By Meg Hewitt

Carrots, beet root, leafy greens and other vegetables will finally be produced up to four times a year in a new environmentally friendly initiative involving raised-bed gardens in Central Ethiopia.

Called a “keyhole garden,” it is a circular raised soil bed about 4 feet high and 6.5 feet wide with a small break in its round shape for access (the keyhole) to a composting basket in the center. The gardens circular keyhole shape makes all sections very accessible to tend.

The exterior of the keyhole garden is made of stones and the interior is comprised of five layers of materials. The bottom layer of the garden consists of iron scraps such as empty beverage cans, twigs, grass and broken clay pots or stones, which provide minerals to the soil.

A layer of top soil and manure are added for nutrients. Tall grass to retain moisture and wood ash to provide potassium are placed in the keyhole. The garden is ready for planting after a final layer of soil and manure is added.

Earthworms are added to the gardens, which improve soil fertility. Earthworms create soil porosity that increases the water-holding capacity of the soil and stimulate populations of nitrogen fixing bacteria that neutralize soil pH. These supportive creatures suppress weeds and stimulate overall garden growth.

Keyhole gardens were introduced to Lesotho in 2008 as a sustainable gardening technique, allowing community members to produce a wide variety of vegetables to feed their families. This gardening technique is a viable solution for regions in Ethiopia that have been plagued by deforestation, overgrazing, and other practices that contribute to soil erosion.

Counterpart introduces method in key regions

Counterpart’s Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) has become a pioneer in introducing this innovative high yield garden design to the Ethiopian regions of Oromiya and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). A one-day training was conducted for community members, the ESTA field team and agents from the Ministry of Agriculture Development on this new farming advancement.

“It is important to emphasize that the target beneficiaries are women and families affected with HIV/AIDS,” Bedilu Shegen, Counterpart’s Chief of Party in Ethiopia stated. “Given that the keyhole gardens are easily managed from a standing position, without much bending, they provide less physical stress than typical gardens. This is such an accessible, sustainable livelihood.”

They help reduce farming labor and community dependence on external parties and are excellent projects for schools and groups to get involved in as well.

Before starting the hands-on exercise, two short video clips on how to construct keyhole gardens were shown to the trainees, leaving them all highly interested in establishing these gardens. A simple brochure, displaying best practices and successful activities implemented in few African countries, has been prepared to guide field staff in the construction.

Keyhole gardens are a way to introduce community members to sustainable principles such as composting and using ‘grey water.’ This self-watering and self-fertilizing garden provides year-round vegetable production and has improved ecosystems and livelihoods in Ethiopia.

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