Lesotho is that country you always wondered about. Punched into South Africa like a hanging chad, it lies nestled between the Drakensberg and Maloti mountains and no part of the country lies below 1,400m (that's 4,600ft) above sea level. Apart from its status as an enclave, shared only by San Marino and the Vatican, that's about the only cheerful fact about the country.

Some more sobering facts about the Kingdom of Lesotho, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook:

  • Arable land: 10.87%
  • Arable land: 3,299.59km2 (1286.84mi2)
  • Irrigated land: 30km2 (11.7mi2)
  • HIV adult prevalence rate: 23.2%
  • Life expectancy (male): 41.18 years
  • Life expectancy (female): 39.54 years
  • Infant mortality (male): 81.75 deaths/1,000 live births
  • Infant mortality (female): 72.92 deaths/1,000 live births (2009 est.)

Thanks to HIV/AIDS and the unceasing toil of the Grim Reaper stomping across the highlands and valleys of Lesotho, there really isn't much of a labor pool to draw from for subsistence agriculture for most remote villages. Since most of the men move away as soon as they can to go work in South Africa or elsewhere, most of who's left is women, children and the elderly, many of whom are disabled or infected with HIV/AIDS themselves. Many parts of Lesotho are in a near-constant state of food insecurity. This isn't Kenya, folks; this is the rest of Africa.

Fortunately, the problems of Lesotho have not gone ignored by the government (which spends 13% of its GDP on education, second only to Kiribati) and various aid organizations (among which are Catholic Relief Services, Peace Corps and Kiva). Many of these organizations run with the general philosophy of 'teach a man to fish', and one of these ways that they encourage the population to become independent of relief is through various forms of agriculture suited to Lesotho's arid, high-altitude climate. Enter the keyhole garden.

A keyhole garden is basically a waist-high circular wall filled in with soil and compost, with a passageway, allowing a single gardener to tend the entire garden from a point in the middle. It's very space efficient, allows adequate drainage of rainwater while still assuring good retention in dry months and can yield astounding harvests for the small space it occupies. It saves entire villages in rural Lesotho, and looks pretty kick-ass in a First Worlder's front yard.

So here's what you need to build a keyhole garden:

  • A quantity of large stones, bricks or logs to make the walls of the garden
  • 4-5 long rods or lengths of cane, each about 2m (5ft) long
  • A length of twine, wire or rope
  • Straw, twigs or dry leaves
  • Compost, kitchen scraps and/or manure
  • Ash (depends on soil chemistry)
  • Soil, and make sure it's good soil; the blacker, the better. Make sure it isn't contaminated --- if you find lots of worms and plants growing in the soil, you can be fairly assured that it isn't going to kill you and your crops.

Now, to getting around to building the damn thing:

  1. Clear out and weed a flat circular area about 3m2 (10ft2). Level and tamp the soil; this will be the foundation of your garden. Measure out a circle about 1.5m (5ft) across; that will be the diameter of the walls of the garden.

  2. Remember those rods in the materials list? Hammer them into the center of the circle, in a square or triangle about .5m (1.5ft) to a side and secure them to one another with the twine. This will be the compost basket. Line the sides with straw, cloth or something permeable (but durable enough to keep the compost in). You might want to hammer in more sticks if you feel you need to, to strengthen the walls of the basket.

  3. Sketch out a passageway about .5m (1.5ft) across from the center basket to the outer walls. Make sure it'll be wide enough for a person to comfortably stand and reach any point in the garden without needing to move around too much.

  4. Place the large stones in a circle around the perimeter of the garden and along the lines you sketched out for the central passageway. This will be a guide for when you build up the walls.

  5. Now, fill in the area enclosed by the walls with a layer of broken pottery or cans to make a drainage layer. Cover that with straw and shovel some soil on top of it. This will ensure adequate drainage of the garden.

  6. You are now free to start building up the walls. Mortar is optional, but if you pile up a layer of rocks and dump soil, ash and compost in alternating layers on the inside (leaning the walls in a little bit for stability), you shouldn't need it. If they Inca could do without it, you certainly can. Keep at it until the walls are about waist height or slightly higher. You want to make sure the bed is raised enough to allow a single gardener to tend the garden from the center passageway without having to bend over.

  7. You're just about done! Fill the center basket with compost and use that to dump your vegetable scraps and waste. Just don't poop in the basket, or else you're just asking for trouble; coliform bacteria and food crops don't exactly mix well without some serious composting. Try not to dump meat in there, either, as it risks raising the temperature of the compost above what is ideal and cause the whole thing to go anaerobic, which stinks to high heaven and attracts flies (I learned this the hard way). As the food waste composts, it will seep through the permeable liner of the basket (you did remember to do that part, didn't you?) and keep the soil rich. Remember to aerate the compost regularly to ensure that it does its job. Cover the top of the basket with something permeable to keep out the sun; an old throw rug is just about perfect, because it lets rainwater in and keeps the compost from drying out.

  8. Shovel a last layer of soil on top, sloping a little but upward around the center compost basket.

And you're done! You might want to let it sit a while to let the compost enrich the soil before planting. Cover the top with straw or mulch, and admire your work.

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