the Book



Hey There! I’m Rochelle Greayer. I’m a garden designer on TV and IRL. I’m also an author and entrepreneur who thinks she can save the world by teaching everyone a little something about landscape design.



REgister now!

A Free Master Class




Join the Course Today!

Mix & match plants like a pro!

African Inspired Vegetable Keyhole & Bag Gardens

February 26, 2010

keyhole garden african vegetable garden idea layout built in compost

My husband and I are hotly debating our planned vegetable garden addition.  We are more than doubling it’s size and the controversy surrounds the beds.  Currently we have (8) 4′ x 4′ and (2) 8′ x 4′ cedar beds that we got locally from this great place in western Massachusetts.  The beds are charming – using a colonial peg system to hold them together rather than nails.   I think we should simply double what we have, it will keep a uniform tidy look and be easy to accomplish.  My husband (being more cost conscious) however disagrees, he wants to build raised beds using hessian (that’s British for burlap) sacks.  He saw something once like this and thinks it is a great idea.  I think it will last about one season before rotting away and leaving us with a pile of whatever we fill it with.  I think the answer is obvious, but the debate rages on.

urban water wise garden keyhole garden bag garden vegetable beds

As in many of these type of discussions, where a winner and a loser may never be definitively decided, I am wondering if perhaps a modified solution might be in order.

The reason for raised beds is that we lave a lot (a. lot.) of rocks in our soil.  They just keep percolating to the top.  There is a cluster of world renowned seismologists that live down the road…apparently moved here by Harvard University because the hill, atop which my house sits, is actually formed by a solid piece of ledge that interestingly extends very far into the core of the earth (apparently only one other place on earth shares this level of ledge depth) – Seismologists think it is cool and interesting enough to make them gather…I however, find the visual image of the rocks yet to rise, daunting.

We just try not to deal, by putting rock free soil on top.  But maybe this is being too lazy (though the thought of all the work exhausts me) and to be honest, I struggle with the moving of large amounts of topsoil and paying for truckloads of something I already have in spades. So,  I am thinking about building a few Keyhole gardens and Bag gardens which are being used in Africa to help gardeners there to grow with minimal water.

keyhole vegetable gardens

The Keyhole Vegetable bed is a raised bed. It’s about 1m (3′6″) high, and the outer bed, where the vegetables are growing, slopes down from a central hollow column. There’s an access path to the column (giving the bed a “keyhole” shape viewed from above) and inside it is what amounts to a compost bin, held in with hessian: you fill it with kitchen waste, stable manure, grass clippings – whatever you’d put on your compost heap. Africans tip on water saved from washing up.   The idea is that the water will drain through and take all the nutrients with it.  It feeds from below the topsoil, so rather than watering on the surface and all the water evaporating, everything’s coming up from underneath.  Apparently in Africa, this garden will feed a family of six through the three-month dry period, when crops in the fields simply dry out.

african inspired bag gardens

Similarly, the idea of a bag garden is that you can grow more vegetables in a smaller space.  Hessian sacks are used and are filled with a core of stones surrounded by compost.  The central column keeps the water from getting stuck in the top layers and helps it to filter all the way through.  That means even veg planted through pockets cut in the bottom of the bag get enough water. To get the column into the centre of the bag (or pot) take a plastic drinks bottle and cut off the neck and base, giving you a plastic tube. Put the tube in the centre of your pot, and fill it with stones. Pack the compost around it, then lift the tube up, leaving the stones in the soil, then repeat until you get to the top of the pot.  It is like a rudimentary strawberry pot.  I have stones…plenty to fill the bag and plenty more to build keyhole gardens — but the labor….

So I am curious, I am wrong about the hessian/burlap?  I quite like the look of the tall bag gardens and am willing to give it a try but really, what about rot?  hmmm…. whose got an opinion?  Am I right or is my husband?

found via city farmer news. All images from Cowfiles.

REgister now!

A Free Master Class



  1. private says:

    There is burlap from plant material and burlap made of plastic. Some burlap is biodegradable, some is less so. Rotting would depend what the fabric is made of, finishing chemicals, and exposure to sun and water. Hemp burlap in my back yard might last a growing season, but it is likely to come apart at the worst moment – yank on your first harvestable and the bed collapses?

  2. Louise says:

    I love the keyhole idea, maximizes surface of plantable area to path- also conserves water as you point out. Permaculture folks have the keyhole design stuff worked out- maximizing edges through curves and stacking to mimic nature’s tendency to support layers of growth. Your bed edges could be a way to use the wood you’ve felled this winter, rochelle. check out some of the regenerative/permaculture design sites…
    for some inspiration.
    Good luck with your spring garden endeavors!

  3. Send A Cow says:

    I think a keyhole garden would be a magnificent addition to your already quite exquisite garden. Thanks for linking to our images of African Bag Gardens by the way.

    Gardening guru Carol Klein is launching our new ‘Seeds of Hope’ campaign this Spring to get people outside and growing their own – in Bag Gardens!

    This Spring, each kit comes with seeds of Hope (Beetroot), Health (French Beans) and Harmony (Salad Leaves), representing our life transforming work. You’ll also get a hessian sack, full instructions more tips and a fun window sticker.

    I would love to hear how the process goes but if you are still looking at kits then you can take a look here:

  4. Jenn says:

    Burlap? Only if you are growing potatoes. I don’t think burlap is good for more than one season anywhere. The ones shown in Africa are probably re-purposed feed bags or some such.

  5. DorkyDeb says:

    If the burlap they are using is not made of plastic, then I would guess that it lasts longer in Africa due to the dry conditions. I would think that non-plastic burlap would rot out much faster where conditions are far more damp.

  6. Malcolm Martyn says:

    What about using stacked used car tyres with holes cut out suitable for whatever veg you are growing they take years todegrade andarealsobrilliant for home potato cropping

  7. Micki says:

    hi!,I love your writing very so much! share we be in contact more
    about your article on AOL? I need an expert on this house to
    solve my problem. Maybe that’s you! Taking a look ahead to look

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Does Your Garden Need a Makeover?

Learn my 7-step system to design and build a stunning garden anywhere in the world.

Understand The 5 mistakes EVERYONE makes when creating a garden.
(save yourself time, money, & headaches and get much better results!)

See How to work directly with me (but at a DIY price!) to
design and create YOUR own gorgeous garden. 


Join my Free Class!

join the FrEE 10-day garden Design challenge

Your Garden will look waaayyy better in less than 2 weeks - Promise!

in the weeds?

Sign me up