Desert Forest Garden – most of the planting is completed





DESC Desert Forest Garden is really beginning to take shape



Creating Ethical and Organic Soil in the Desert – Part 3

001 (3)bIn Part 2 I explained my reasons for creating soil using coco-peat. Whilst coco-peat builds structure and holds water, it does not contain any nutrients, therefore my next task for creating healthy soil was to add some organic matter.  In an ideal world I would compost food and plant material collected from the school, residents and businesses in Dubai, however time was an issue as I only have 6 months to complete the whole desert garden from scratch. Local resistance to anything ‘dirty,’ especially on school grounds, were also limiting factors; I know of two failed attempts to set up composting schemes in Dubai.

So what were my alternatives? In the nurseries and garden centres around Dubai there are a range of different options for adding nutrients to the soil. Most of them are chemical-based and imported, or local and of dubious origin. My first visit to a nursery out of town in the hunt for organic matter led to a rather interesting discovery; humanure.  The25kg bags contained hard round pellets made in the sewage works a couple of kilometres away – it was certainly local. I was very surprised that a society where everything is kept pristine and free from bacteria as possible, would legalise the sale of human waste for agricultural purposes. In fact the sewage works is government owned. Now I know governments around the world are responsible for producing a lot of this substance metaphorically speaking, but this seemed a step too far.

I have read a little about the use of humanure, but my jury is still out to be honest. There are clearly serious risks of disease if it is used raw, and although the bags I found here were presumably considered safe for the public to use, it had clearly been heat-treated and dried to such a large extent that its value as organic material to improve the soil was probably very low. In addition, if word got out at the school that I was using humanure some of the parents would totally freak out.

Option number two was cow manure. It was also relatively local as it was labelled as coming from the next Emirate; yes there are even air-conditioned dairy farms in the desert. The label said it was  ‘treated’ and ‘organic.’ It was not rock-hard, like the humanure at least, so presumably not treated to the same intense heat. But quite what ‘organic’ meant is anybody’s guess. I have no doubt that the cows here are given antibiotics and growth hormones just as herds are on most industrial-scale farms, but I would hope that organic at least means no extra chemicals have been added. I bought a bag to inspect more closely and once opened the smell and the flies certainly seemed to demonstrate that there was something organic still going on. Horse manure was also considered, but race horses here are commonly given hormones and steroids. I was offered some from riding stables, but again the quantity I needed posed a problem, plus it often contains a lot of sawdust used as bedding material, potentially robbing the soil of nitrogen.

055However, I also remembered two conversations from the previous year which led me to track down a composting plant in Al Ain, a city in the neighbouring Emirate, Abu Dhabi. I made a phone call to arrange a visit and was assured that the composting process was ‘organic.’ On arrival I felt a little uncomfortable, but amused, to be treated like an honoured guest. A department meeting was immediately cancelled and I was given a personal tour of the site by the Austrian operations manager. He explained that the compost was made from collections of the city’s food and/or plant waste. I felt duly impressed to see huge piles of compost, at various stages of turning and decomposition, in a country which recycles only a fraction of its daily waste. Inspired, I ordered two giant truck-loads of composted plant waste, relieved that I finally had found organic matter which could be delivered fast, in bulk and from a local source.

My next task was to convince others of my choice. I have been lucky enough to have a landscaping company help to implement the project at cost as the owner is friends with one of the parents. The manager has been a great help over the last few months and really tolerant of my unusual (permaculture) approach, but it was a bit of battle in the beginning. My refusal to use imported peat compost led to a conversation a bit like this…..

Gaina “I’d like to use local compost instead of the imported peat compost.”

Landscape Company Manager “No, you need to use the peat compost from Lithuania.”

Gaina “But it’s full of NPK and importing it destroys another eco-system.”

Landscape Company Manager “No, you must use it, you’re not destroying an eco-system, just digging up soil.”

Gaina “That is destroying it! And why must I use it?”

Landscape Company Manager “Because we always use it.”

  ……..I have learnt just as much about people as I have about plants on this project.

014 b

So I finally had my 560 cubic metres of soil; 50% sweet sand, 25% coco-peat and 25% local compost. It has now been delivered and mixed, and has filled the once-empty concrete amphitheatre. The smell and feel of the soil was good and when a fellow teacher let me gate-crash a Year 10 Science lesson on soil analysis, it revealed this new-born soil to contain nematodes, protozoa, fungi and all sorts of little critters which I’m sure the Desert Forest Garden plants are going to love.

