Geoff Lawton Leads A Teaching Tour Of The Greening The Desert Project
Jordan December 2019
The Greening the Desert Project (GTD) started about 11 years ago, and it looked like the other bare blocks around the area. Geoff and Nadia purchased the land, created a society, and gave the land to the society. There was no funding, so everything advanced slowly. With each new success came a new stream of funding. Course by course, they volunteered, and the site got off the ground, so much so that funding eventually came from LUSH. Ultimately, Muslim Aid Australia began funding the project and made it a focal point.
In this way, The Greening The Desert Project started off in the opposite direction of most aid projects. Most start with a lot of money, look very good the day they open, and dwindle away over the next ten years. Ten years ago, The Greening The Desert Project looked terrible and had no money. No one was interested. But, every year more people came. With increased results, the funding increased. After about five years, local interest grew. Last year, the site finally opened, and now Jordan’s Ministry of Agriculture as well as local schools and other interests are taking the courses.
Two aspects of the living system make all the difference: nitrogen-fixing trees that can be coppiced and practical water catchment systems. The trees build the soil. Each year, they are cut for the winter, and by April, they’ve regrown to provide shade. The organic matter from the annual trim feeds the soil. As for the water, by design, everything that comes onto the site, the limited rainfall as well as what people use, is soaked into the soil. In this way, more people on the site actually equates to increased availability of water to the plants. These two valuable puzzle pieces provided the pathway into diversity.
Wicking beds are also throughout the site. They are the most efficient gardens in terms of water usage because they are watered from below, with no risk of evaporation. Worm beds are another means of fertility, with tens of thousands of worms being fed food scraps so that they can supply both liquid and solid fertiliser. Wastewater from the bathroom sink feeds into a banana circle, and reed beds filter grey-water from the cafe and add it to the hydrated landscape. Toilets are dry composting to minimise the water used. Two kitchen sinks on site feed a little reed bed. In short, a lot of water that other people are wasting goes into The Greening The Desert Project site.
There is a nursery for propagating trees and vegetables. New wicking beds for increased production. Shade cloth is removed in the winter to allow sun in, and it is replaced in the summer to extend the growing season. An electric air pump is aerating compost tea, socks filled with compost and bio-char are dangling in the water like a tea bag. The bio-char is very porous, providing millions of little holes where microorganisms can find home. When charged with compost tea, they add very stable life to the soil. Compost tea also allows a small amount of compost to fertilise the entire site.
But, the real engine of fertility on site is the chicken tractor. It makes more fertiliser than any other element, all the while producing eggs and some chicken meat. Every week, manured mulch (1/3 cubic meter) is taken from under the roost and piled in the chicken coop with goat/sheep manure (1/3 cubic meter) and food scraps (1/3 cubic meter). During the week, the chickens scratch it all apart. Then, the cycle repeats, with the old pile moving further down the chicken coop and a new pile forming. Once in motion, this system produces a cubic meter of compost a week, on just 3000 square meters of land, only 2000 of which is growing space. That seriously changes the soil fertility in a short time.
The most important earthwork/water harvesting features on the site are the three swales. The longest reaches from the lowest point on the highest boundary and extends across the site. These don’t let any water runoff, whether it’s rain or irrigation. This same feature, a simplistic ancient water harvesting system, could be installed across Jordan to create water abundance as opposed to scarcity. And, it’s not very expensive to do.
There are a few remaining nitrogen-fixing trees with full canopies that show off one year of growth. These will be cut this week, with the trimmed parts dropped to the soil to feed it. Meanwhile, the roots release nitrogen fertiliser under the ground surface. These friendlier trees can grow several meters within a year.
The site was originally planted with a more intimidating nitrogen-fixer, Prosopis, that is very spiky but much tougher. As the fertility increased, these have been replaced. Ultimately, the Prosopis were cut down and piled into large pits about two meters deep, where they have decomposed to make some of the best soil on the site. The point here is to realize that a forest grows on a fallen forest. What falls on the ground feeds the organisms in the soil which feed the plants and the cycle extends. The spiky Prosopis, somewhat problematic, were a wonderful solution this way. They converted alkaline desert soils into something resembling that of a tropical rainforest. It is mildly acidic and perfect for growing citrus. For more info on tree species watch the tree tour, here.
Reed beds are another vital water conservation system, particularly for homes. The plants clean grey-water from sinks and showers then that water can irrigate fruit trees. Sixty people on site have been using the showers for two weeks now, so that’s a lot of water going to the gardens to grow food. There are already villages in the Jordanian mountains adopting similar reed bed systems, and they are growing olives in bad years when others can’t due to water constraints. In fact, where Geoff lives in Australia, it’s actually illegal not to use these grey-water systems.
Furthering this holistic approach to water (and energy) conservation, dry composting toilets and showers have been positioned at the top of the site so that water can flow down on gravity power as opposed to pumps.
Electricity begins with gallium selenium solar panels on the roof, and they feed into nickel-iron batteries that can last up to 100 years. A Dutch inverter from a company called Victron takes the electricity and brings it up to the mains power, converting the energy into something that won’t damage appliances. If the system is plugged into the mains or a generator, say on a cloudy day, the same inverter switches into a charger and fills the batteries. The whole thing can be monitored and controlled from anywhere in the world with an app on a smartphone. (for more info visit: https://24hoursolarpower.com).
The building is built with standard concrete forms and pillars because that’s what people trust. However, the walls on the west and south sides are made from straw bale while the eastern and northern walls are constructed from mud-bricks. All of the internal walls are mud-brick, and all of the upstairs walls are straw bale. These materials perform important functions. The mud-bricks have thermal mass that, kept out of the sun, will retain cool, functioning like a natural air conditioner. On the other side of the house (literally), the straw bale is a great insulator against the sun, which is particularly troublesome in the afternoon, on the western walls. The trees around the building are also cut seasonally, allowing more sun in during the winter and providing increasing shade during the summer.
On the roof of the main building, there’s a wicking bed garden. It’s being upgraded to something fancier this year so that café guests can sit upstairs, have a coffee while looking west to Palestine, and be surrounded and shaded by food.
a very interesting and inspiring project.
Two questions: is the water from the showers tap water? Do the chickens need feed from outside?
I wish you and your team furthermore good luck with all your projects.
Best regards from Germany
Hi Christian yes its tap water. The chickens do not need extra feed but if you add it than the egg production will increase.