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From Desert to Oasis in 4 Years (Jordan)

Geoff Lawton’s next video in his ever-expanding lineup takes you to Wadi Rum in Jordan where he consulted on a 10 acre organic farm and rebuilt their failing farm into a commercial success. Wadi Rum looks very much like your classic inhospitable desert region. It was used in the early 1960s as the backdrop set for the David Lean’s masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia.” If you’ve ever watched the movie as Geoff had, you’ll be greeted with a sense of déjà Vu. The place looks familiar and intimidating. Geoff says it still has access to water in the dry Wadi canyons and aquifers.

Geoff was given waste water from an industrial agricultural farm nearby to prove the concept of permaculture on a 10 acre site that wanted to go organic but were not sure how to start.

Geoff’s initial design used pioneer trees and legumes, but some of the design was ignored because these trees were seen as being unproductive. Consequently the result was a crop failure. Permaculture was blamed, but too much sunlight and not enough water retention and shading strategies were the problem.

When Geoff returned he insisted that his design be fully implemented in total, placing one of his Permaculture students to overseer the development.

The design in place, and the result four years later, is quite remarkable.

Some tips from Geoff include the use of succulent ground covers. They moderate the soil and also capture nutrient from sand being blown past by the hot desert wind. It’s hard to believe that this farm is built on shifting desert sands and that’s why over-storey date palms were introduced to limit the effects of wind, but also to shade the emerging canopy below, allowing them to grow in filtered sunlight.

Swale lines are flooded and the design uses trellis systems to create pools of shaded areas.

Geoff explains that when donkeys die in the desert don’t immediately rot down due to lack of moisture. The decomposition process can take years in the desert. It’s these tiny particles of needed nutrient that are captured by succulent ground covers that he designed into the system that aided in creating nutrient soil deposits under their spreading carpet-like thick mulch.

There are more strategies revealed in the full length video.

Click for larger view


  1. Well done! Only four years and from the other articles on this site, they weren’t following the design properly initially either. Quite something!

    I really love the use of shade in these latitudes; and I’m not the only one: way back between 3000-2500 BCE, the Sumerians recorded a story regarding a mortal gardener named Shukalletuda.

    To quote Dr. Samuel Kramer’s “The Sumerians”:

    “There once was a gardener named Shukalletuda, whose diligent efforts at gardening had met nothing but failure. Although he carefully watered his his furrows and garden patches, the plants had withered away; the raging winds smote his face with the “dust of the mountains”; all that he had carefully tended turned desolate. He thereupon lifted his eyes to the east and west to the starry heavens, studied the omens, observed and learned the divine decrees. As a result of this newly acquired wisdom, he planted the sarbatu-tree (as yet unidentified) in the garden, a tree whose broad shade lasts from sunrise to sunset. As a consequence of this ancient horticultural experiment, Shukalletuda’s garden blossomed forth with all kinds of green.”
    -p. 162, “The Sumerians” Samuel Noah Kramer.

    As we say, there is nothing (or little) new in permaculture. Over five thousand years ago one of the first recorded stories in Sumeria that speaks of a human (the other was a king who escaped the great flood) deals with the need to stack functions!

  2. To better understand the potentiality of permaculture in the desert it would be very useful to have information on the yearly rainfall, where the irrigation water is originally coming from (seasonal stream + collection basins?), how much irrigation is required by the system yearly if any after establishment. What are the geographic coordinates of this place? Is this information available?
    Thank you!

    1. The test of a desert system’s permanent sustainability is its ability to recharge the shallow aquifers you use for irrigation and even over charge them. This can be done with absorption earthworks feature of swales, leaky sand dams, rock gabions, limonia, pits, hollows, nets and pans.

      If you are in a position to catch extra runoff water from the landscape it will work even better and faster to establish.
      This system does catch some rainfall from off the site, the average is a 20 to 1 water harvest to production area in an extreme dryland situation.

      The water came from a large irrigation well head with back pressure that was going to waste across the landscape as no value to the industrial agriculture on the property because the volume was insignificant to their use, but for our system it allowed use to fast track establishment without a specific catchment position.

      This desert gets 75mm average and wind breaks are a major part of the system with aquifer recharge we can irrigate by windmill and solar pump indefinitely because when it rains, no matter how long between rains, we get major recharge.

      I do not have the exact figures of irrigation water use. The rainfall is 75mm a year.

      The date palms are planted as suckers so they are true to strain and females were about 2m high when planted.

      The annual crops were on raised mounds but quite a few things need to be changed as we proved we could achieve a successful and commercially viable productive system and bit by bit we are being listened to. They are now changing the plastic mulch to organic mulch.

      1. Hi Geoff, not sure i have heard you refer to leaky sand dams, limonia, pits, or hollows before. Would like to know more about all of those. Maybe another video about that?

  3. Jeff,
    impressive, but in some parts of Iran they only get 25mm of rain a year and still manage to do serious agriculture using quanats.

    These are impressive. They also use wind catchers and quanats to provide completely passive air conditioning and the quanats even run water wheels in some places to grind seed to make flour. I realise that they are bit too much for a small group but quite within the reach of a small community. Please feel free to contact me if your interested in some reading material on the subject.

    Stuart Braid, Sydney Australia

    1. Hi Stuart yes we taught in Iran 5 years ago and we are just about to release a film on their incredible achievements, particularly with compost. I saw quants being constructed and any reading material, you have, would something I am very interested in, please send to [email protected]

  4. Fascinating! I’ve dreamed of one day working on a project like this. My kids are grown now and I’m looking to go back to school. Realizing this is a lifelong effort of learning, not just a “degree”. It is a passion. But where to even start? Any suggestions for schooling? Where did you start? Go to school? What degrees? Thanks for any input.

    1. Hi Gretchen,
      The best place to start is by obtaining a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). The PRI and our Master Plan sites offer them regularly. Geoff also has an online PDC course that is offered once a year. From there you will have a good foundation to move forward.

      Regards – Web Team

  5. Any chance of getting an update in the year 2017? I would love to see how this progressed!

      1. Hello,
        Is there any update on this project? I m working on a a plan similar project in the Desert of Mhamid el Ghizlane in Morocco. This project is a great example for us and i would love to know what the developments are.
        Kind regards, Karim

  6. This is amazing work. What a gift you are to our planet at this time.

    Would the permaculture priniciples and food forests work to reverse drought and the damage caused by monoculture?

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