Creating Ethical and Organic Soil in the Desert – Part 2


In my last update I explained how I am using ‘sweet sand’ as the first component for soil creation. For many desert plants this is as good as it gets, but I planned to give a diverse range of plants in the Desert Forest Garden the best chance to thrive. Sand has an important drainage function in soil, but you can have too much of a good thing. I needed to balance the structure of my soil by adding an ingredient which does the opposite; retains water.

001 (4)bCoincidentally, research into mulch options for my balcony plants last year had led me to discover coconut coir, or as it is sometimes referred to, coco-peat. The majority of it is produced in a relatively nearby source to this region; India. It is essentially a waste product from the coconut palm industry so  is a great example of waste becoming a valuable resource. It is economical to transport as before it is shipped it is compressed into blocks which expand and break down when water is added, and they really do expand!  A 1kg block can expand up to a volume of 15litres. It acts like a sponge and prevents a significant amount of water from draining away, plus when mixed with the sweet sand the fibrous material gives structure to the soil, providing vital air-pockets of oxygen for microorganisms.

003 (2)bI was able to buy the coco-peat wholesale through a landscaping company, who also agreed to add the water and expand the hundreds of blocks I needed.  A number of parents and staff at the school  enquired about it as a result,  but sadly I couldn’t advise them where to buy it in small quantities for their own gardens, as I couldn’t find it anywhere in Dubai for sale in retail outlets. This was disappointing as the alternative choice most people then make is the NPK-filled compost bags (although I did convince some of them to use a Bokashi instead!) But for the project, Coco-peat definitely offered a more sustainable solution for creating water absorbent soil. 

Creating Ethical and Organic Soil in the Desert

Soil. There isn’t much of it in Dubai, so forget soil regeneration, here it’s soil creation.

The more I learn about soil the more I realise how little I know and perhaps still do not grasp its full complexity. In some ways it seems far too scientific and outside my academic comfort zone.  However, at the same time, soil has begun to fascinate me and reminds me of the first time I put on a snorkel and tentatively put my head under the water. There before me was a whole new world, waiting to be explored, full of amazing creatures and life forms I had never seen first-hand before. Humbling, yet exciting.

As Elaine Ingham has observed, to most people soil is just dirt which needs cleaning off our shoes. Or at most, it is a brown sticky stuff for plants to grow in which takes ages to get out from under our finger nails. Yet the fact that we know so little about it, for me, is part of its appeal.

Soil fertility is evidently central to life on earth and therefore crucial to any land-based Permaculture project. It is clearly a subject worthy of considerable attention to a novice, or even the more experienced, Permaculturalist.  With regard to my own project, the challenge I had was creating enough soil to fill 560 cubic metres of empty concrete amphitheatre. Whilst my recent experimental composting efforts were a fun and valuable learning experience, they were clearly not going to be sufficient. I was going to have to look elsewhere. This blog will focus on my first ingredient; sand.

The terms ‘sweet soil’ and ‘sweet sand’ seem to be used interchangeably in the UAE for two different sources of soil. The first is what I shall refer to as sweet soil, whose origin is a dry river bed or Wadi. It contains a number of minerals, is less alkaline and has similar properties to clay.  Using sweet soil would no doubt be a good component for creating soil, but I could not help but picture several JCB’s obliterating what are already very fragile eco-systems, simply so I could create a garden in the city. It did not sit comfortably.

My next option was sweet sand which can be found in a number of areas in the UAE and usually lies several kilometres inland from the coast. Unlike the city of Dubai, the sand in these areas is not full of crushed shells and coral, nor is it as alkaline. Sweet sand is very different, even to the naked eye. A drive inland towards The Empty Quarter will take you to the Emirati’s natural weekend playground; a range of sand dunes, including an enormous dune, affectionately known as ‘Big Red.’ Here, as far as the eye can see and beyond, the sand is no longer a yellow-grey, but a burnt-ochre red. It contains iron-oxide, hence the colour, which plants appreciate as well as the lower alkalinity.  Although this sand is still coming from an eco-system in essence, there is an awful lot of it! Its ‘consumption’ is controlled by the government and anyone wishing to use the sand is required to apply for a licence, stating exactly how much you are taking, what it is for, and where it is going.

