A School Garden Brings Land Back to Life

Crop production

Notes to broadcasters

This is the story of how children planted recycling gardens at a village school in Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. Their project shows how to make eroded land useful for growing crops. The gardens were started with the help of Shirley Sifunda. Shirley is a Field Coordinator with Inforeach, a community development and information centre. She shows people how to make their land more fertile for growing crops. Today you will find how they created a flourishing, successful garden. Listen carefully to the story so that you can learn from their experience and perhaps start a garden at your own village school.


Shirley stood before the principal of Cophetsheni School in the White River District of South Africa.

“I have an idea,” she said. “This school is surrounded by a lot of land – land that is not used for anything.”

The principal nodded.

“If you will agree, I would like to help you and your students make this land more productive,” Shirley continued. “And I want to share some valuable lessons about the environment with teachers and parents.”

“But look at how eroded our soil is,” the principal said.

“We will plant a garden that will revive the soil. You will see how erosion can be controlled,” Shirley replied, her eyes gleaming.

The principal did not think that Shirley’s idea would work, but she agreed to let her try.

The recycling garden

Shirley invited the parents to a planting demonstration. She said she would show everyone how to make poor, eroded land more productive, and how to recycle things at the same time.

Like the principal, many of the parents, students and teachers were not convinced that the land could improve. They watched as Shirley began to dig a trench. She dug a hole two metres long by one metre wide.

“This will be a recycling garden,” she said, stepping out of the trench. “We will fill this with rubbish. The rubbish will break down into organic matter and the soil will be better for growing vegetables.”

“To start,” Shirley told the group, “water the trench.” She poured water into the trench.

Then, she showed them an armful of used paper no one wanted. “Paper is made of wood which comes from trees. It breaks down into tiny pieces, adding organic matter to the soil. You can recycle it by putting it in your garden. Paper decomposes faster when you rip it into small pieces,” she said.

She ripped up the paper and scattered it in the trench.

Next, she held up a tin that had been flattened.

“A few tins will add iron to your soil and plants — but don’t add more than four or five.” Shirley threw five flattened tins into the trench.

“Now I’m going to add some bones. Over time, the bones will break down and release calcium which is good for plants. Don’t use bones with meat — they attract animals that might dig up your garden,” Shirley told them.

Then she dumped kitchen scraps, and garden waste including weeds, leaves and grass into the trench.

“These will feed the soil,” she said. “You can collect this kind of rubbish from your homes, or from shops in the village, or even from the school garbage.”

She watered the trench again and threw in the soil she had dug out. Then she covered the soil with a mixture of leaves and grass. “The last thing you need to do before planting is to cover the bed with mulch. Mulch is a layer of plant materials that covers and protects the soil. You can use straw, dead leaves, dry grass, shredded paper, cardboard or even peanut shells.”

When the garden beds were ready, Shirley helped the parents and children plant spinach, beet root, cabbage and beans in furrows across the trench.

“Try to water every day for the first ten days,” Shirley told them. “After that, you should water about three times a week.” She encouraged everyone to dig more trenches and plant more vegetables.

“Look,” said one teacher, “we do not even have a fence to keep hungry cows and chickens out of our gardens. Animals will eat all the vegetables.”

Shirley smiled at the teacher, reached into her bag and pulled out some sticks and orange sacks like the ones used to transport vegetables and fruit. She motioned to the students and teachers to gather around the trench garden.

Then she placed the sticks in the ground around the edges and laid the sacks so that they rested on top of the sticks.

“As your vegetables are growing, place these bags over your trench gardens as I have done. They will help to hide the plants from animals. Even if they discover them, they will have a hard time getting these bags off. These are called shade cloths and they will also protect your crops from heavy rain.”

To inspire everyone, Shirley announced a contest to see who could grow the best vegetables.

At the harvest, they would have a party with dancing, singing and performances.

“I will be back in a few months,” she said. “Please, grow well.”

The garden grows

When Shirley returned, she saw that the children and parents had planted 45 trench gardens with lettuce and other crops. She congratulated everyone on the number of trench gardens they had planted.

But the soil was still eroded between the trenches.

Shirley showed them that they could prevent soil erosion by planting vetiver grass in front of the trenches.

“Vetiver grass has strong roots that hold soil as far down as three metres,” she said. “It also forms a thick hedge which will protect your vegetable garden from harsh wind, too.”

Shirley warned the children not to take plants from the gardens of others. She said even if plants were not growing well, it wouldn’t help them to take from others. Little plants that have their roots disturbed often do not survive.

The students, parents and teachers celebrated the harvest. Everyone sang, danced and ate good food from the garden. They were proud of the work and care they put into the land.

Soon, word spread. Principals and teachers from other schools came to see the successful gardens at Cophetsheni School. They took home to their own communities the idea of planting recycling gardens on eroded land.

You, too, can help to start a recycling garden in your community. You will be amazed at how such a simple idea can grow such great rewards.


  • This script was written by Belinda Bruce, Assistant Editor, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network, Toronto, Canada.
  • It was based on an interview with Shirley Sifunda, Field Coordinator for Inforeach, South Africa. Inforeach is managed by Ecolink, an organization that promotes sustainable development and environmental education.