"When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do what I should have done with my own hands." – Ralph Waldo Emerson Here’s the start of a keyhole garden just out the front door. Ten feet in diameter, it contains lots of easily- reached planting space. I expect to fill it with tomato plants and basil. Keyhole gardens, of a slightly different design, have been created by the thousands in Lesotho, as reported in The Independent (12-27-2004): In Lesotho, there's no frenzy, just patient teaching. Razzmatazz would be pointless, as gardening isn't a hobby here. It's a survival strategy. This is the poorest country in southern Africa, because of a debilitating cycle of environmental and social problems. The keyhole garden is an invention which can break that cycle because it addresses both sets of problems. This small mountain kingdom has unpromising basics for agriculture. Its craggy landscape is obviously fragile: the soils are infertile and thin, a shallow covering over steep slopes; the temperature rebounds between intense heat and fierce cold; and water is available in only two volumes, almost none during the long droughts, or far too much during devastating downpours. Once the surface of the ground is broken, the soil is washed away. The country suffers some of the worst soil erosion in the world.
Migrant labour returning from South Africa proved a perfect transmission route for HIV, and Lesotho now has possibly the highest infection rate in the world: some reports suggest that in tests on expectant mothers, it is 50 per cent. With the men who ought to be the farmers dying in their thousands, and the money to pay for farming largely gone, growing food has become critically difficult. Much of the population is already malnourished, with worse likely to come. The keyhole garden addresses both the soil and social problems. It will grow vegetables efficiently in a baking landscape of bare rock, at negligible cost, and an elderly widow, or even an ill man, can maintain it.
It is a sort of cairn, made of big stones and shaped like a cake about four feet high and eight feet in diameter, with a slice of the cake cut out. (It looks like a keyhole from above). The missing "slice" allows easy access to the centre of the keyhole, which houses a wooden tower of compost. Around it, filling the cairn, is soil in which vegetables are planted. The plants grow at waist height; they can be sown without digging, and harvested without bending over. They are irrigated from the home; the water from washing and cooking is simply poured on. An average household can irrigate an average keyhole garden.
Insecticide is home-made, from garlic and cooking oil; fertiliser is home-made too, using a bag of pig manure suspended in a can of water. The soil is protected from excess heat and downpours with a straw covering, Once begun, almost the only cost is the seeds.
At the village of Thaba-Chitja, about 5,000ft up on a rocky hillside, homesteader Qoane Letele was growing beans, spinach, potatoes, pumpkins and beetroot - at waist height, watered from the household washing - to supplement the maize-meal diet of his family of seven. As a boy, he spent years living on maize-meal porridge with no vegetables at all, he said, and he delighted in the varied diet he now had, especially the beetroot. "That makes me strong," he laughed.