The Wadis can sustain a relatively large amount of life and should be protected or managed sustainably to produce food (see Bill Mollison’s A Designers Manual Ch.11). Whilst transporting sweet sand isn’t ideal, the flora and fauna these dunes are currently supporting is considerably less than the Wadis, especially as many dunes have been grazed by goats and camels for centuries and more recently subject to 4×4’s ‘dune-bashing.’ Therefore they no longer have the delicate fungal-algal-lichen crust which would ordinarily hold the surface of the sand dune together, preventing erosion and allowing succession to begin. The Empty Quarter is not named as such without good reason, so taking a tiny percentage of it to create a forest garden which has already increased awareness of Permaculture in the UAE, was a decision not taken lightly but one I decided to make.

Permaculture is getting another airing at The Archive, Safa Park, Dubai



Permaculture and the DESC Desert Food Forest in The National

The National – Feb 2013


Introduction to Permaculture presentation at Shelter, Dubai

Permaculture Presentation – Sunday 10th February, 2013

Striking Brown Gold in the desert

The UAE is perhaps better known for its Black Gold, but I struck Brown Gold this week when I spotted a skip (or dumpster to my non-UK readers) just a few hundred yards from the school. It was overflowing with Date Palm trunks, and around it was a whole selection of organic goodies. This is a rare gift when you live in the desert. The few wild shrubs and trees that exist already struggle for survival without me cutting off their thorny branches, whilst landscaping companies most commonly take their waste to landfill. Finding suitable material for compost and mulch is akin to striking gold.

Firstly I collected 8 sack loads of fine leaf debris; perfect for making compost. After learning the 18 day compost method on my Permaculture Design Course in  the UK,  I recently refined my skills further on an internship at the Permaculture Research Institute in Jordan, where my enthusiasm for the brown stuff earned me the title of Compost Queen. This precious hoard allowed me to try making my own compost as I had enough material to make a 1 metre square sized pile. This is the minimum size necessary to allow the decomposing material to create enough heat, and help ensure the compost is full of magical micro-organisms to feed the soil.

Next I gingerly checked for  snakes and scorpions, and when nothing appeared to be sleeping in my treasure, I gathered armfuls of hessian-like sheets which form where the Date Palm’s trunk meets its branches. This year I am developing the old school garden as a nursery and compost area, and I plan to have an after-school club there shortly, so it needs to look presentable to the non-converted. These fibrous sheets mean that instead of buying in plastic or using unsightly, and arguably toxic cardboard, I  have ready-made 100% natural sheet mulch. This key component of  Permaculture gardens around the world as a low-input, non-dig method of suppressing weeds has an additional and extremely crucial role to play here in the hot, arid climate of Dubai; reducing evaporation.

Lastly a friend with a 4×4 agreed to be my accomplice in what is probably Dubai’s first incident of Skipping (Dumpster Diving). Therefore I was able to continue my plunder with three trunks of some other unfortunate trees. Who knows why they were felled and abandoned as rubbish. But no matter, they will end their lives on the forest floor of the new Desert Forest Garden, creating interesting natural features and a habitat for insects and lizards. The skip was a truly golden, and multi-functional find. I’m just not quite sure the cleaners at the car rental company will see it that way.


First phase of the irrigation system is installed for the Desert Forest Garden

The practical work has finally begun on the Desert Food Forest in Dubai. With the approaching summer heat in the back of my mind, it was with a mixture of relief and excitement that the water tank and pump were delivered and installed this weekend.

The drip irrigation system will be a vital life-line for the garden, so a reliable pump is essential, and the water tank will act as insurance in case the water supply should fail. They have been installed out of sight on the roof of the building nearest to the amphitheatre. Connecting pipework will run discreetly down the outside wall and then under the plastic grass (yes I did say plastic grass) and small section of paving slabs, and into the amphitheatre itself.

One of the difficulties of this project will be that much of the work can only take place at weekends to avoid disrupting the school during the week. This will be particulary challenging with the delivery and mixing of 550 cubic metres of soil in the next 2-3 weeks. In an attempt to maintain the projects’ ethical and sustainable principles, I have had to fight against the use of imported, peat compost from Lithuania. Not only would this be destroying one ecosystem to create another, it would have considerable air miles and is full of NPK. Instead time has been spent researching and and sourcing suitable alternatives. As a result we are creating soil out of sweet sand (Dubai), organic fertiliser (made from composted plant and food waste in Al Ain) and coconut coir (shipped from India). Getting all these elements delivered and mixed together over a weekend is going to be, well a learning experience at least. As they say here in Dubai, Insha’Allah we shall be successful.