Sunday, January 1, 2012

From Africa to Valhalla: a keyhole garden

Doing it the hard way: one of the National Guard
Soldiers we met in Solerno, Afghanistan tending
his plants at a demonstration farm dedicated to
teaching villagers about irrigation and modern
farming methods. It's a big challenge since Afghans
often reject techniques that they aren't already
familiar with - and the soil there is simply terrible!
Have you ever heard of a garden that waters and fertilizes itself? We certainly had never heard of such a thing until last week when we stumbled across a short video showing women in Africa building a "keyhole garden."

The concept is incredibly simple, and the keyhole raised bed in the video looked very easy to construct with hardly any tools and only very inexpensive materials. Take a look for yourselves:

Keyhole gardens are now popping up all over the world. They reportedly can be made with bricks, stone, rocks - just about anything that will hold the soil in place. Organic material from the garden (lawn clippings, leaves, etc.) and kitchen scraps that one would ordinarily compost are tossed directly into the central core to eventually feed the surrounding soil.

Of course Valhalla must have one - and if this first prototype actually works, there's plenty of room where several more could be built. The following step-by-step pictorial guide shows to how we approached our first keyhole garden project. An important disclaimer: this is a step-by-step guide on how we did things here at Valhalla during our first attempt; it is not a list of instructions on how to build the perfect keyhole garden bed by any stretch of the imagination. For all we know, our approach might be a recipe for failure! Yet it's important to document every step so we can all learn about what works and what doesn't.

We first marked two circles on the ground with
an entry space between them, then dig a shallow
trench following the outer circle (click on any of
these photos to enlarge).
Step 1: We spray painted a small circle onto the ground using a 2' piece of string loosely looped around a central stake, then painted a large circle using a 5' piece of string. The  entryway marked between the circles is much wider than usual to allow easier access for those Valhallans who may have mobility issues or other physical challenges. Then we dug a narrow trench along the outer circle two or three inches deep.

We placed the first row of bricks at a 45 degree
angle so they're resting on each other. We packed
dirt on both sides for stability while angling each
brick inward towards the center.
Step 2: We lined the outer circle trench with bricks stuck into the dirt at a 45 degree angle and later found that the bricks should angle inward slightly. Packing dirt on both sides of each brick was necessary to stabilize them. We were surprised at how fast this first row went in - it was very easy. Valhalla just happened to have piles of bricks laying everywhere, they sure are coming in handy now.

We built a round cage in the center using
4' tall woven wire, a few pieces of old pipe,
and wire ties.
Step 3: We pounded three old pieces of pipe into the ground and wrapped 4' high round wire-mesh cage around them, forming a round cage and  securing the wire to the stakes with wire ties. This is where leaves, grass, kitchen scraps and other compost material will go in. Notice that our keyhole garden is shaped more like Pac-Man due to the wider entryway, but that shouldn't hurt anything.

We lined the bottom of the bed with
paper and cardboard
Step 4: We lined the bottom of the bed with paper and cardboard to keep weeds from growing up next spring, and also made a temporary barrier inside the cage to help keep dirt out during construction. The paper and cardboard inside the main bed will add some carbon to the compost as it rots and also serve as substrate for the little tiny microscopic microbes that help to nourish the soil inside the bed.

Gordon used the tractor that Ed Harkreader loaned
to Valhalla to fetch several bucket-loads of topsoil
from the waiting mini-mountains of dirt. Thank you
so much Ed, we're taking very good care of it!
Step 5: It was then time for the first layer of topsoil. We had two big truckloads of it delivered several months ago. Then Valhalla volunteer  Ed Harkreader loaned us his tractor with a bucket on it for two weeks. We'll never be able to thank him enough; hauling individual buckets across the yard would have been a  nightmare, while this was easy!

Contemplating the possibility of using mortar to
lock in the second row of bricks. Nah. If women in
Africa do not need any then we shouldn't need to
use any mortar either. If we've made a bad decision
we'll add it to the Lesson's Learned pile and go back
to fix any mistakes, or even start over if necessary.
Step 6: After carefully dumping the topsoil in we spread it around with  rakes into an even layer over the paper and cardboard. However, when stacking the second row of bricks it became clear that a lot more dirt was needed to help support the bricks. Yes, we thought about mortaring the bricks into place... but the women in Africa used bricks without mortar, so we didn't want to cheat. If they can do it, we should be able to do it too...

