some of the worst drought conditions that anyone can recently remember. Entire lakes dried up, even the creek in our yard dried up, and my typical micro-managing gardening ways were rocked to the core.  Once again, I was forced to re-think how I do things.

When Chad the Tree Guy was here the next day, we casually chatted about the uses for chipped tree debris — all of which I re-use — and all things sustainable-and-organic in nature.  He drops the name “Dr. Deb” and some kind of cool raised garden called a “keyhole.”  I really should look into it, he tell me.

There are several experts in this story, and no, I’m not one of the them. Dr. Deb Tolman is building them out of recycled materials and teaching others how to do the same right here in Texas. The folks at Send a Cow in the UK are teaching the keyhole concept in some of the hottest and driest places in the world.

A slight variation on my favored lasagna method, which I already do in my yard because it’s so easy (and free!), it is a garden with an in-place compost pile. All of the water and nutrients for the entire garden are “fed” through that compost. Brilliant, I tell you.

I look forward to building my own keyhole garden in the backyard using bricks, sticks, cans, newspaper, cardboard, chicken wire, leaves, compost, and, of course, bored kids — all of which I have just laying around.

Now, if could just scare me up some spare time.

33 thoughts on “Keyhole – The Smarter Garden

    1. Nice of you to come by! This is an old post that I recently moved to the top (a “sticky post”) in lieu of Uncle Guac’s blog love. Fully occupied with on-line public schooling for four — at home, no less! — is consuming most of my time. I hope to be back to regular blogging in another month or so.


  1. Yes! What a great idea!! I remember reading about using grey water for the garden in Harrowsmith Magazine when I was a kid… Hm,mm… With this weird weather we’re having maybe it’s time to finally get on with it?


    1. We in America take water for granted — not so in many parts of Africa where water is scarce. All of the water on our planet is conserved and recycled. Many don’t realize that most is tied up in the earth’s oceans, which is undrinkable, or deep under the crust which requires work (a/k/a/ petroleum) to extract. The keyhole garden is a wonderful way to grow food and conserve precious water resources. Plants aren’t too picky about what they drink.


      1. Plants love grey/dish/washing up water because the soap contains phosphates – the “K” in the NPK ratio on the fertiliser container (Nitrogen (N) Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) – and also allows water to be absorbed straight into bone dry ground instead of just running off: )


      2. Great points, and I’ll add urine as well, in dilute form (the nitrogen could burn the roots of some plants). Being outside most of the time, we keep a potty in the garage (to catch pee-pee) which then gets returned directly to the garden, rather than being treated first by the septic system. For the boys, though, it’s usually “just find a tree.” Anything to keep the kids from tracking dirt into the house. LOL


      3. OMG! Thanks for the visual (and I can almost here the chorus of “Oh MOM!” from here: )
        But seriously though? True grey water systems divert all waste water; with the exception of flushes with solids which go to the septic/sanitary system – pee toilet paper’s kept seperate and goes out to the mulch pile (unless, of course, you’re using a composting toilet and that’s another whole different story; )
        How do kids and dogs haul so much dirt around? : )


      4. We’re in a neighborhood, so we have no grey water. It just all goes to the same place (first in the solid wastes tank, then to the aerator, through the chlorine and onto the yard). I prefer to have a bit more control over water waste, so the next house may very well be different.

        $10 a rain barrel? Get out! I may have to do some shopping. I have 6 perfect places to set them up – I could do it all myself.

        Kids are some of the dirtiest things I’ve known – and I’ve known some dirt. Maybe that’s why I love ’em so much. 🙂


      5. Well it’s not really their fault… I’m thinkin’ they learned it from watching you take mushroom photos; )


  2. The video is heart-warming and the idea is ingenious. Are you really going to make one? Good for you!

    We have a well and live in an area where it’s tough to find water, which is unusual for Illinois and just something about the topography of our land. We’ve run dry twice in the 22 years we’ve lived here, and I don’t ever want to repeat it. So we’re always water conscious, but with the drought even more so. We’re doing military showers, I use the water in the basement dehumidifier to water my potted plants, etc.

    We just put a screen porch on the house and I’m so excited about the rain-barrel I had them install for the gutters on the porch to run into!

    Because I am selfish as can be, water conservation is all about me, me, me and my ability to flush the toilet.


