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The trench man

The sun is shining and it is very hot. The soil is dry. The grass is white. And there is not even a drop of water in the river. But a few metres away there is a house with a big yard. The yard is green with plants and all sorts of vegetables.

There is an old man in the garden, talking to some people. His name is Robert Mazibuko. He lives in Edendale, just outside Pietermaritzburg in Natal.

Mr Mazibuko is famous. People come from all over the world to talk to him. Everyone wants to know how he farms. Mr Mazibuko has a special way of growing vegetables.


Mr Mazibuko started farming many years ago. He started off as an agriculture teacher. “I went to St Francis College in Marianhill.” said Mr Mazibuko. “I studied to be a teacher there. I wanted to wear a white collar — and I wanted the children to call me ‘sir’.

“My first teaching job was at a place called Umthunzini. My pupils often fainted in class. One day I took a child to the doctor. The doctor told me the child fainted because she had not eaten. That was my first big lesson — you cannot learn on an empty stomach.

“I called the parents of the children. Together we started a school garden.

We used the vegetables which we grew to feed the children. After that no-one fainted in my classes.

“When we started the garden, I followed the teaching of the Rev. Bernard Huss. He taught me at Marianhill. Rev. Huss said you must never use poisons and fertilizers — you must only use the things around you when you farm.


“I soon left Umthunzini and went to another school. I have taught in so many places, from the Cape to Zimbabwe and Zambia. But wherever I went, I always started a school garden for the children.

“In 1942 1 went and studied agriculture at Fort Cox. There I learnt all about poisons and fertilizers. I listened to everything they said. But in the end I decided that Rev. Huss was right. Poisons and fertilizers were not for me.

“I carried on teaching for the next ten years. But by then I was tired. And I wanted to try out some of my ideas about farming. I rented a farm near Melmouth, in Natal.


“There was something I wanted to try. If you look at a river valley, you will see that it is always green. Plants grow well in valleys because there is always water and the soil is rich.

“Rivers leave a lot of soil on their banks. Then, when they come down in flood, they bring trees and all sorts of plants in the water. So you get layers, soil, then dying plants, and soil again. The dying plants keep the water and make the soil rich.

“I thought if God can do this, I can also try. And that is what I did. I dug trenches. Then I put one layer of dying plants, one layer of soil and so on. It worked. I grew the biggest vegetables in Natal. “But farming alone did not make me happy. So, when the Valley Trust asked me to come and work with them, I went. The Valley Trust is in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. They teach people about farming. They asked me to teach people how to use my trenches. I worked there for the next seventeen years.

“Now I am working here in Edendale. I take some students every year. They come and work in my garden with me — it is the best way to learn. We give the vegetables that we grow to the old age home and orphanage here in Edendale.

“I don’t sell my vegetables. I sell my seedlings. People must learn to grow food for themselves. They mustn’t buy from the supermarkets.

“Right now I am busy growing trees. Trees are very important. People can use the wood for firewood, and to make furniture and baskets. People cut trees down all the time. But they don’t plant new ones. That is very bad.”

Learn and Teach asked Mr Mazibuko for some advice for our readers. This is what he told us.


Before you start a garden, you must look at it very carefully. If your land slopes, you must make terraces. Terraces are like big steps. Start at the top of your garden. Make a flat bed. Then make the next one a little lower than the first.

If you do this, you will stop your soil from being washed away by the rain. You will also save water. When it rains, the top bed will get wet. When it is very wet, the water will go down onto the next bed, and the next — until all your beds are wet.


There are three ways to prepare beds for vegetables. You must look at the soil in your garden. And you must think about water.


If your soil is good and if you have lots of water, then just dig down deep. You must dig down about 18 inches. This will let the rain sink in. It also gives roots lots of space to grow.


Make shallow trenches if your soil is not too good. Shallow trenches also help if you do not have water.

Make a bed that is seven foot wide. Then dig down one foot. If you are notsure how long afoot is, use your magazine. A magazine is about one foot — or twelve inches long. Put this top soil on one side of the trench. Dig another foot. You must take all this soil out. Your trench is now two feet deep. Dig up the bottom of the trench with a fork.

Then fill the trench with compost so that the trench is one foot deep. Take all the top soil which you dug out and fill the trench to the top. The compost will keep your bed wet — and it will make your soil better.


You need to make deep trenches if your soil is bad and if you do not get a lot of rain.

A deep trench must also be seven feet wide. Dig out one foot. This is your top soil. Put it on one side of the trench. Dig out the next foot. This is mid — soil. Put it on the other side of the trench. Dig down another foot. You must take this soil out, altogether. Put it on your compost. Dig up the bottom of the trench with a fork.

You must fill your deep trench like this.

Step 1. Put in two inches of top soil. Step 2. Put in one foot of cut grass Step 3. Put in two inches of mid—soil Step 4. Put in one foot of grass again Step 5. Put in fifteen inches of top soil and mid-soil.

The grass is like a sponge. It will keep lots of water in it. In your first year, your crops will not be that good. But by the second year they will be better. And by the third year they will be even better. The best time to dig a trench is between November and January when the soil is soft and the grass is wet.

Trenches are very good for spinach and beans and peas. But vegetables that grow underground like potatoes and turnips, do not grow well in trenches.


There are two ways to make compost.


You must dig a pit and throw all your rubbish into it. But do not throw in bottles, plastic, stones and wood. Water it. After one year your compost will be ready. Dig it over and use it in your garden.


Make a bed for your compost by using a layer of stones. Then put down a layer of grass, then a layer of soil, grass again and then a last layer of soil. You must water your heap. You must also leave it for a year.

Learn and Teach hopes that our readers find Mr Mazibuko’s advice helpful. If you want to find out more, you can write to Mr Mazibuko at



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