The second row of bricks clearly tilt in towards
the compost basket in the center.
Step 7: With additional topsoil for support the second row of bricks went in fast. We angled them inward quite a bit... they lock in to each other, but not as much as we'd hoped. On the bright side, Gordon accidentally dropped some of a tractor bucket-load of dirt on part of this second row of bricks and the growing outer wall still stayed in place. Works so far!

Paper, cardboard, and sun-bleached deer bones
went into the very bottom of the compost cage.
Step 8: At this point it was time to start filling the bottom of the compost cage to prevent too much topsoil from falling in. We started with paper, cardboard, and a couple of old sun-bleached deer bones that coyotes had apparently dragged into the yard at some point. The bones should add calcium just like eggshells in traditional compost piles do.

Nutrients from the compost cage will eventually travel through the cage to nourish the soil in the main gardening bed. Think for a moment about this important point: compost piles are normally placed in or near a garden, yet then one has to take the time and energy to physically move the composted soil over to the actual growing beds. The keyhole garden approach is based on composting organic materials right inside of their ultimate destination, thus eliminating a very time consuming and labor intensive step in traditional gardening approaches.

Chopping leaves with Valhalla's second-hand but
very functional lawn mower, and taking some of
the Guinea fowl's precious partially composted
bedding. Incidentally, the Guinea Fowl Palace
doesn't smell at all since we layer in fresh leaves
every few days. Nonetheless, the old leaves down
below are rotting - composting - and generate the
heat that the birds need to stay warm on icy nights.
Chopped up leaves went in next - and here's a neat trick: if you have a lawn mower then simply run it over any leaf piles that you might have, or just straight over leaves that haven't been raked up yet. When the lawn mower bag fills up, the leaves inside will range from dust to tiny shreds to half-chopped leaves - just perfect for compost! After spending countless hours raking up leaves I sure wish we'd figured that out before. Well, live and learn.

Then we raided the Guinea Fowl Palace that Specialist Jen Manning built for some of their precious bedding, which is a combination of straw, leaves, and (naturally) bird droppings. We didn't want to take too much since that's how the Guineas stay warm during cold winter nights: the bottom layers are many months old and already rotting - that is, composting - which generates heat. When it's really cold they drop down from their roosts and burrow down into the thick carpet of leaves to stay warm. The Guineas watched with a great deal of interest as we took a few cubic feet of their composted bedding away, yet they still have yards of the stuff left in there.

We used ash from the fireplace to ensure
purity, then poured hand-carried jugs of
well water over the first layers of
organic materials inside the keyhole
garden bed's composting cage.

Step 9: Other essential additions to the keyhole compost cage included wood ash straight out of the fireplace to ensure purity. It always seems that no matter how careful one tries to be, little bits of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials will inevitably land in a household burn barrel and should therefore be avoided like the plague when composting.

Then we added some large jugs of water. This is sort of a sore point here at Valhalla for the moment, since there's not a single water facet on the front side of the house to run hoses from. This will be resolved in the coming months after an appropriate rain water collection system can be designed and built to capture water running off the roof. A large cistern will have to be purchased and buried up the hill just outside the house, then hoses and gravity will be used to deliver water to the garden and all the vegetable beds by spring.

We added more topsoil than we thought we'd need,
but it turned out to be the perfect amount.
Step 10: We added a lot more topsoil into the bed in preparation for adding the third row of bricks. The compost already added into the center cage kept dirt out very efficiently, and the piles of dirt outside the cage shielded the chopped leaves and other materials from blowing away in the wind (it's been extremely windy here in the last several days).

Preparing biochar in one of the other raised garden
beds by partially burning and then smoldering piles
of sticks collected off the ground under trees.
With help from microbes and the earth worms that
will be added later, this charcoal will rot and
slowly release carbon and nutrients into the soil.
Step 11: We'd previously prepared some charcoal in one of our other raised garden beds by lighting piles of small sticks on fire, letting them burn halfway through, and then covering them up with dirt so they could smolder for a few hours before burning out. The resulting charcoal is actually the biochar we'd previously blogged about. We took some of it and spread it all around the keyhole garden bed outside the cage along with several bags of store-bought compost (by next year Valhalla will be generating enough compost from scratch so it won't be necessary to buy it again).