    1. A well running dry? TWICE? Holy moly! I sure hope that doesn’t happen to us. I understand the expense of digging deeper one is quite high.

      Kudos on your water conservation habit. If you read this post ( you’ll realize we are much alike in that regard.

      We just had a very decent rainfall today, yet I can bet pretty assuredly that at least three of my neighbors will run their 12-zone sprinkler systems tomorrow AM for several hours. Kinda negates anything of the little things I do to make a difference.

      Catching rain…we have plans but have not actually installed rain barrels yet. It’s coming though! The drought last year has us re-thinking much of our “infrastructure.”

      Keyhole garden will be coming when it cools off again, probably in September. Check back as often as you like!


      1. We FINALLY had a rain yesterday and I came home from work to find…drum roll please…water in my rain barrel – it works! I’m so stoked.


      2. Glad you’re not a believer in coincidence and heard the message Shannon; this is great info that people, especially now, really need to hear about. Thank you for passing it along.
        But speaking of rain barrels, we recently purchased two for 10$ each from the small trucking company nearby. It’s a heavy duty plastic fifty gallon drum – gently used for soap to wash the trucks. The top’s been opened up and it’ll need a screen installed to keep bugs ‘n stuff out, but what a score!! Maybe you could find something similar too? Lots of places use mega amounts of fluids: food manufacturers, restaurants, the car wash… (and you can’t beat the price, eh? ; )


    2. Hey Peg, I know you don’t follow my blog (and you may even be off blogging now with a job and all), but I’m giving away a movie that you might like. Stop by in the next week and comment if you’d like to be considered. Cheers! And Happy Conservation to you…low flush toilets and all. 😀


      1. Thanks for the heads up, Shannon. I’m still blogging. To tell the truth, I follow no more than a handful of blogs. I can’t stand the “have to read” pressure of seeing all the new posts in my inbox.

        Went and commented – fingers crossed!


      2. I read blogs in the reader and opt out of the email flood. I too read just a few and only in my spare time (which is when again?). Thanks, Peg! With 4 DVD’s to give away, you’re sure to get one. The producers are throwing in the extras just because. Can you believe that?


  3. Reblogged this on dirt n kids and commented:

    Texas is no stranger to drought. Last year popped my little garden bubble and forced this dirt girl to do things very differently outside.

    The Keyhole Garden was one of those ah-ha moments. In light of the current drought conditions which are just beginning to plague the midwest, this may interest some of my readership.

    Happy Drought Gardening!


  4. Hi Shannon, Great article! I can’t wait to see how it goes for you. It really seems like a great design. Our poor yard was ravaged by the TX drought even though we have native/drought tolerant plants and so it has really made me nervous about doing anything with the outlook that the drought will continue for 10 years. I just need to make myself get out there an give it a try. The only other thing we have to worry about is building a fence of some sort that can keep the deer away from it. I know my kids would love it though and we’d save a lot of money on yummy food. I need to take a look around your blog. It looks great and it is good to read from someone else who is in a similar location.


    1. Hey Jocelyn! Glad to have lured you here. Chad, my tree guy, never steers me wrong with good advice. I’ve done a bit of back-and-forth with Dr. Deb already and hoping to get her here to my area for a workshop. I understand that fencing it (deer and critters) is a cinch.


      1. For fencing, the easiest thing I’ve seen is metal posts with chicken wire type stuff. Is that what you are thinking? I just have to make sure it is high enough that the deer won’t jump over it.


      2. I’m speaking a more temporary variety (to make it easy to harvest) close to the perimeter. Deer won’t jump that. Here, we have coons too. Yes, I was thinking too metal T-posts with chicken wire attached that is hung 1-ft too high (it flops over when they attempt to climb). I’ll be sure to post some photos.


      3. Oh yeah, the 1 ft. too high is a good idea. I look forward to some pictures. Oh, and I live near Austin so we are prob. a bit drier than you but the drought has definitely affected everyone.


  5. Colorado is also dry . . . we tried growing a few things, and for the effort got not much to show.

    Good reading. Will have to research it to see if it’s something we want to get into.


    1. I’m expecting complete success! After all, it’s meant to be a garden where the work is taken out of tending it. No weeding, everything is harvested at waste level, and the entire garden is provided both water and nutrients from the center. Every plant gets something. Wish me luck.


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