Keyhole Gardening: Dr. Deb Tolman

In February, my article on Keyhole Gardening was published in Texas Co-op Power Magazine. I just went to their website, and the article is still their #1, most-viewed article. It may not be Billboard, but this makes me very happy.

Writing the article was a fun project, in large part because last summer, I had a chance to interview Dr. Deb Tolman. After the interview, I posted this piece on the Best of Strangers blog, but wanted to share it again here. Enjoy!


Dr. Deb Tolman lives in an oat bin. I met her after my friend, photographer and videographer Bill Smith, insisted that I would enjoy writing about her. After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a woman living in an oat bin?

Bill Smith Photographs Dr. Deb
Bill Smith photographs Dr. Deb next to a keyhole garden.

Before our visit, I watched a couple of videos of Deb, a super-enthusiastic “pioneer” woman talking about planting raised bed “keyhole” gardens in abandoned boats and discarded tractor tires. You can form an amazing number of assumptions in just 60 seconds. Someone who’s living in a 10×10 room previously used to store feed, growing all her own food, and showering outdoors must be a 50-something, liberal hippy chick who never made it past the 1960s. Right? I had to wonder just how… um… eccentric… she would be in real life.

When we arrived at Deb’s place on the StarHaven Ranch in Clifton, Texas, my assumptions plowed headlong into a well-spoken Ph.D. with degrees from Texas A&M and Portland State University. Deb’s a landscape designer who is willingly turning her life into one big science project. She had no vegan agendas, was not wearing Birkenstocks, and didn’t hug one tree the entire time we were there.

Wood-fired Pizza
Dr. Deb makes gourmet pizza in her cob oven, built by hand.

What she did do was make me a gourmet pizza in the cob oven she built by hand, showed me her exquisite Thai jars (also handmade and designed to collect rainwater), and introduced me to the art of keyhole gardening, which is something I’ll be writing about in an upcoming issue of Texas Co-Op Power Magazine.

Bottom line? She’s a hoot. Deb returned to Texas from Portland, leaving behind what she describes as a “raft of bad things” to take on the challenge of fine-tuning the term “sustainable living.” She launched a series of workshops in Seriously Fun Sustainability, which have included how to make mozzarella cheese and how to sculpt elegant Thai jars from ferrocement and chicken wire. She also teaches about cob construction and shows off her 15×15 straw bale and cob greenhouse built for a mere $50.

Thai Jar
Dr. Deb collects rainwater in the large, gray, Thai jar. A hose attaches to the spigot on the bottom, allowing her to water her gardens.

Fun Facts about Dr. Deb


She loves to read, and often has five books going at once. This means trying to choose a favorite took several minutes. She finally settled on two: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.


When asked about music, she said, “There’s a bunch of good music out there! I’ll listen to any genre – any culture. Check out Charanga Cakewalk and Cantoma!” I had to look it up. Charanga Cakewalk is a Texas band led by Michael Ramos and described as Urban Latino Chic. Okay, that sounds fun. And here’s the Facebook description on Cantoma: For those of a horizontal nature, Phil Mison aka ‘Cantoma’ needs little introduction. Over the last two decades, the DJ, producer and songwriter has become one of the most celebrated names on the Balearic chill-out scene. Whatever that means! Guess I’ll have to listen and find out.


Breakfast is her favorite meal. She’ll melt a little homemade butter in frying pan, sauté her home-grown onions and chard, toss in two local, fresh free-range eggs, scramble it all, and sprinkle diced, fresh tomatoes on top.

Bucket List

Deb’s sustainability experiments are happening on a friend’s ranch, so her bucket list includes owning two 2 acres of property and building her own house. “I’ve made a model,” she says. “It will native rocks around the base, and will be built into a berm so won’t need AC or heating. There are very few details I haven’t worked out. I can’t wait to get my property!”

If you want to see Dr. Deb in “sustainability guru” mode, there are several videos on YouTube. (I started to share one of the “serious” educational videos here, but the outtakes clip was too hilarious!)

I’m sure everybody whispered behind Thoreau’s back and basically thought he was nuts when he launched his “pond project,” but history now celebrates his two-year Walden experiment. My guess is that Deb’s time on StarHaven Ranch will be just as rewarding – for everyone – including those of us strangers who now call her, “friend!”

Interviewing Dr. Deb
Elaine and Dr. Deb sit on the porch of the oat bin Dr. Deb calls home.

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