Valhalla's first completed keyhole garden, all ready
for worms, more compost, and finally planting
during this coming spring. 
Step 12: We completed the third row of bricks and added more composting materials -  we're done! Next week we'll go pick up a bucket of earth worms from Ike Yates worm farm in Gassville and then wait to see how heavy rains will effect our first keyhole garden attempt. If the walls hold up as they should, we'll build a second keyhole garden similar to this one.

An amusing sidebar to this story: our favorite UPS delivery man arrived to deliver a package but suddenly caught sight of Valhalla's unusual new addition in the garden. "What the heck is that?" he asked while pointing. "It's a keyhole garden from Africa!" I answered, and then explained how it works. He stared at it some more while rubbing his chin. "Well," he finally said, "Have you ever heard that people are starving in Africa?" Funny!

"You've gotta be joking.."
Cats Vixen and Joker as they listened in on our discussion about Valhalla's Master Gardening Plan. Vixen is clearly skeptical and Joker doesn't know what to think of it all. They don't like vegetables anyway so their opinions don't count. 

* * *
The Valhalla Project needs your help and support
Just getting a project like Valhalla up and running has required a significant investment in time, money, and labor. With roughly $500,000 already invested over the last two years into the Valhalla Project for property acquisition, feeding and housing Soldier participants, infrastructure and facility improvements, animal purchases and feed, tools and building supplies, forest and pasture management expenses, and much much more, resources are running thin. We need YOUR help to keep Valhalla functioning efficiently - while at the same time expanding vitally important programs to assist post-9/11 combat Soldiers and war zone civilian workers to transition back into the civilian world. 

The Valhalla Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity recognized by the IRS.
Nobody, including cadre or board members, draws a paycheck here, nor will they ever: we simply give everything we have to make Valhalla possible. 100% of your donation via Paypal will go directly to program expenses, period. If you'd prefer to instead directly donate four new tractor tire, a truckload of straw bales, a pallet of dimension lumber, or even a few dozen 10' sheets of forest green tin roofing, that would be absolutely wonderful - yet perhaps polking the "Donate" button above to contribute $10, $20, 
$50 or even more might be a little easier and more practical!


  1. Thanks, I found your info on Pinerest, it inspired me so that I started to make one of these Keyhole gardens in my backyard (Southern Utah). Here's what mine looks like so far: *Note ~ Just the first row of rocks so far, a work in progress.

  2. Anyone of any diverse ability can appreciate being able to garden on a waist or chest high plant bed with out it being a necessity of the task to bend over or be on your hands & knees to do the required work daily.

  3. Very nice. Another bit of info to use.

  4. Turns out, there's a whole FaceBook page devoted to keyhole gardens

  5. Very nice! A similar method is to drill many holes in a 5 gallon bucket, bury the holey-bucket in a garden bed and put your compost in the bucket. Worms come to eat the veggie matter while nutrients flow out the holes into the dirt. (a lid keeps the dogs out.)

  6. This garden is awesome, I have to say though the very last comment is racial an offensive and should be removed not FUNNY AT ALL THAT PEOPLE are STARVING any where...

    1. I don't think it was meant to be offensive. I took it as he was saying this would be a good project to be done in Africa not knowing that it was a project adapted from Africa. the joke was on him as he didn't know it .

    2. Denae, that comment had NOTHING to do with race, so stop looking for trouble where there's none to be found. Relax. Sheesh!

    3. Idiot. Must be a liberal. I just got done reading a book about southwest indian-style gardening and they had to throw in a blurb about how you should never say "sit indian style" or dress in buckskins because that is offensive to native americans. People are so steeped in guilt and self-loathing, it's embarassing to hear them talk. As if we're the ones who did them wrong. Idiots.

    4. I agree, today people are so [for a kinder way of putting it] politically correct and jump on the "oh poor me , i'm a different color thing", whatever happened to just having a everday , don't beat around the bush conversation? Lord girl don't come around me because i don't sugar coat anything!

    5. People who have been offended by this whole thread and ALL comments made regarding this paticular thread need to go out to their own gardens to work it all out in their own corner of the world.

    6. Now don't go getting all down on Liberals. Not all of us are looking for trouble where there is none to be found.I understood the comment for what it was, just a bit of irony. BTW, what a cool article and a cool project, thanks for sharing this. I can't wait to try it in Washington state! I will be following this to see how it goes, best of luck!

