Making Something with Nothing: The Rubbish Garden

Crop production


This is a story about how a group of women changed their lives using only what they had _ though it seemed they had nothing at all.

The story starts with Shirley Sifunda, a community outreach worker in Matsulu, a small village in South Africa. Shirley met with the village women to talk about their problems. The women were hungry and their children were malnourished. There was no money for food or medicine. The whole community was suffering.

One day, while meeting with the women, Shirley picked up a spade and started digging. She wanted to show the women what they could do with nothing. They could make a trench garden and grow their own vegetables. So, she dug a trench. The size of the trench was about the same area as a doorway — one garden spade wide (1 metre) and two spades long (2 metres). It was 45 centimetres deep — about half the length of a spade. It was hard work to dig by herself. The other women thought she was crazy. But she kept digging.

When she was finished digging the trench, she looked around. She asked the women what they could put in the trench to enrich the soil. But the women could see nothing to add.

Shirley disagreed. There was a pile of rubbish nearby. In fact, much of the surrounding area was used as a dumping ground so there was plenty of rubbish lying around. Some of the rubbish could be used to fill the trench.

There was a lot of rotting food – leftovers from people’s kitchens. The vegetable scraps, fruit skins, peelings, egg shells, maize cobs, wood ash and garden waste would add many different nutrients to the soil as they rotted. The bones would add calcium to the soil as they broke down over time. She added five tin cans to the trench. The tin cans from soups and prepared foods would rust in the soil and add iron, another valuable nutrient. Even papers would break down, adding organic material.

She filled half of the trench with the rubbish, watered it, and filled the rest in with soil. Once that was done Shirley planted some vegetable seeds. Then she went home. And everyone waited.

Three weeks later Shirley returned to the village. The trench was covered with small green vegetable seedlings. And, to her surprise, she saw there were 10 more trenches alongside her own! The women had worked hard. Two months later there were 40 trenches! Many more people had started to participate.

Over time, as the community grew more and more of its own vegetables, the health and well-being of the people improved. They were able to work harder in the community gardens. They were even able to sell some of the produce, and put the money into other profit-making activities.

Now, the people call the trench gardens “hunger graveyards” because they say they are burying their hunger. Shirley sees new life in the community. And it all started with a pile of rubbish.


  • This script is based on an interview with Shirley Sifunda, Community Outreach Worker, Inforeach, c/o Ecolink, White River, Mpumalanga, South Africa. It was written by Jennifer Pittet, Managing Editor, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network.
  • Graphics are from The Earthcare Garden, produced by Ecolink, South Africa.