Planting Trees and Greening the Desert

Sabriga Turgon

Geoff Lawton’s permaculture experiment rocks!
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Planting species that need water in an environment defined by lack of water seems like the most obvious oxymoron. But it can—and is—being done in semi-arid and arid deserts.

Desert greening — reclaiming deserts by converting them into areas that thrive with agriculture and under which natural water systems may exist — can have a huge impact on local quality of life, global health, food availability, and energy transformation.

Despite our little planet’s reputation in the solar system as the Blue Planet because of all its water, about 33% (1/3) of the earth is desert. Deserts are areas where the amount of water lost to evaporation is greater than the amount of rainfall. About one billion people (1/6th of earth’s total population) actually live in the desert, and millions live alongside it.

Availability of scarce water is the first criteria for desert greening, but the search for it has already been positive. Massive underground water reserves have been discovered in Africa, even in the Saharan desert. According to Roger Calow at the Overseas Development Institute, “What the science is telling us is that we have more storage in these shallow, relatively unproductive (aquifers) than we thought.”

Look at Egypt: Desert reclamation has been a government focus since 1987. Today, Abu Minqar’s olive and date palm trees and crops like wheat, barley, alfalfa, maize, and clover exemplify successful desert reclamation.

Yes, there are issues of cost and maintenance. And yes, that is no small problem. But problems beg for solutions, and with attention from experts coupled with local demand, those solutions will be found.

What can your community do today to speak up and out?


Check out Geoff Lawton’s permaculture experiment — and his enormous success — on ten acres in the Dead Sea Valley.

Not only was this a desert, it was full of salt. It receives about 2” of rain annually. The Dead Sea Valley has the lowest elevation on earth — 400 meters below sea level. It’s nearly flat.

Geoff’s team created swales to catch every drop of rainwater and heavily mulched alongside them. They added micro irrigation under the mulch then planted hardy desert trees that heavily fixed nitrogen in the soil, provided shade to reduce evaporation in the swales, and served double duty as windbreakers. On the lower side of the swale they planted date palms. Soon they were able to add fig, guava, mulberry, and pomegranate trees. Later, they even added citrus trees. Within only four months the fig trees bore fruit — something everyone told them was impossible. Around the trees the salt concentration dropped.

When the team planted non-fruit trees, everyone laughed at them. When they heavily mulched the swales with the organic matter everyone else was throwing away or burning, everyone laughed again.

But when, a short time later, mushrooms began to appear in the swales, everyone was astounded. The area was so dry that almost no one had ever seen a mushroom because mushrooms require dampness. Meanwhile, the compost mulch was making the salt inert, so many life forms within the mulch could thrive.

Geoff claims that by using permaculture methods, and using trees to provide shade and protection, it allows the ecosystem to go through its changes. “We could re-green the Middle East. We could re-green any desert, and de-salt it at the same time.”

What if we measured wealth by the number of trees we planted?

Increase your riches, plant a tree today!

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Helping us get along with each other, the earth, and our precarious future. I write about the beautiful strangeness of life, women & kids, the planet's survival, and reflections from my 60s And I'll help you write your book.

Los Angeles, CA

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