Olive trees stand the test of time in Palestine
All images © Christopher List Photography
It was a brisk, rather harried morning when my husband, photographer Christopher List, and I set off on a trip to delve deeper into the relatively unheard of phenomenon of permaculture.
It felt like only yesterday when we’d announced to friends and family that were were going to Palestine, to study a 14-day intensive permaculture course. After discovering some of the principles of permaculture on a recent trip to SA, I knew we were in for a gruelling, yet worthwhile experience.
Relatively new to the Middle East, with permaculture projects in Saudi Arabia and in the Jordan River Valley, permaculture simply means working nature to produce a sustainable garden design, and can be used by farmers and gardeners alike.
In fact, permaculture principles can be applied to community gardens, rooftop gardens, small balconies or even just to help your pot plants flourish. Not only applicable to growing things, permaculture includes reusing and recycling as well as renewable energy. It even extends to sustainable housing. In a nutshell, permaculture entails a holistic, sustainable way of life.
A little history
Permaculture began in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis and growing food insecurity. It was developed by Bill Mollison, a wildlife biologist, who spent decades in the rainforests and deserts of Australia studying eco-systems, and witnessing their destruction.
Together with one of his students, David Holmgren, he coined the word ‘permaculture’, a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture’. Through observing natural forests, Mollison noted that plants naturally group themselves in mutually-beneficial clusters.
He built upon this idea to develop an approach to agriculture and community design that seeks to place elements together that support and sustain each other, allowing us to get higher yields with less effort.
Permaculture seeks to maintain a cycle, where dead plants or leaves become mulch to protect and nurture the soil, while food waste becomes rich compost for your plants.
Our teacher, Rhamis Kent, reads
the Designers’ Manual
Deterring pests naturally through using natural predators and strategic design, permaculture gardening does not use any pesticides or fertilisers. According to Bill Mollison, “we need to work with nature, not against it”.
The temperate climate of South Africa might sound ideal for this kind of activity, but permaculture can actually be applied in any kind of climate.
Eager to cement my knowledge with insights more applicable to a desert climate, I signed up for my second Permaculture Design Course (PDC), to be held at the Marda Farm in Palestine.
A PDC is a 12-14 day intensive programme based on Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, where you live, work and study permaculture methods.
Marda at sunset
Here and throughout the West Bank, life can be difficult for citizens who are forced to apply for permits to work and travel and suffer from high rates of unemployment.
Local villagers go home after a hard day’s work
It was late afternoon when, hot, dusty and tired, we arrived in the village of Marda, located about twenty kilometres south of Nablus in the Salfit District of the West Bank of Palestine, after an epic eight-hour journey via Jordan.
Mountainous road from Jordan to the West Bank
A village that looks virtually untouched by time, Marda is a typical farming community, dependent on agriculture for its livelihood.
Marda Village, Palestine
Marda in springtime was surrounded by rolling green hills and ancient, weather-beaten olive trees, which for thousands of years have been providing villagers with an important source of revenue.
Marda Village in Spring
I looked up to see Ariel, one of the largest Israeli settlements, which, surrounded by its high gates and razor wire, casts a shadow over the tiny village.
Israeli settlement, Ariel, overlooks Marda Village
A lively game of football briefly interrupts our passage, but the village kids quickly part to allow our taxi through, staring curiously at us as we pass.
Village kids at Marda pose for the camera during a lively game of football
We met up with Murad Alkhuffash, host of the PDC, and the rest of the course participants, which included three Palestinians, a Finnish-born German, an Albanian from Kosovo, myself (South African) and Namibian, Christopher List as well as the two teachers, UK-based Rhamis Kent (USA) and Klaudia van Gool (Dutch).
Though Murad plans to raise funding to build a teaching centre and student accommodation on the farm, for the duration of the course the students and teachers shared quarters in a rented house, forming a close bond.
Our home in Marda, Palestine
Murad has been instrumental in improving the lives of people in the village, and indeed throughout the West Bank. He says that one of the core problems in the region is that Palestinians leave their land to try and find work in the cities.
Thus he aims to establish Marda Farm as a “model of sustainable development and self-sufficiency for the whole of Palestine and to build connections with Permaculture projects regionally and internationally”. With two PDCs under his belt and a Permaculture Diploma, he is dedicated to achieving this dream.
Murad has brought students to Marda from as early as 2008 when the first Introduction to Permaculture Course was held, attracting 26 students. Later in 2010, a full 72-hour PDC course took place with seven international students and thirteen Palestinians from across the region.
