Arlene Marturano

Unlocking literacy with keyhole gardens and cameras

Gardening with kidsSeptember 5, 2013 

  • Seven Steps to a Keyhole Garden

    1. Measure a 6-foot diameter circle in a sunny spot.

    2. Outline the perimeter wall with bricks or stones to support the weight of soil.

    3. Cut out a wedge for walking to the center of the circle for composting.

    4. Use wire mesh to create a 1-foot diameter central chimney 3-4-feet high for composting.

    5. Fill the outer circle with assorted compostable materials, finishing with a 4-inch layer of topsoil.

    6. Fill the central mesh tube with alternating layers of green and brown organic materials to feed the outer circle plants. Water the compost during drought.

    7. Plant your crops within the outer circle and celebrate your accomplishment.


What happens when a keyhole, cameras, and kids come together in the out-of-doors?

One answer came this past summer when Beth Costello, faculty member in USC’s College of Education, and Seth Guest, staff member from USC’s Sustainable Carolina Green Quad gardens, teamed up to offer a two-week gardening camp for children, Camp GLEA, Gardening and Literacy Education.

Costello is an advocate of Literacy Through Photography (LTP), an approach to learning which encourages children to explore their world by capturing scenes from their lives in photographic images. The images then become catalysts for verbal and written expression.

Guest is fluent in gardening and farming practices and manages the large organic garden at USC’s Green Quad. He chose to introduce children to keyhole gardens, a small family-size, no-dig garden easy to replicate with children. By merging their interests in literacy, photography and gardening, Costello and Guest developed the day camp for children ages 7-12 from families below the poverty line.

Camp sessions took place at the Green Quad garden off Main Street on campus.

Camp GLEA curriculum combined the science and math of gardening along with the arts of photography and writing. Children learned how to plant and nurture seeds and seedlings, the parts of a plant, and how to prepare fresh food from the garden for themselves and family members. They practiced composting and conducted soil experiments. As growers they found out how farm and garden food is distributed to consumers and they compared conventional and alternative food systems like local, organic and cooperative.

Measurement math was required to lay out the dimensions of the concentric circular keyhole garden plot and space seeds and plants. Students used compasses and rulers to draw scale models in planning the 6-foot diameter plot.

They planted basil, parsley, sage, and tomatoes in the outer circle of the garden. The center 12-inch diameter circle is a compost basket, which distributes nutrients to the roots of outer circle plants.

Students explored and documented their gardening experiences through digital photographs and writing. At the start of each new day children used the previous day’s photos to review and sequence yesterday.

Photography provides limitless possibilities for perceiving sequences and articulating the order of events in the garden. At the end of camp each child took home a photo book.

The 2013 program received grants and support from the city of Columbia Community Gardens Project, Eau Claire Promise Zone, City Roots, Earthfare, Sustainable Carolina, Columbia Parks and Recreation Department and USC’s College of Education. This year’s camp was a pilot for future Camp GLEA programs.

How did the children feel about camp? One student summed up his feelings this way, “I didn’t have a good day today ... I had a great day today.”

Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Marturano’s garden writings at and www.scgarden

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