A keyhole garden plan to suit different situations

There are many different styles of garden you can build, and many techniques you can use to build them. I have talked about a few here on my blog, such as the herb spiral, and buried wood beds.

The style of vegetable garden layout in this article can be built using buried wood, or any other technique. It’s the arrangement of the beds that matters in this method.

The method I’m going to talk about today is called a keyhole garden. Keyhole gardening is a design technique that lets the gardener reach the whole bed while standing – or sitting – in one spot.

A short history of keyhole gardening

There are actually two different keyhole garden designs. One originated in Africa, is a raised bed, and incorporates a compost pile in the center.

These keyhole garden beds were designed to enable the sick to have a kitchen garden close to the house that was easy for them to work in. They could stand in the center and reach most of the garden; and they could lean against the bed when they were weak.

The style was soon adopted by other people in the dry lands of Africa, and other places around the world. But it can be adapted to many different climates and growing conditions.

The other design is well-known in permaculture circles. It is an in-ground garden style, and doesn’t incorporate a compost pile. It is created to enable the gardener to reach all areas of the garden from one spot, and to increase the edge. More on that in a bit.

Both styles have their place in permaculture garden systems. The one which incorporates a compost pile is excellent for dry lands, as you can also put grey water into the compost pile, which will help keep the bed hydrated.

DRAWING COMING of both types

As you can see from the drawing above, the shape of the bed makes it easy for someone standing in the ‘keyhole’ to reach any part of the bed. Now let’s see what happens when we put a few of these together.


So, the beds between the ‘keyholes’ are wider now. That’s because the gardener can reach to the middle from each side. This is an excellent way to really reduce the amount of work you need to do in the garden. You really can reach a lot of the bed without picking up and moving.

There are other layouts you can use to good effect as well.

DRAWING COMING – side by side, facing each other

Building a keyhole garden

As I mentioned, you can use any garden building method when creating your keyhole garden plan. For instance, you can lay wet cardboard or newspaper on the ground in the shape you want, cover with compost and plant.

You can also use the buried wood system that I use. Dig your trenches in the shape you want, lay in the wood, and cover with soil. Or you can just put the wood right on the ground, in which case you’ll have to source your soil somewhere else.

These techniques will result in lower garden beds, that are mostly accessible to people who don’t have any problems bending down. But what about those with limited mobility?

Raised bed keyhole garden plan

Using raised beds for your keyhole garden plan makes gardening accessible to those with limited mobility. A person can just stand in the keyhole and lean against the raised beds. Or you can put a stool or chair for them to sit on.

You can even build the beds at the right height to be accessed from a wheel chair. What a wonderful gift to bring to someone who loves to garden, but can’t access a regular garden anymore.

When building your raised keyhole garden beds, you might not want to use logs, or anything that is too wide – the gardener will have to reach over the log, and will lose quite a bit of space. There are a few options:

  • wooden boards, such as pallet slats, or any other scraps you can find (of course, you can purchase wood too; I just like reusing and repurposing things)
  • wire mesh, such as chicken wire
  • woven twigs or bamboo

But you can also use stone or brick, logs, or any other building material you prefer.

Another benefit of a keyhole garden

Earlier in this post, I talked about the ‘edge effect’. I’ve written about it in this post, but I’ll summarize it here.

The edge of one ecosystem butts up against the edge of the ecosystem beside it. Where these two edges meet creates a new ecosystem which incorporates parts of both the abutted ecosystems, and new elements that are unique to the new ecosystem. Too confusing? Yeah, how about a picture?

DRAWING COMING – two ecosystems side by side

If you use careful observation, you will often see that there is a lot more diversity on the edge of a field in the middle. This is the ‘edge effect’. And you can replicate this effect – and increase productivity – by creating more edges in your garden.

If you build your keyhole garden as an in-ground or buried wood bed, you will be adding a LOT of edge to the garden. The two edges will be the edge of the bed, and whatever you have growing in the paths and ‘keyhole’. These are the two ecosystems that will create the edge effect.

Keyhole garden bed compost pile

You want to treat this like any other compost pile: layer your greens and browns, don’t use meats or fats, and keep it moist but not soaking wet. You can use grey water to wet it.

People often put red wriggler worms into the compost pile to help process the input. If you have a lot of red wrigglers, you can use more greens in the pile, as the worms will eat their way through it, and leave behind some amazing worm castings to use on the garden.

But the compost pile will attract native worms as well. Our compost piles are full of worms when we dig into them; so you might not need to add red wrigglers if you have worms in your soil.

Planting your keyhole garden

Within your keyhole bed there will be different microclimates. The areas closest to the compost pile might be a little more fertile, and will definitely have access to more water. The outside edges – especially the side facing the sun – will be drier.

ILLUSTRATION COMING – showing microclimates

Looking at the illustration, you can see that you can also create microclimates by utilizing the plantings. Tall plants can provide shade for other plants that prefer cooler temperatures.

The conditions on the edges of the bed will be drier than in the center, so plant things that don’t mind soil on the dry side. Many Mediterranean herbs like it hot and dry.

You can plant anything in a keyhole garden; so what you plant depends entirely on what you like to eat. Have fun with it and be creative.

ILLUSTRATIONS COMING – showing planting schemes

Squash plants can tumble over the sides of a raised bed if you give them room around the bed to sprawl. The same with melons and cucumbers.

I think if I was to build a keyhole garden with a compost in the center, I would use some chicken wire to make a circle around the compost, and then plant indeterminate tomatoes around that, to grow up the cylinder. That would look cool. And they would appreciate the fertility and moisture from the compost.

If all you have room for is one keyhole garden bed, you can still grow quite a bit of food. But if you have room to string a few together, you can really go to town.

The beauty of gardening

The beauty of gardening is that there is a garden design for every situation. No matter how much space you have – or don’t have – or what type of soil or climate you’re dealing with, there is a gardening technique that will work for you.

Keyhole gardening is just one more tool in the permaculture tool box. The raised bed style can be put to very good use if you or someone you love has mobility issues but still wants to garden.

The in-ground style is excellent for lessening the work involved in maintaining the garden, and increasing the edge effect in your garden. A keyhole garden plan can adopt either method, and be productive and beautiful.

If you enjoyed this article, or have any questions or experiences to share, please leave me a comment below.

Health, Hope & Happiness


One Reply to “A keyhole garden plan to suit different situations”

  1. I have used the Keyhole garden that Costco sells for 3 years now. The important thing they do NOT tell you is that you will have to refill the garden every single year. If you put in layers of sticks, cardboard, grass clippings, old leaves, newspaper, etc. the first year, it will work great. But….the soil level will go down down down as it all decomposes and becomes great compost.
    In the second year, the soil level is almost half of what you started with. You will have to shovel all the soil out of the keyhole garden into bins or garbage containers and then do the whole sticks, cardboard, leaves, newspaper all over again. Then you put the soil back on top. This is the only way to keep the soil at the proper level without spending an arm and a leg getting compost every year to top up the garden. It’s a bit of work. But it’s worth it. But no one tells you that this needed when you first make the garden.

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