Today, the flourishing farm is testament to Murad’s tenacity.
Marda Permaculture Farm
Despite obstacles such as a dwindling water supply due to the confiscation of water aquifers, crop destruction by marauding wild pigs and a harsh climate, there was a multitude of plants on display, including cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, cucumber, beans, cauliflowers, radish, spinach, with fruit planted such as grapes, peaches, apples and pomegranate.
Tomatoes flourish on the vine
The farm also boasts organic almonds, which we plucked straight from the tree.
Almonds, ripe for picking
Much to our amazement, Murad tells us he’s never planted barley, but because he sometimes borrows a donkey from his brother, it sprouted naturally from the donkey’s manure.
Barley growing abundantly
He’s also growing saffron, known as the most expensive spice in the world, as an additional source of revenue.
The course contained a mixture of theory and practical work, with breaks for tea and a hearty cooked lunch, courtesy of Murad’s wife.
We didn’t hesitate to sample some of the local cuisine, including the vegetarian version of Maqluba (upside down rice and eggplant dish, traditionally served with lamb), and of course the famous Palestinian olives which accompanied our freshly-picked daily salad. Murad’s wife even prepared pizza, for those missing Western fare.
Upside down dish, Maqluba
The course covers the ethics of Permaculture, which include People Care, Earth Care and Fair Share — core values which define how we should behave towards the earth and each other, in order to have a sustainable future. These values influence every project, no matter how large or small and support all the key learnings below:
Permaculture methods don’t offer a quick-fix or one-size-fits-all solution, which means that its methods need to be applied to each farm, garden or balcony individually, based on their merits for that region or climate.
Thus the first step is observation. Our group was asked to stand in front of an empty plot of land that had been allowed to grow wild and observe it silently for about five minutes. After standing still in the warm fading sunshine, looking at the abundance of nettles growing and the vast diversity of plants, we began to voice our observations.
First things first, we discovered that it is essential to determine how much light, wind and water a plot receives before doing anything. Many different microclimates can exist in one area and this can determine what you decide to plant. Even weeds have a story to tell.
Nettles grow in nutrient-rich soil
Nettles grow in nutrient-rich soil and we learnt that the current site was the previous dumping ground for the local rubbish. Weeds also can provide useful mulch, so instead of discarding them before planting, use them to enrich the soil or your compost.
Diversity and companion planting
Murad stands in front of his greenhouse, home to tomato, sunflower,
gooseberry, cucumber, an assortment of herbs and much more.
A key aspect of permaculture garden design is growing a diverse range of foods with mutually-beneficial relationships (companion planting). Murad grows cabbages and lettuce among his tomatoes, and even has sunflowers along with a cape gooseberry bush growing naturally between them.
Cape gooseberry grows naturally amongst Murad’s tomatoes
As we foraged amongst the large green leaves to find ripe cucumbers to eat, we learnt that Murad has planted a mixture of annuals and perennials to provide food throughout the year, while he’s ensured less overall effort by choosing plants to suit local conditions.
Diversity builds immunity and insurance against stress. For example, if pests wipe out a fruit crop then other produce is available to eat or sell.
In a permaculture system, plantings are carefully considered to work as natural pest deterrents, while natural predators takes care of pests without any negative environmental impact. For example frogs can do the same job as a slug repellent, and wasps and ladybugs love eating aphids.
Murad plants radishes around the garden so errant moles recalculate their route. The piquant scent of lemon verbena at the entrance of his greenhouse repels pests, while basil also works as a natural pest deterrent between his vegetables.
Meanwhile, collecting those unwanted nettles and brewing them with water provides a wonderful spray that can be used to deal with pests and fungal diseases.
This nettle brew has the added advantage of not harming beneficial insects such as ladybirds. Flowers are planted to attract honeybees — essential for pollination.
Zoning, sectors and elevation
An important part of any permaculture design is zones, sectors and elevation.
With zoning, you place portions of the site according to how much you use them. This cuts down on extra walking times and streamlines your ‘infrastructure’.
So when planning your garden, think which plants need the most care. These will live in Zone 1, closest to the house (which is Zone Zero). This means ripe produce will be picked at its freshest and delicate plants get the care they need.
Your Zone Two is usually plants that require less attention (root crops, perennial herbs that aren’t used often, fruit trees, etc.) while Zones Three and Four generally only apply if you have a lot of land (field crops, pastures). Zone Five is your conservation area and traditionally includes a wild area for natural predators and wildlife. You can have this even in a small plot.