    7. Danei and Monique, you are both idiots. Please remove yourself from the planet.

  7. @ Denae: I don't think it was racial offensive, I believe it was meant to make people think. Nobody said anything about race or color. It's people like you that blow things out of proportions and we all get bend out of shape. Get a life Denae and wake up to reality!

  8. Certainly Food for thought. I have just developed a number of raised beds but these are all square. I did these because I now have arthritis. I always curse because the middle of the bed is a bit hard to reach even though they are only about 4ft x 3 ft. I am quite small you see. I am wondering if I were to dig out a section in the centre and place my composted material into some sort of raised container I would be solving two problems. Just one question, what did you use for the roof? We have drought threats and hosepipe bans here in the south of England yet again so I wondered what would be best to use? Thanks for the wonderful info. Tricia.

    1. I wonder if you could build a square compost bin in the middle??????

  9. too many rats. need to completly cover the kitchen scraps.

  10. This is so interesting. I haven't done much gardening, like ever, but I really want to start and this looks fun =)

  11. Interesting concept.Thanks for sharing.

  12. Tricks, we are experimenting with putting a small compost circle inside our rectangular raised beds. Ours are 8 foot x 4 foot. The concept ought to work just as effectively as a circular bed, although distribution of moisture and nutrients may not be as evenly spread. It should work for your system, too.

    Anonymous, we don't have a rat problem because we make a hole in the compost and bury new additions to it then cover the new stuff with the carbon matter (grass clippings, wood chips, leaves) and that doesn't attract rodents.

  13. How is it self watering? I live in an area where the average yearly rain fall is about 4".

  14. The setup is self-watering to a point. Moisture from the vegetable matter in the pile wicks laterally by capillary action into the garden. In such a brittle environment as you describe additional would probably be necessary. Super heavy mulch would also help.

  15. A few years ago, I put a 12" tube of fencing in my garden bed, to use as on site compost. I loaded it with my pulled weeds, and it did compost down. I ended up getting rid of it in the fall clean up, but now I'm wishing I had not only kept it, but put more in intervals down the center of my 16' x 4' long bed. Maybe I'll do that this year. I'm also slowly working toward building an edible forest garden in the back yard. I live in the city, but have a great yard which already has apple, black walnut, maple and mulberry trees, as well as jostaberries, raspberries and wild grapes and onions. I'm looking forward to seeing how this comes together over the next few years. We are hoping to grow almost all of our food, at least the vegetables, fruits and perhaps chickens at some point!

    I just heard about your organization from someone posting this story on facebook. I am so glad I found you!!! You are doing amazing work, a labor of love and compassion and ecological responsibility. I wish I could donate some money to you, but that is tight these days, but I will share your story on facebook to get the word out.

    1. We're trying to do the same here in Minneapolis, where the city gov't SUPPORTS urban farming and the Yard to Garden movement!

      Your black walnut tree is problematic. The roots, buds, and to a lesser extent the entire tree produces JUGLONE which is a respiratory toxin for many, many plants.

      Raspberries, plums and cherries will be fine, as will beans, beets, and chard.

      However, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers are VERY sensitive and will not fruit if grown within 50' of the drip line. Apples and cultivated grapes are also damaged significantly by juglone. It takes about 20 years after the death of the walnut tree for the juglone to decompose.

      If your walnut tree is small, I suggest that you remove it, since your space is limited. My tree is mature and fruiting, though I wish it weren't as curing the walnuts seems like more work than I can manage. I diligently separate my walnut waste from the rest of the yard waste and keep it on the raspberry beds which are already around the tree.

    2. keep your mulberry tree in check too! my friends have a very mature tree 40+foot and it fruits heavily. when the fruit is in season it drops like crazy over their entire yard covering everything in purple staining mush. it makes a mess on the sidewalk and even parked cars on the street.

  16. I read this keyhole gardening via a friend's facebook and find it very innovative. I am not much of a gardener, in fact, I live in a metro area with no space for gardening. Guess where, Africa but i enjoyed reading this piece and appreciate it.
    In addition, I want to probably define the thought of the mail delivery guy: that there are such innovative ways to battle hunger in Africa amd yet the continent is not looking inward, rather outward for aids that will be partly embezzled.
    Thanks for bringing this to my awareness. It something to present that Africa can battle hunger and contribute to the world.

  17. Great to see this little video making itself useful around the world! I made this video with Helen Kongai, a friend who also works for Send a Cow in Uganda. You may all be interested to see some other videos with techniques at
    Hope all the gardening goes well.

