Keyhole Gardening Technique

Keyhole Gardening – An Interesting Concept

I received an email from Artistic Garden friend and reader Liz F. the other day asking me if I’d heard of “keyhole gardening.” She had seen my article about sheet composting, and thought I might not be aware of this technique.

I admit it – I’ve never heard of it before! I don’t know who may have originally come up with this idea, but Deborah Tolman, Ph.D. who resides in central Texas has written about keyhole gardening.

You can read a great article where she was interviewed and shared her keyhole gardening method here: Keyhole Gardening – Unlocking the secrets of drought-hardy gardens.

In essence, keyhole gardens are a technique of gardening used to grow vegetables in dry climates and have been successfully used in places around the world that get far less water than even the driest places in Texas, or a North Carolina drought.

They are a special form of raised bed gardens, circular, and walled in by stones or closely packed poles with a path to the center. At the center is a smaller circular basket made from chicken wire that holds manure and other organic kitchen waste. This center of manure and kitchen waste is the self-watering and self-fertilizing aspect that makes gardening life easier, reduces grocery bills, reduces the amount of water to the plants, eliminates fertilizing, and positively influences eating habits with fresh fruits and vegetables.

I’ve been posting recently about sheet composting/lasagna composting, which is enhanced if you can add manure to the compost bed. In keyhole gardening, it appears manure is an integral ingredient.

A word about “good” manure: don’t buy the really cheap, prebagged bags of so-called manure found at many home improvement stores and gardening centers. If you look at the ingredients on the bag, you’ll find you’re not buying a bag of 100% cow, horse or poultry manure. You’ll likely find, if my memory serves me correctly (it’s been awhile since I looked at one of these bags) that sand is a main ingredient! Sand or other non-manure ingredients have no purpose to serve if it’s 100% manure you’re needing for your compost pile or bed.

You want to get real cow, horse, chicken, sheep, or even rabbit manure. I must stress – PLEASE wear gloves and even a dust mask to keep yourself protected from any pathogens naturally found in manures. I’ve “handled” quite a large load of cow manure when I was making a sheet compost bed and had no problems health-wise, but I was careful to not touch my gloved hands to my nose or face while I was shoveling the manure, and I washed my hands thoroughly after I was done. I also took off my “shoveling” clothes and put them in the laundry room, waiting to be washed.

Maybe those of you who have been raised on a farm and have much more experience handling animal manures will say that I was being overly careful, but in today’s world of strange illnesses and such … I believe a small ounce of prevention is well worth it!

Photo credit: © Deborah Tolman, Ph.D.


  1. Rochelle Ford says:

    I built a keyhole garden this year and let me tell you it is AMAZING! I used lots of decomposed leaves from my forest, chicken manure from my chickens, junk mail, grass clippings, and on top of it all some very lovely composted soil. My plants were VIGOROUS, I had no weeds, and it hardly took any water. I have since built another one and plan on always gardening this way now. Plus I love the height.

  2. Thanks Rochelle for telling us this method has worked great for you and your plants! 🙂

  3. Diana Mitchell Moor says:

    The PDF on keyhole gardening did not come up, an error message appeared.Can this be fixed? Love your site. I think we are like-thinking gardeners.

  4. Diana & Everyone:

    Somehow, somewhere I found and posted a non-existent link and Dr. Deb alerted me to it. Please review the post (above) as I’ve updated it, with a link to a current and “better” article that Dr. Deb said includes some new keyhole gardening methods. Sorry for the link error.

  5. Carol O'ryan says:

    I think you are not being overly careful when handling the animal manures, I would probably do the same.

  6. Claudia Brownlie says:

    1ight, Carol. Manures that aren’t properly and completely composted can harbor parasites and other little nasties that aren’t human-friendly. Wearing gloves, washing your hands and under your nails really well after removing your gloves, and other precautionary steps are not considered being “overly cautious” by any means.

    AAMOF, when I was a kid I remember my mother telling me about a neighbor lady who ended up with some kind of internal parasites due to her spreading sheep manure throughout her garden beds. I don’t think she would have done that without gloves, but probably she didn’t wash her hands and under her nails REALLY well after removing her gloves, and then must have put her fingers in her mouth later on (maybe when eating a snack or meal?) and voila! Bad side effects a few days later (I don’t remember what her symptoms were) and then a trip to the doctor to determine what was causing her problems and then she had to take an anti-parasite medicine of some sort.

    So – yup everyone – please just be aware of what you’re handling when adding manure or compost with manure in it to your garden!

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