Sectors are directions from which natural energy comes to the site from outside it — energy such as wind, sunlight, water, fires, water flow, etc. You can place components to manage incoming energy. For instance, plant trees to block excessive winds. To optimise this energy, build a windmill to use as a pump for the dam.
Elevation can be defined as the contour of the land, the elevation of each part in relation to the other. You can maximise sun-facing slopes for solar energy or take advantage of water flows by placing water tanks on higher ground, eliminating the need to pump.
Forest gardening involves mimicking nature to get maximum yield. Though there is no forest garden in Marda (yet) we trooped outside to observe a rich variety of plants naturally growing at different heights.
Known as ‘stacking’, a forest garden typically features tall fruiting trees forming a canopy (such as dates) over a layer of dwarf trees and nut bushes, which in turn shelter fruiting shrubs (currants and berries), over herbaceous plants (comfrey, beets, herbs), and roots underground, while a layer of climbers and vines run vertically.
By using ample groundcover, the soil is protected from water runoff and erosion.
Geoff Lawton demonstrates this in his video Seven Food Forests in Seven Minutes, which shows a series of food forests that have been planted at Zaytuna Farm over successive years.
Permaculture teaches you to harvest all available water, letting none go to waste — valuable information in a desert climate. Strategies include capturing rainwater from the roof which can be directed into a rainwater tank, harvesting household greywater, mulching, and digging water-harvesting ditches (or swales).
Using household greywater
You can even use household greywater (from dishes, showers, washing machines, etc.) for your plants.
Methods for using greywater range from simple to fairly complex depending on what the water contains, how it will be applied to the garden and where it will be applied.
If you’re using plant-based organic cleaning products and powders, there’s no need to even filter. But for stronger chemicals there are a range of filtration methods including planting banana trees and lilies (which work as natural filters) or creating more advanced systems such as reed beds.
Reed beds improve the quality of the water as it slowly moves through the bed (the reeds naturally aerate and absorb materials). Murad has simply altered his plumbing so that all his greywater goes directly into his garden, feeding the plants.
If he uses harsh chemicals, he merely diverts his pipes. So instead of throwing out your dishwater, (cooled) pot or kettle water, you feed it directly to your plants.
There are also simple practical strategies for reducing your water needs, such as placing a small flush or a plastic water bottle filled with water in your toilet tank. Flushing the toilet can account for 1/3rd of household water usage so this really reduces water consumption.
Because permaculture aims for minimal impact, it encompasses a no-dig philosophy. Unknown to most gardeners and farmers today, it’s possible to change what grows on a plot without turning over the soil, and in doing so increase your soil’s fertility.
The key to this is mulch, the benefits of which are practically a mantra on our permaculture course. Laying freshly cut weeds over the soil and letting the soil absorb the nutrients is one way of using mulch to enrich the soil (and ensure tasty vegetables).
To put mulching into practice, we created two no-dig or lasagne garden beds. We placed a layer of waste cardboard on the ground, which we’d collected from around the village, attracting a gathering of curious village kids.
Cardboard blocks out the light and smothers any weeds, while providing carbon.
We shovelled manure on top for added nitrogen and watered the layer so that the plant’s roots can easily penetrate.
Helping Murad dig weeds out by hand was gruelling but satisfying work, so long as you avoided the stinging nettles.
Three barrows full of these fresh green weeds were placed on the layer above to provide more nitrogen while another layer of compost or manure was thrown on top.
We then topped it off with a layer of mulch such as straw, which helps the soil retain its moisture and prevents runoff.
Swales and using an A-frame:
What is a swale?
Simply put, a swale is a horizontal ditch that follows the contour of the land and traps water (like an underground water reservoir). Swales collect eroded soil and mulches, creating rich, moist soil which can be used to grow water-loving plants.
They help the gardener even on a small plot of land to harvest water more effectively, and in regions such as the Middle East where rain is scarce, they become increasingly important.
An A-frame or a Bunyip effectively marks the contours of the land, so you can decide where to dig your swale.
Literally forming the shape of an ‘A’, the A-frame has two legs of equal length at approximately 1.5 metres long and a 1 metre long cross bar marked at the centre, attached at the same point on each leg.
Klaudia van Gool shows Christopher List
how to use an A-frame
Drawing the centre mark on
A line with a weight hangs off their intersection. When the weighted string (plumb line) cuts the centre mark, the two legs are at exactly the same height.
