Trench-Bed Gardening for Drylands

Crop productionSoil health

Notes to broadcasters

Information on dryland agriculture, water conservation and soil fertility was requested by DCFRN Participants in Bangladesh, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Trinidad, Venezuela and Yemen.

For maximum benefit to your audience, you should consider using three previous DCFRN items in association with this one. They are:

“Nitrogen Fertilizer that Doesn’t cost Any Money” — DCFRN Package 5, Item 4.

“Soil Moisture – Necessary for Crops” — DCFRN Package 2, Item 3.

“Crop Rotation” — DCFRN Package 7, item 1A.


We at this radio station are part of a world-wide information network that gathers farming information from developing countries all over the world. It’s the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network, sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, Massey-Ferguson, and the University of Guelph.

Through this Network we bring you information on ways to increase food supplies for your family, or to sell — ways that other farmers have used successfully.

Today we’ll talk about a way of growing good crops, even when it’s very dry. Here’s George Atkins.

Does the soil where you grow your vegetables get hard and dry when there’s little or no rain? Is it difficult to grow vegetables because you don’t have extra water you can put on them to help them grow? Let me tell you how some farmers with these problems grow very good gardens, even in the dry season.

There’s plenty of moisture during the rainy season of course, so at that time when there’s lots of rain they do something special to hold the moisture underground for their crops to use after the dry season begins.

Here’s how they do it: they dig a deep trench and fill it with alternate layers of soil and organic matter. Organic matter they use is grass, manure, kitchen scraps and other things that will rot or decompose. After putting all that organic matter and soil into the trench, they now have a long mound where the trench was. They then plant their crops in the soil on top of the mound.

When it rains, the organic matter that’s in the trench soaks up water and holds it for a long time. This way plants can grow even in the dry season, using the moisture that’s stored in the trench.

At the same time, as the organic matter in the trench rots, it adds good plant food to the soil, — so the trench is also useful as a way to improve soil fertility.

Although some people make quite shallow trenches, deeper trenches are really better in places where the soil is poor or very dry. A deep trench can be used for several seasons. It can be any length; it just depends how much space you need for the things you are going to grow. The first time you try out a trench-bed garden, don’t make it too long.

It’s important that the soil and organic matter in your bed be loose so that any rainwater that falls will soak right down into the bed. Because of this, you must never step on your bed. Now, so that you won’t have to step on the bed and so that you can easily reach the centre from either side to plant or to weed or to harvest, it should be no more than 2 metres (6 feet) wide.

If the land where you grow your crops is sloping or hilly land, even on a gentle slope, be sure to dig your trench along the contour, that is, across the slope, not up and down.

Dig your trench 1 metre (3 or 4 feet) deep; that’s a good depth for your trench. If that’s impossible, it could be shallower. If some of the soil you dig out is better than the rest of the soil, it’s a good idea to pile the better soil separate from the poorer soil. Then, later, when you’re filling the trench with different layers of organic matter and soil, you can put some of the poorer soil in the lower layers and all of the better soil in the upper layers. Also, if your trench-bed is on a hillside, some of the poorer soil can be used for making a small bund (ridge) to help hold rainwater in the area of your trench-bed.

Now, after you’ve dug your trench, first lay down a thick layer of organic matter in the bottom of the trench, about 30 centimetres (12 inches) deep. This could include weeds and grass, crop residues and kitchen scraps, manure, bones, feathers and anything else that will rot or decompose as time passes. Then cover this with 5 or 10 centimetres (about 3 inches) of soil. The trench should now be about one-third full.

On top of this add a second thick layer of organic matter, about 30 centimetres (1 foot) deep, and again cover it with a thinner layer of soil.

Then add a third thick layer of organic matter, so that the trench is full right up to the top.

On top of all this spread a thick flat layer of good soil, or good soil mixed with compost, about 30 centimetres (1 foot) deep.

You now have a flat mound of good soil piled on top of three thick layers of plant material and other things that will rot. These layers are separated by thinner layers of soil. Although the mound is now about 30 centimetres (1 foot) higher than the original ground level, it will sink down as time passes.

The first crop you plant on your new trench-bed should be a legume crop, such as pulses, peas, beans, soybeans, stylo (Stylosanthes), sunnhemp (Crotalaria) or alfalfa (lucerne). Growing legumes adds nitrogen to the soil, and this is very good for the crops that grow there after the legume crop.

As soon as flowers appear on this first legume crop, the best thing to do is to dig it all into the ground. This will enrich the soil a great deal. If you allow this first crop to mature and you harvest it, the soil will be improved, but not as much.

Now you can plant other crops — vegetables, root crops, and even grains if you want to. It’s best to rotate the kinds of crops you grow on your trench-bed each season. Be sure to grow legumes again though, after two or three seasons. This will help to provide more good nitrogen plant food for the crops you grow after that.

After each harvest dig the crop residues back into the ground. Also mix in other kinds of organic matter, including kitchen wastes and manure. Adding this organic matter will keep the soil rich and help it to hold soil moisture.

There’s something else you can do to be sure the bed doesn’t dry out on top — you can mulch the bed. By that I mean you can cover the soil with grass, leaves or other organic material. That’s a very good thing to do.

One final thing: if your trench is dug across a slope, you should plant strips of a deep-rooted legume such as stylo (Stylosanthes), alfalfa (lucerne) or legume shrubs along the lower edge of the bed. This will help to stop soil from washing away during rainstorms.

In Zimbabwe they grow vegetables including tomatoes, and even peach trees on these trench mound gardens; and in the Philippines Miss Zeny Ubaldo showed me her trench garden and told me what she was growing in it.

We have sweet potatoes, also we have string beans, peppers, okra and beside that this camote and potatoes will be harvested after three or four months — and we have small seedlings and different seedlings of fruit trees.

Thank you very much Miss Zeny Ubaldo, the Director here at Bulacan Farmers Training Centre in Malolos in the Philippines.

Serving “Agriculture, the Basic Industry”, this is George Atkins.


Interviewee: Miss Zeny Y. Ubaldo, Director, Bulacan Farmers Training Centre, Malolos, Bulacan, Philippines.

Information sources

1. “Mazibuko: Permanent Agriculture”, Link, No. 6, february 1978, published by the Environmental and Development Agency (EDA), Box 62054, Marshalltown, 2107 Johannesburg, South Africa.

2. “Summary of Deep Trench and Mock Trench Systems”, Appropriate Socio-Medical Technology for Health Promotion, edited by Dr. I.B. Friedman, published by the Valley Trust, Box 33, Botha’s Hill, 3660, Natal, South Africa.

3. The YFC Intensive Unit, “The Fertility Trench”, published by the Zimbabwean Young Farmers Club (YFC) Association.

4. DCFRN Participant Sithembiso Nyoni, ORAP, box 877, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

5. Grow to Live, by Marie Roux, published by Operation GROW, c/o Organic Soil Association of South Africa, P.O. Box 47100, Parklands, Johannesburg 2121, South Africa.

6. “Valley of a thousand hopes”, Ecologist, July 1971, by Lawrence D. Hills, Director, Henry Doubleday Research Association, Convent Lane, Bocking, Braintree, Essex CM7 6RW, England.

7. “Trench Composting: A Model for Africa”, by Jeff Cox, Organic Gardening and LFarming Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 1, January 1976, published by Rodale Press, 33 East Minor Street, Emmaus, Pennsylvania 18049, U.S.A.

Additional Source of Information

Robert T. Mazibuko, Africa Tree Centre, P.O. Box 90, Plessiaslaer, 4500, Natal, South Africa.