Turning Desert into a Garden/Food Forest

About two kilometers from the Dead Sea and two from where Jesus was christened, in the country of Jordan, Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute and his crew created a near miracle turning desert into a lush permaculture garden.

In August in this location, Lawton says that temperatures could rise above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). People farming there were farming under plastic strips and using tons of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. The idea to grow a lush forest or garden of edible plants would probably make people laugh or roll their eyes. Nonetheless, the permaculture crew had exactly this vision in mind and a little funding to help them to do it.


Lawton and his group were given about 10 acres of extremely salty and flat soil 400 meters below sea level. They designed a system to collect as much of the rainwater as possible into swales (“water-harvesting ditches on contour”), bordered the swales with mulch and, on the uphill side, nitrogen-fixing trees that helped to shade the water and prevent evaporation. Underneath the mulch, they put mini-irrigation systems. On the downhill side, they planted fruit trees — date palms, fig trees, pomegranate trees, guava trees, mulberry trees, and some citrus — mixed in with non-fruit trees and more mulch (very non-traditional agriculture).


Within four months, they had figs growing. Local agriculture experts had told them that figs could not grow there, so when the figs started growing they invited these local experts to come determine if they had de-salted the soil or if they were growing things in salty soil which “could not” grow in salty soil. They found the salt levels were dropping, but could not determine why, initially (watch the video to see why, exactly, the soil was “de-salted” — at about minute 6:00).

In December, the locals were shocked to find mushrooms growing underneath the mulch, something they had never seen due to the extreme dryness in the area. The ecosystem itself had created deep, extremely fertile soil, an amazing feat there!

The project ran out of its main funding source (due to the nature of the funding) but even without the money, the place is now “developing itself” and producing more and more on its own. It essentially just relies on the area’s small amount of rainfall now.

As a result of this project (on the most horrible land for such a project), Lawton concludes that they could re-green the Middle-East or any desert. A garden could be grown in the driest, saltiest soil. Deserts thought to be ruined by grazing, deforestation, harmful agriculture, or nearly anything else, could be re-greened with permaculture practices.

This is an amazing discovery based on simple, but well-thought out design. The methods could help solve problems in countless places. Permaculture, if ever spread to the broader world, could bring relief to millions (or more) people.

Image Credit 1 & 2: Geoff Lawton (Jamal Al Deen)

  • Gerard Vaughan

    That is absolutely the most amazingly good news, and I hope to God that “funders” will wake-up and put some money in this most Life-helpful direction that you have so brilliantly designed. How many years did it take ?
    Unthinkable millions have been worse than wasted on “windfarms”. I say this in the light of certain knowledge that I have from some 20 years of solo “R&D” and one two or three very simple – but not to find ! – realizations, and figures from a public meeting.
    I would very much like to contacy your organization

  • Tezcan Mert

    It is a very good project, indeed. Congratuations! However, it is not the first and the only example of greening a desert. There are many other techniques and projects accomplished all around the world. Please visit http://www.terracottem.com/pages/en/home.htm or http://www.mycorrhizae.com/ to see what a great job has been done in many deserts or dry lands. I hope it will soon be applied in Cyprus, too. People should not forget that re-forestation is one of the best and easieast solutions for coping with the climate change.

  • http://www.dailykos.com/user/doctoraaron Aaron Roland

    Love to see this done again as a joint Israeli-Jordanian project or as a Palestinian-Israeli project.

  • Gerry

    True, except for the part about Jesus, who probably never even existed.

  • Pat
  • David

    Bill Gates, are you listening? This is something that should be invested in heavily.

  • likwidshoe

    This should give pause to those people who claim that the Earth is “over populated”.

  • Osha

    “This should give pause to those people who claim that the Earth is “over populated””

    If you have to farm your food instead of getting it from nature because your species has populated so much, you’re over populated. Not to mention, all the animals and land this would kill. Things like this can only ever be temporary if they’re going to be used, instead of left to do what is needed. In a few years if they keep harvesting it will start to deteriorate, not to mention that with all the chemicals pumped in to all that, and the animal agriculture that has gone into it, the project probably destroyed more land in Africa and the Middle East than they “re-greened”, which only makes humans more overpopulated. There’s a whole chain of events everyone seems to be leaving out because it’s not directly tied to the project, even though the effects on the earth, the non-human animals, and the human animals are happening because of it.

    Just because humans have the might to use the Earth, and kill off all other animals and flora, does not mean we should.

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  • http://Web Oz

    Absolutely amazing and inspiring, thank you for the great info.