I’ve been working in Jordan since 1999, and it is one of the most water-scarce countries on earth. The Dead Sea Valley, at 400 meters below sea level, is also the lowest place on earth, so the climate has Mediterranean weather with subtropical heat. The soil and water are the saltiest I’ve ever worked with. In the past year, there has been the coldest winter on record as well as the hottest summer. In other words, the Greening the Desert site has been seriously tested, but it’s providing incredible results.
The site is 3,000 square meters that came as a hard, harsh landscape. It was not the ideal place to settle, but it was an accurate example of what many people have to live with. The challenges included having very little soil, dealing with an overabundance of rock, and metering out only 150-200 mm of rain a year. It was so crucial to capture all the water available and sink it into the landscape, so we developed strategies of water conservation using shade, wind buffering, and production of nitrogen-rich mulch. With these strategies, we’ve established a desert forest garden that has moved into crops, herbs, and small animal husbandry, which also provides site-sourced, natural fertilizer.
The infrastructure, too, has been key. There is a house with a kitchen because there was a need for a large kitchen for students and staff. Waterless compost toilets conserve water and provide fertility. The men’s and women’s shower blocks feed greywater into a biological cleaning system via reed beds and gravity-fed irrigation to trees. We are demonstrating wicking beds from recycled materials, crop systems in the shade instead of polytunnels, sunken vegetable beds to help with water, and small animals for manure. And, we’ve set up renewable energy systems–solar electricity and solar hot water—to take advantage of the abundant sun. The buildings have been specially designed to bank the cool.
The project has grown and it continues to grow, every year… check out the slideshow of the 10-Year timeline below then the subsequent videos feature the project during my last trip, in late 2018, plus some highlighted secondary projects that have grown out of or have been impacted by the Greening the Desert project.
Greening the Desert Project, Jordan September 2018: Casual Tree Tours.
Stepping onto the site in late September 2018, just at the end of summer, the trees of the food forest are looking impressive. Our support species have moved from thorny nitrogen-fixers, like Prosopis and Jerusalem thorn, to less aggressive species, such as albizzia, cassia, Casuarina, and leucaena. The thorny nitrogen-fixers were cut down to the ground, and the detritus was piled into deep mulch pits. Many of the second wave of nitrogen-fixers were pollarded eleven months ago and have regenerated since, providing shade and, soon, more biomass for the forest floor. Other support species are helping to provide mulch (Tecoma stans, Hibiscus tiliaceus), as well as fixing phosphate (Washingtonia robusta).
The results of cultivating all this support is evident. Citrus trees, which require acidic soils, are now beginning to fruit. There are lemons, pomelos, kumquat, and several other varieties of citrus growing. Classic desert crops—olives, dates, moringa—are thriving and providing impressive yields. (I’ve sneakily sampled the guava and can’t resist pulling a couple of dates off for a snack.) Extending the collection of productive trees, kei apples and papayas are getting solid starts, as are carob trees. Many of these trees are tucked beneath the shade of the support species, which provided valuable shelter in the desert, and that has helped everything survive nearly six months without a drop of rain.
The site is designed to optimize water available. Three rock-wall swales capture rainwater and irrigation runoff so that no water goes to waste. Reed beds, too, are being redone as they are crucial to recycling water. The mulch pits act like sunken hügelkultur mounds, capturing and holding water. Even so, the site cannot yet operate self-sufficiently handle all of its own water needs. Tanks are filled to help with irrigation, and water is harvested from the mains, which come on about twice a week. Though our goal, the collective goal of permaculturists around the world, is to reach sustainability, we must work towards demonstrating what can be done responsibly in the current systems until, ultimately, we reach a tipping point.
And, the site is having an influence in the area. Neighbors are coming in to visit, seeing the progression of Greening the Desert. Lots of new things are going in to facilitate this local interest. There are new pathways, new composting toilets for the classroom, and a new tool shed. Perhaps the most exciting addition in progress is the organic coffee shop and retail outlet that will be open to the public and open out onto the street.
