Permaculture Technology: Greening the Desert

Greening the Desert Project: Jordan September 2018

Geoff Lawton (2018)

Film Review

This short video is a brief update of the Greening the Desert project Australian permaculture guru started in 2010 in the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan. His goal is to demonstrate the success of permaculture techniques in restoring barren desert to food production with minimal irrigation

As Lawton describes in the video, he began by planting native spiky acacia to condition the sandy soil and produce a continuous supply of mulch. He then added a series of legume, mulch producing and fruit trees. The legume trees add nitrogen to the soil while the mulch producing trees are an ongoing source of carbon. All are an essential source of shade to prevent water loss in the dry season (there is no rain at all between March and September).

In addition to trees, the project employs reed beds to recycle waste water from hygiene, laundry and dishwashing and passion fruit and Singapore daisy vines for additional shade and ground cover.

Workers are already harvesting dates (date palms help fix soil phosphate) and guava from the food forest Lawton helped them create. They will harvest their first citrus crops at the end of winter. They have also planted olive, pomegranate, papaya, kumquat and neem trees. The highlight of the film is when Lawton discovers a snail (which only breed in damp conditions) in a neem tree.

Workers have just planted their veggie garden in anticipation of rain over the winter months.

The winter rain will be collected in rain tanks and swales.* In addition the compound harvests municipal tap water, delivered a few hours a day three times a week. They also have water tanked in for drinking, hygiene, laundry and dishwashing, which they recycle through the reed beds.

They only use irrigation to start their veggie seedlings.

Four years ago Lawton proposed a similar solution for southern California, but local officials have yet to adopt his recommendations: A Natural Solution to Drought

A Natural Solution to Drought

In the video below, Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton challenges the energy intensive system of water management employed in the southwestern US and California.

He gives the example of the canal off the Colorado River, which presently transports water 300 miles to Tucson. Increasing evaporation has made the water so saline that it’s useless for irrigation – except for golf courses. A sinking water table means massive energy is required to elevate the water prior to transporting it. In fact, providing water to Tucson is the single biggest consumer of electricity in the state of Arizona.

Lawton contrasts this energy intensive approach to water management with a system of swales* built in the Sonora Desert 80 years ago under the Works Project Administration (Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation program). After 80 years, the swales are full of lush grasslands and trees that have self-planted.

This low-energy design approach, which works with nature rather than against it, can be used to transform any desert region into productive food forests.

The video has been censored from YouTube, but you can see it at http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/73485-an-oasis-in-the-american-desert

In the second video Lawton takes viewers through a food forest he built, by constructing swales, in the Jordanian desert.

*A swale is an artificial ditch on contour used to slow and capture water runoff by spreading it horizontally across the landscape, thus facilitating runoff infiltration into the soil

 

Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Permaculture Village in Davis, California

A great video about a 30 year old community food forest in Davis California.

Despite working full time jobs, residents can produce 70% of their food needs in their front and back yards.

The beauty and simplicity of permaculture and perennial food forests.

Full video free online at

http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/60356-food-forest-suburb