We first tried to measure the contour without using anything, placing rocks to mark where we thought the land is level.
Needless to say, despite our best efforts we were not even close! We then put the A-frame to work. We took turns to walk it across the land, shifting the moved leg up or down the slope until the weighted string stabilised at the centre mark.
We then marked that point with a rock and swivelled the other leg around, repeating the levelling until the contour’s been marked out.
Meanwhile, a bunyip (also called an Egyptian water level) is an ancient tool that consists of a clear plastic tube maybe 30′ long, attached to two wood posts around 5′ tall and marked off in numbered, one-inch increments.
Rhamis Kent demonstrates how to
use a bunyip to Muna Dajani
The tube is filled with water and carries an equal amount of water in each column. A team of two each held a pole upright and read off the height of the water in the tube to determine whether we were on level or off, and by how much. We shouted out our results until they matched, which can sometimes take a lot of tiny movements to get right.
Efficient energy cycling (reuse, recycle, repair)
The need to use energy efficiently is one which is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s world. Permaculture systems seek to stop the flow of nutrients and energy off the site and instead turn them into cycles. For example, instead of raking up fallen leaves and throwing them away, you can use them as mulch.
Recycling your glass, plastic, paper and tins is a way to practice permaculture on small scale. Murad has built a fence made from waste tyres as a barrier against the wild pigs that destroy his crops.
In fact, tyres are commonly seen in permaculture gardens to grow potatoes, and can even be used in building eco-friendly homes.
A natural way to cycle energy is through composting. We learn that a good compost helps your plants resist pests and disease and supports healthy soil. The end result of this is plants rich in nutrients which support life.
So, instead of throwing out your waste, you can turn it into fertile soil, thus doing your bit to contribute to a more eco-friendly, sustainable world.
How do we go about making compost?
When you make compost, you use two materials, carbon (70%), which is your brown, yellow and dry materials (straw, dry leaves, cardboard, sticks, brown grass) and nitrogen (30%), being your green, wet and sloppy ingredients (food waste, fresh green grass, manure, weeds, etc.).
The greater the variety used, the more nutritionally balanced your veggies will be. After all, plants need variety too.
If you have a garden, you can make a big heap anywhere that’s convenient for you, or you can use a compost bin. The recipe stays the same in terms of carbon and nitrogen, though the ingredients differ according to what is locally available.
First we added some cut bark (which is carbon but allows for aeration), followed by a layer of well-rotted chicken manure (nitrogen) and watered the pile. To this we added dried weeds (carbon), followed by another layer of manure (nitrogen). We layered upwards, always carbon, nitrogen, and of course, watered each layer.
Our next layer is dried weeds, to which we added some fresh (pre-made) compost for bacteria. We take a turn to smell the compost which looks and smells like rich, fresh soil, alive after a summer rain. We learn that compost should never have a bad smell — if it does, you’re doing something wrong.
Another layer of manure is followed by some green weeds and a layer of dried up twigs for aeration. Lastly we add more fresh greens.
The compost pile is always covered with a carpet or layer of straw to protect it from harsh weather conditions, or a closed lid in the case of a bin.
Thereafter it is turned after four days, then after every two to three days. Provided there is enough moisture, the compost would be ready within three weeks in a hot climate.
If you’re living in an apartment building and having compost on your balcony is not an option, there is a solution for you. Bokashi provides kitchen composting solutions which allow you to recycle your waste and create rich natural compost, with no mess or fuss.
You simply buy a 20-litre bin to which you add your food waste. You then sprinkle the Bokashi activator (a range of effective micro organisms or probiotics which are mixed with a carrier such as rice bran or sawdust, some molasses and salt) over it and close the lid.
You can drain the liquid from the bin every three days, which acts as an excellent fertiliser for your plants (when diluted) and also keeps your drains clean. Once the bin is full you bury it and cover it with soil (you can also buy a large pot and cover it with soil on your balcony) and three to five weeks later you’ll have wonderful compost!
Another way to recycle kitchen waste and create excellent fertiliser for your plants is to create a worm farm. Red wrigglers are commonly used in permaculture worm farms as they thrive in confinement and can eat more than their own body weight every day.
Worm compost is more concentrated than most other composts because worms digest food wastes and break them down into simple plant nutrients. The worm ‘wee’ can be drained and used as fertiliser on your plants.
Murad covers up the worm farm
Energy and building
Incorporating more than just gardening or farming, permaculture also looks at sustainable development, namely how to ensure energy efficiency. If designing a new house, one needs to look at the climate first, as a home in the UAE or a tropical region would require a different design to one in a Mediterranean or temperate climate.