We’re Literally Spreading From One Garden to the Next
In a small settlement above the agricultural land, where the landscape is horribly degraded, some people are beginning to use permaculture techniques. Crops are up in shade houses. Wicking beds are in full production, yielding crops even at the end of summer, a miraculous event in the desert. A chicken tractor is producing a cubic meter of compost a week. And, the gardens have been cut out of two-to-three meters of solid rock, with the excavated rock then used to make retaining walls cut for terraces. Now, a kid is growing a crop of chilies, tomatoes, eggplants, and other vegetables to eat at home, with plans to sell the surplus. Vines are climbing on the fence to shade it in. The next-door neighbor is starting another system, another extension of our design work from people trained at the Greening the Desert site. The school is right next door looking down into it. Having seen results in permaculture, people are starting to garden every which way they can, carving production right out of the rock.
Permaculture is Greening the Desert
Next door to the Greening the Desert site, a former student has been designing her land to be productive. She has added lots of compost, a shade cloth, and unglazed pots for efficient irrigation. She is growing a collection of herbs and vegetables, things such as clumping basil, Ethiopian cabbage, and marshmallow. She has support species—acacia, leucaena, casuarina, Tacoma stans, neem, albizzia—on the go, having learned to repair the soil before adding fruit trees. And, she has begun to slowly introduce productive trees like date palms, olives, peach, and guava. Compost is breaking down in a recycled water tank, an old tub has been turned into a worm farm, and local chickens occupy a coop made from recycled materials. This was the site for the design exercise in the last PDC course at Greening the Desert. Now, having compiled those ideas with her own, in just 11 months, she has gone from bare soil to a lush garden.
We’re Mulching Pits, Propagating, Planting, and Making Compost
Our Permaculture in Action course is meant to offer a more hands-on (versus theoretical) learning environment to permaculture students, and by late October, teams are spread out through the Greening the Desert site. Students from all over the world are busy with projects on the farm.
- A team of ladies is working on the top terrace, creating a mulch pit with the last of the spiky nitrogen-fixing trees (prosopis regrowth and Jerusalem thorn). The site is now fertile enough to switch to a different stage of legumes, such as leucaena. The hole for the mulch pit is about 1.5-2 meters deep, and they are layering the chopped trees with manure and a bit of biochar. Just below this terrace we can see the same process two years down the line.
- Another group is working in the nursery and kitchen garden. They are planting diverse seedlings, things like cabbage, marigold, Ceylon spinach, pepper, garlic, and more. The nursery is in a shady part of the site and full of diversity. The veggie garden is taking off as the temperature drops into winter, and students are adding compost, worm juice, and plenty of new plants.
- A third group is working in the chicken tractor, installing an overhead irrigation system to water the compost heaps. Their instructor is experimenting with a maggot bucket, lowering it so that chickens eat both the flies and the maggots. The group has built Berkley method compost piles that the chickens will interact with, moving it down the chicken yard over the span of about a month before it goes into the gardens.
The First Rainfall of the Season
The first rainfall of the season comes in grandiose fashion. Just after a dust storm blows past, a thunderstorm erupts across the desert. This is how it usually happens (dust storm then rain), and this signals the official start of the cooler season. At the Greening the Desert site, the event feels increasingly serious. Tents are collapsed, others blown over. Trees in the food forest go down, a tank blows off the rooftop, and a shade house topples. Everything is very wet, with water pouring into the site, feeding the swales. Even water from the street is being diverted into water collection. A desert is a flood waiting to happen, and though we can’t predict every outcome, the landscape can be designed to make the most of it.
Unfortunately, this event goes really wrong in a wadi just ten kilometers from the site. Twenty-one people die in a flood. Such tragedies s can be thwarted by sound permaculture design. In the Dead Sea Valley, a wadi with barrage dam walls and stout gabions with large level silt fields moderates the amount of water moving through. More importantly than stopping the water, it’s the material, like large rocks, that cause serious damage, but good design can create silt fields that’ll absorb water like a large sponge and prevent the flooding that sweeps up this solid debris. This kind infrastructure has safety advantages as well as benefit in hydrating the ecosystems. Though the desert is an actively eroding landscape, we can design to take advantage.
Where There Was No Food, Food Now Grows!
This is the ‘domino effect’ of the Greening the Desert project in Jordan, a healthy, affordable, and easily understood permaculture design that can be replicated, anywhere.
