Keyhole gardens for better nutrition and livelihoods


A keyhole garden (so-called because of its shape) is a round raised garden, supported with stones. Keyhole gardens are built in places where it is difficult to build normal gardens (rocky areas, shallow arid/or compacted soils, etc), near the entrance of dwellings to facilitate their watering with household waste water. Keyhole gardens are made with low-cost locally available materials. The production of a keyhole garden can be enough to feed a family of 8 persons. Such gardens can produce food all year round even under harsh temperatures and can support the production of at least 5 varieties of vegetables at a time - thus supporting dietary diversity. Compared to regular vegetable gardens, keyhole gardens require less labor (ideal for elderly, children or sick persons), less water and no costly fertilizers or pesticides. They act like an organic recycling tank, using your food and garden waste as fuel to grow vegetables! Crop rotation and growing of insect-repellent plants are important to balance nutrient demands, fight insects and plant diseases, and deter weeds. When a project introduced keyhole gardens in Lesotho, neighbouring villages outside the project intervention area were reproducing keyhole gardens on their own initiative, clearly indicating the success of the intervention and its potential sustainability. This technology gives a detailed step-by-step description of the building process of a keyhole garden.


The advantages of using this technology:

Keyhole gardens are built in places where it is difficult to build normal gardens (rocky areas, shallow arid/or compacted soils, etc). They are built with low-cost materials easily retrieved locally. It is a labour-saving and organic technology that requires little inputs, and can feed a family of eight for 5 to 7 years.

The construction of keyhole gardens is considered to be implemented by the whole community to alleviate the burden on orphans and vulnerable children, the elderly and the chronically ill. Through participatory approaches, beneficiaries are involved in all stages of project activities: planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, thus ensuring appropriation of the approach and strengthening community networks. 

The building process:

To make a keyhole garden  you will need some very simple items:

  • Soil, compost
  • Strong string
  • Straw or something similar
  • Worms
  • Well rotted manure and wood ash
  • Large stones, bricks or logs
  • Scrap metal (old cans, etc.)
  • Several sticks or 1.5meters canes

How to build it:

1) Find a space near your house that’s about 3m2 and make sure that there is enough sunlight and it is located closely to access to water.

2) Clear the space of weeds and dig it over.

3) Measure out the arm span of whoever will use the garden with some gardening twine. Halve this length and then add another 30cms – this is the radius of your garden (you can make any size you like, however!).

4) Tie a stick to each end of a string, plant one in the centre of your space and use the other end to draw your circle in the ground.

5) Draw out an entrance triangle to your keyhole from the edge of the circle to its centre, starting at a width of two feet. The first layer of soil has to be dug out, leveled and covered with multiple layers of locally-made compost (manure, organic waste, scrap metal, wood ash, plant waste, yard sweepings, etc).

6) Take four long sticks (at least 1.5m long) and well plant them firmly in the ground to mark the angles of a square well at the center of your circle. The sides of the square should be about 30-40cm long. Next, lash the sticks horizontally along the base, middle and top to create your well – it should reach a height of about 1.3 meters, or at a level that can be reached by the person(s) that will work on the garden.

7) Place large stones around the perimeter of the garden, remembering to create the entrance to the well.

8) Line the inside of the well with straw (to keep the compost from falling out, but allowing water to filter) and then fill with a successive layers of scrap metal, soil/manure, straw, grass and leaves, ash, soil/manure and so on, until the well is about two thirds full. This central well serves for irrigation purposes: water will be poured in it from the top, allowing for its dispersal through the whole enclosed garden (see pictures below).

9) Once the central well is filled, you can start filling the garden with the same technique used for the central well. Also, if you can include some worms, they’ll help keep the soil fertile. Whilst you are filling these layers in, you will need to progressively build the garden’s perimeter wall with large stones– effectively making a dry-stone-wall that holds in the layers. Remember to consider a height that the person in charge of maintaining the garden can comfortably reach, and to ensure that the perimeter walls lean very slightly towards the centre of the garden, for a greater stability. The wall can be made sturdier by packing small pebbles, stick and mud into the gaps.

10) The last layer of soil on top of the raised garden should be shaped as a mound, which slopes away from the well – this increases the surface area that you can plant on, and allows the runoff of excess water. You can segment the planting area into different crop areas to enable you to rotate them next season. This will allow you a grow a greater diversity of food crops and will benefit your garden’s fertility.

11) You may divide your planting area into 4 parts allocated for: 1) leafy plants; 2) root crops; 3) peas and beans (or other legumes) while the fourth section stays fallow, covered by a thick layer of manure and mulch. Crops should preferably be part of the local biodiversity, and chosen according to their nutrient content and potential for inclusion in diets. Each planting areas is separated from others by a line of medicinal and insect-repellent plants. Systematic retrieval of knowledge and experience of local populations have to be applied: nobody knows the constraints and opportunities of their environment better. Crops should rotate in turn approximately every two months. Or, if you are a seasoned gardener, you will know how to do some intercropping and companion planting (find useful advice:


12) Irrigation: to irrigate your garden, pour water directly in the central well from above. You may use grey waters from household use. The water will now permeate the garden and water the roots of your crops with lots of great nutrients. 

13) Composting: Use uncooked, organic food-waste to create a compost heap or put them straight into the central well in warmer months, to increase fertility. Putting a lid over the top of the central well (made with an old carpet or a plastic bag) will help retain heat, reduced evaporation and speed up the composting process a bit.

The keyhole garden structure ensures soil fertility for 5 to 7 years.

Useful recommendations for facilitators before starting:

The development of keyhole gardens is accompanied by relevant training, in particular in nutrition education, hygiene and food safety and food processing techniques. Community trainers need to receive training on group dynamics and on bio-intensive, environmentally-friendly horticulture techniques such as:

• building and maintaining keyhole gardens;

• making liquid manure and natural pesticides from plant origin;

• saving waste water (“grey water”) from household use for irrigation;

• protecting plants from excessive temperatures and hail stones (use of mulch and hail-nets);

• growing medicinal and insect-repellent plants.

Communities should benefit from nutrition education (and education on other topics relevant to the local context and problems such as HIV, land tenure, hygiene, etc) and from training on marketing of surplus production to increase household income.

At district and national level relevant government and NGO staff must receive capacity building to raise their awareness of nutrition issues and agriculture-nutrition linkages; and increase their capacity to act upon related problems. The knowledge acquired enhances their ability to plan and implement effective responses.


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Created date

Fri, 09/11/2012 - 11:31


Nutrition Division in FAO

In support to FAO’s mandate to help country members raise levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples under their respective jurisdiction, the Nutrition Division aims at creating sustainable improvements in nutrition, especially among nutritionally vulnerable households and population groups.

This is done through a better assessment of dietary patterns, human requirements and food composition of local biodiversity; facilitation of interinstitutional and multisectoral coordination and mainstreaming nutrition into agriculture policies and programmes; support to nutrition educationschool and community based approaches, and the promotion of nutritious and healthy diets to prevent malnutrition and diet-related diseases.

An important dimension of this task is the documentation and sharing of good practices with nutritional outcomes, with a view to replication, adaptation and upscaling of good practices and integration of lessons learned into programmes and policies, as well as into projects and interventions.



Contact person: 
Chiara Deligia - communication officer
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