We learn that windows should be south-facing in the northern hemisphere and north-facing in the southern hemisphere. So ideally, a home in Dubai would have south-facing windows and a passive energy system, which uses the sun’s energy to keep it cool or warm and to moderate climate within the house.
We discover that a house can be kept cooler during summer by using chimneys to create airflow (hot air rises and cool air is drawn throughout the house).
Sash windows can also be used to encourage air circulation, while shutters keep sunlight out but allow air in. Another effective strategy is to plant deciduous vines or trees on the sun-facing side, as the leaves keep it shaded in summer but fall off in winter, allowing for winter sun.
Natural building with great thermal mass
One can also keep temperature constant by building an underground or earth-covered house. Earthships are self-sufficient buildings in terms of energy and water use (off-the-grid homes) that are made from waste and local biological materials.
There are also natural buildings made of cob (subsoil and straw), straw bale, rammed earth or earthbags, all of which help moderate temperature. We then took a tour through the beautiful old buildings of Marda,which were surprisingly cool and airy inside. We learnt that the wide stone walls absorb heat during the day and cold at night.
Our practical work involved helping Murad build his dome-shaped chicken coop using earthbags, which are made of hessian or burlap sacks and filled with excess soil.
As dusk approached, we hurriedly wet the soil inside so we can mould it to form the walls of the coop, creating a staggered pattern similar to bricklaying.
Murad ties down the bags with
barbed wire to improve rigidity
Once wet, the earth bags are surprisingly heavy so we formed teams of two to lift them up onto the limestone structure. To improve rigidity between each row of bags we placed barbed wire between the courses, and wrapped twine around the bags to tie one course to the next, to hold the structure together.
Though we weren’t able to complete it before nightfall, the next step would be to finish it with plaster, stucco or adobe to shed water and prevent any degradation caused by exposure to the sun.
It is estimated that one half of the world’s population — approximately three billion people on six continents — live or work in buildings constructed of earth.
The design phase incorporates all the key learnings of permaculture in order to create a sustainable system. Our first design task involved splitting into two groups and designing a forest garden. Naturally this involved not only pitting our skills together, but mutual cooperation and teamwork.
We first looked at the sectors for our proposed plot of land to find out where both sun and wind come from, as well as if any threats such as fire or security exist. Then we had to decide how we’d capture water — whether it be harvesting rainfall or digging swales.
Our next step involved companion planting and diversity, to see what trees and plants would work well together (and of course naturally deter pests) and how best to arrange them on the swales. We also planted certain trees to act as a windbreak.
Both teachers and our host, Murad Alkhuffash, offered constructive feedback on our group designs. We also did an individual or two-person team design project based on our future permaculture gardens.
Every student became engrossed in their design, working until late at night to ensure the perfect plan for their future home or project. Chris and I designed our 100-acre dream farm, resplendent with vegetable and forest gardens, compost toilets, an earthship house fully equipped with solar panels, and multiple swales along which we planted a rich diversity of crops and pastures for our animals to roam freely.
Murad’s future plans:
Though he doesn’t currently have the funds to hold workshops for his neighbours, Murad willingly offers advice to those eager to learn. In fact, he’s received funding to implement five permaculture gardens for five families in the village as well as five beekeeping projects for a further five families, based on the most deserving and most willing to learn.
Past workshops have included training for local woman to build solar ovens, more of which would provide local women with skills to strengthen the local economy. Murad hopes to hold composting workshops and begin an initiative to clean the streets from litter.
He also hopes to develop his own land further, building the teacher’s centre and accommodation as well as planting more crops.
On a larger scale, Murad dreams of establishing a network of sustainable permaculture demonstration sites in the West Bank.
This would ensure local Palestinians learn permaculture techniques for self-sufficiency that would offer powerful, non-violent resistance to the occupation and uplift and regenerate entire communities for years to come.
Permaculture in practice
Filled with enthusiasm on our return to Dubai, we purchased gardening tools, a Bokashi compost bin and some potting soil. We created a no-dig garden bed of our own, watered with household greywater and started our mini nursery. Since the course, I’ve also held an introduction to permaculture course, and plan on continuing to spread permaculture awareness throughout the world.
And with knowledge on how to repair and revitalise the landscape, and grow food in a sustainable way using practical skills, permaculture has given us a good road map for the future. So get to your nearest Permaculture course and find out what you can do.
Murad takes a break