  18. I found your website via Pinterest and was of course initially intrigued by the Keyhole garden concept...and then to discover you are working with our veterans! My husband is currently Active Duty and has 4 deployments to Iraq under his belt as well as 2 more from during Desert Storm. We proudly support our fellow military and I look forward to learning more about your Valhalla!

  19. Wow this is great! thanks so much!

  20. A slight correction about biochar: it doesn't "rot and release carbon", actually it will last a very long time and provide a place for moisture, nutrients and microbes to be harbored. More info about biochar at:

  21. Looks typically permaculture to me - which i don't see mentioned anywhere here, surprisingly - so not entirely new, but certainly an excellent application of these powerful fundamental principles of ecology, using local materials etcetera. Way to go!

  22. I've learned about this from a nursery in Plainfield IL and it is super easy and inexpensive, we've started doing this on our farm!

  23. Looks like this would work well as a salad bar for our huge deer population :(..
    Any suggestions to keep them away from it?

  24. My husband and I have been using a variation of this to grow tons of wonderful tomatoes for many, many years in Minnesota. We made a circle of wire for compost and yard debris; then planted our tomatoes in a circle around it (not raised) with a wooden support square for each plant. We mulched around the plants with grass clippings, and added to the compost bin all summer. We also watered the compost bin rather than the tomatoes when needed, which was rarely. The plants were fertilized and watered from the compost bin and it was easy to reach over tomato plants to add compost.

    1. What a wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing!

  25. Is there an update on this project? I would love to know how things turned out, as I am thinking this type of garden could be either a fantastic option for my yard or a spectacular disaster. I kind of specialize in the disaster department since I moved to the mountains, so I'd really appreciate the chance to avoid any known pitfalls.

  26. I'd like an update too please :)

  27. I really appreciate this wonderful post, i favor your functioning on this web site thanks for sharing this informative article.

  28. It looks promising. I like the inclusion of charcoal for water conservation and of earthworms our natural compost makers and soil aerators. It is a promising method for 'kitchen gardens' and can be adapted to larger 'grow plots' too. To be a good farmer you have to be inventive and I like the saying, of my Agricultural master some 50 odd years ago, that has a double meaning "A good farmer is outstanding in his field"

    I took the pointless comment about people starving in Africa as meaning that this can't be so good as it is from Africa where people are starving. The comment must have been thoughtlessly made, or a senseless jest.
    In our part of Africa (Zimbabwe), we are teaching "GOD's Way of Farming" as developed and taught by "Foundations For Farming" (F4F) a dedicated team lead by Brian Oldrieve.

    They/we teach permanent planting stations, thermal compost, mulching and minimal soil disturbance all headed by prayer.

    I have sent over 400 individuals for training at their training centre on the outskirts of Harare.

    These trainees, now our 'Lead farmers' were trained on the understanding that they would return to their villages and teach at least 10 other villagers what we have taught them.
    We are 'overworked and under paid'(ha, ha, ha)while trying to monitor and evaluate over 4 000 villagers now practicing this zero till method of organic farming.

    Keep up the good work at least you are doing something to alleviate hunger. GOD will lead you if you allow Him to.

    1. People are starving in Africa because soldiers keep shooting and looting the farmers. Africa could be the bread basket of the world if the wars ever end and lawlessness was addressed.

  29. Thanks for this effort and for sharing. It seems a good way to construct a starter garden, a good way to repurpose old bricks and certainly a good way to get some composting in without having to apply it and then till it in! I am curious about how you prevent that open compost heap from making your garden a haven for mosquitos? Here in GA we suffer so with mosquitos that seem to swarm around any moisture. I envision the compost circle as a wet soppy bog after a rain..or does the water wick in quickly?

  30. I piled 3cu ft bags of compost in rows with room in between and pile compost in between. I tore holes in the bottom of the bags ans cut the tops out planted in the bags carrots peppers cilantro lettuce tomatoes the water drains out of the bags to water celery between the bags and compost keeps everything cooler desert gardening in Las Vegas

  31. This stream is old but wanted to say I very much appreciate what you're doing (and hopefully are still doing). I took the man's comment a completely different way - as in why did you get a planting bed "from Africa" as they need it more there. On top of learning about (for me) a new way to garden and an honorable and needed project, with all the ways one comment can be interpreted, it's a good reminder to not make assumptions/judgements. I'll always prefer to think the best of someone first.