Cultural Connections– In the Garden: Keyhole Gardens Rooted in African Traditions

Cultural Connections-- In the Garden: Keyhole Gardens Rooted in African Traditions

Lush spring garden.

By Janice Brown

When we hear “Africa,” visions of expansive land often come to mind. Which African Americans deriving from such a land-rich continent, it is not difficult to understand the deep connections we have with agriculture and why many agricultural practices that help us cultivate American land found their way here through African Americans. 

Coming from regions where the climate an be harsh, techniques to replenish and nourish the soil have been passed down through the generations. In particular, the African keyhole garden is a technique that continuously replenishes the soil as crops grow. It is gaining traction now in the United States but its roots started in  Africa. It also features composting, another practice started by the famous African American agriculturalist, George Washington Carver. 

The African keyhole garden is named for its unique shape, a cinch within a circle with the inner sphere being a tower to create compost. Around then smaller tower, there is a larger circle that crates the garden bed. There is an opening notch in a a section of this larger circle which is used to be able to access the middle composting tower. When this is viewed from overhead it looks like a keyhole.

The keyhole method is so successful because it uses:  

  1. Layering of materials such as rocks for drainage, wood ash, straw, cardboard, soil/compost, etc. to build the planting bed. Layering is a great method to create healthy soil with excellent moisture retention. This is perfect for hot and dry climates such as where we live in Texas.  
  2. A central composting system to release nutrients from the compost directly into the garden when water is added. 



Left: A backyard garden bed based on the keyhole garden technique. 

Key hole garden
We see how composting is used in the keyhole method from Africa, but composting was first brought to light in the U. S. by George Washington Carver. When Carver came to the south to join the staff of the Tuskegee Institute, he noticed the poor soil conditions caused by overuse of the soil without replenishing it. He prescribed natural fertilizers such as swamp muck, manures, plant waste and other natural materials to make compost. In addition to teaching about composting, Washington also discovered that rotating nitrogen-rich cover crops like peanuts, peas, and sweet potatoes could reinvigorate the land.  

These sustainable gardening practices are still used by African American and other gardeners today. As gardeners, we know that nourishing the land from which our food derives is not only vital to production, but kind to the land that sustains us. This is a legacy African Americans proudly offer to offer to the gardening world.
Lush spring garden.

Janice Brown has over 20 years of gardening experience on the Gulf Coast. She is owner of On the Grow garden coaching service which has been serving the Houston metro area for 10 years. She’s a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist who uses her extensive knowledge to coach new gardeners to gardening success. As a consultant she is the residential garden expert for the Texas Home and Garden Show and has consulted for a multitude of garden projects in the city of Houston.  

Visit our Classes Calendar for More Cultural Connections.

African American Lands, Then and Now by Billy Lawtwon, February 17, 2022.