A Garden is an Education
Jawaseri is the closest school to the Greening the Desert site, and it has one of the four school gardens the project sponsors. A shade house shelters a full garden, and there are wicking beds, as well as a young food forest. The gardens in the shade house are sunken beds with raised foot paths to maximize the water absorption into the plots. The soil has been dressed, loosening up with stones removed, and compost has been added. Hay mulch is used to maximize water-efficiency. The project is connected to the school’s science classroom, emphasizing permaculture as a design science, and kids are helping. Through Greening the Desert’s presence, they get to interact with a multi-national collection of students and volunteers, and the children feed off of the visitors’ enthusiasm.
Touring a Local Permaculture Site in the Desert
Hayal is another local permaculturist who has a fantastic home garden stuffed with examples of permaculture techniques suitable for the region. There’s a chicken tractor and even some milking sheep in the mix. Bee hives have been put in for pollination and honey-production. Wicking beds are producing well, and many rows of vegetables are growing beneath a shade house. system is young, only three months, but there is already production. Some fruit trees, like date palms, have been growing onsite for some time, and new fruit trees are being introduced into a food forest. There is a reed bed for filtering water. A swimming pool is used to irrigate the garden, allowing kids to swim a few days before it is drained onto the garden, and the process is repeated.
With only a week left in the course, things are in position such that the Greening the Desert project has much to look forward to in coming months. One worm farm has been harvested and reset every week, providing plenty of bacterially beneficial castings to boost the soil, and this has produced four cubic yards of compost for the garden. Tree saplings and plant seedlings are in the nursery and waiting for planting. The irrigation system is being retooled to handle the increase in trees. The crop garden is yielding the first tomatoes and eggplants. The wicking beds are coming on. The chicken tractor is working well, rabbits too. The citrus trees are enjoying the cooler weather. The spiky mulch pits are waiting for one last session of chop-and-drop biomass. Biochar is being produced every day, and it’s added to compost tea. It should all advance the project over the year to come.
Humans Have the Potential to Turn Deserts into a Green Oasis
In the wicking beds, eggplants are still producing, having survived right through summer. Two perennial spinaches, Ceylon and Brazil, are thriving. These gardens are proving themselves as the most efficient watering system. Wicking beds are inexpensive to produce. The process starts with a used bulk liquid container, which is cut in half, frame and all, with an angle grinder. This provides two wicking beds at the perfect size, as well as a support frame. A piece of plumbing pipe is either slotted or punctured to allow water to seep out, and it is fitted with an elbow and another length of pipe to emerge above the surface. The soakage pipe goes from corner to corner, and the wicking bed is filled halfway with #10 gravel. Shade cloth covers the gravel, and a layer of soil then compost then mulch creates the growing medium. A small, simple swivel pipe is installed just above the bottom of the soil to help with monitoring and controlling the water level.
Desert Food Forest Chop-and-Drop
The final chop-and-drop bonanza gets underway, cutting the remaining leucaena down to high pollards and using the rich green material as mulch around the bottoms of trees. A couple hundred kilos of material is produced by these trees annually, with trees growing some four meters in just twelve months. The idea is to prune the them to grow through just a few upward shoots, trimming the side shoots as they develop. This will produce high shade and allow room for the fruit trees to grow underneath support trees. We are feeding the soil, designing how the forest falls, and the mycelium consumes the carbon-rich biomass and improves the soil structure. The timing here is important because it opens the canopy at the best possible time (winter in the desert), and the canopy will re-establish itself at the best possible time (summer in the desert).
Food Forest Fertility
It’s the last day and people are still working on irrigation and chop-and-drop. Neem is being harvested for mulch and natural pesticide. Chop-and-drop is around everything. It’s about strategic timing, opening the canopy when evaporation over rainfall flops into rainfall over evaporation. Mulch increases every year, and groundcovers are establishing more and more. The system is designed to time the way the forest falls to feed the soil at the optimal moment. Compost is covered by green mulch, and that is covered by small sticks. The fertility then decomposes and pushes down into the soil. The system’s organic matter is being reassembled into productive trees, and the system evolves as designers adjust to provide the best results.
This little desert garden project is showing truly promising results. It brings me hope for the future and shows the outcome of applied permaculture design in the harshest of climates. If this is possible here, then we can do this anywhere in the world, and — most importantly — anyone can learn this design science and apply it in their home, neighborhood, and community.
To hear more stories like this and learn more about how others are using permaculture, check out the Permaculture Masterclass, my newest 4-part documentary-style film, here.