Saturday, October 7, 2017

Greening the Desert?

We finally got some of that rain, predicted for our area. And as always, only received the outer edges of the rain system. It was still welcomed though, and both our tanks, are roughly 85% full now. So we definitely got something out of the exchange.

I also learned something new...

House in background

The new pond we dug over winter, holds water. There was sufficient clay in the soil, to hold it for 3 days. Although it did diminish quicker, than the pond above the house. Still, it was wonderful to know, we're able to capture water in the landscape, and store it for longer than before.

This was a naturally occurring gully, cut into a slope, after many years of erosion. We simply dammed it up, by putting soil at the bottom of two hills. The small dam wall, between them, is now a walkway for people and kangaroos.

Eventually, I'll dedicate a post to how that pond, came into being. As for now, it's still under construction. We're presently building, a long swale, to take any overflow from the pond, away safely. But I digress...

 22 corn seedlings, went into the ground, today

What I actually wanted to make this post about, was working with climatic conditions in our area. More specifically, in relation to food production. I was inspired by the "Greening the Desert" project, compliments of Geoff Lawton. He basically grew food in the desert.

Surely, his permaculture design strategies, could work here too?

Well, sort of...yes, and no. In theory (well, Geoff has proven it) they work. But here's what the Greening the Desert project had, that we didn't. Earth moving equipment, access to large amounts of resources on a "continual" basis, fencing all around their sites.

I've built swales, but the rain never fills them for long. I bought another tank to water the edibles, but a protracted dry spell, saw us conserving water for house use, only.  I chose drought tolerant plants, but without water, I couldn't establish them. Or to put it another way, get their roots deeper, into the ground. Overexposure to sunlight, was another killed non-established plants, in an hour of intense sun. The continual access to water, is what keeps plants alive. Something we just didn't have.

New leafs emerge, on stripped pigeon pea trees

Any plants we did get into the ground, to grow canopy protection, quickly became new food for the local kangaroo population. So they were stripped of their leaves, when nothing else was growing. Rewind. Back to overexposure, again

I'm happy to share with the local wildlife, but when you grow food in a desert, expect the hoards of wildlife to clean you out. They're desperate too. I still appreciate the permaculture principles, and still use them, but reality is different when applied in the desert.

I noted in the various Greening the Desert, projects (there's now Greening the Desert II) all sites were fenced in. I thought, maybe to stop people trespassing? Now I can appreciate, how it's needed to prevent the hoards of animals from devouring all that hard work.

Immediate relief

We've now erected a shade sail, to create man made shade. It will help deal with overexposure, more permanently. We're building some growing areas, around it, to have vegetables. All this to say, as climate changes, how we grow food becomes more important.

I've noticed, the drier it gets in our area, the more man-made interventions we require, to get a return. Those interventions, come with a price tag too. I'd love to just stick seeds in the ground and watch them grow, but we're dealing with a region that sees periods of dry, hot conditions. It's lovely when the rains arrive, but you can lose plants when they don't. Even, supposedly, drought tolerant ones.

Old-man saltbush, sacrificed limbs to survive the drought

After growing in these conditions, for nigh on a decade now, I've come to some conclusions, for food production success, in dry, hot conditions.

  • Water is CRITICAL, there needs to be a continuous supply
  • Maximise water efficiency, by limiting the growing area
  • Shade it permanently
  • Only grow drought tolerant plants
  • Fence it off

Further to the above, only grow what you'll eat the MOST. If you're going to mollycoddle, make sure the crop will be used on a regular basis. Long storage crops too, like sweet potatoes, pumpkins and chokos, don't have to be eaten immediately. So you can spread it out, instead of having to eat, as soon as it's harvested.

I'm trying some new varieties of vegetables too, reputed to do well in hot climates. I'll let you know how that goes. I didn't write any of this, to diminish the insights and attributes permaculture design has. But there are some misconceptions, as to what it can achieve. It CAN green the desert, but only with a lot of interventions, a lot of resources and a lot of barriers to admittance.

This is just the reality, of growing food, in the desert (or desert-like) conditions. This is what we have to deal with, so these are the realities I share. I expect drier conditions will be revisiting us, more often than not. So we still have to plan to eat.


  1. What Geoff Lawton accomplishes is truly amazing. However the earthworks he puts in place is something that is too costly for many. My personal permaculture practice leans much more towards the small and slow solutions.

    1. If I had the resources, I would definitely implement a lot of what Geoff has. But like you said, most can't fit it in their budgets. What I do, however, is protract those projects over time. I told Dave recently, we've probably got another 10 years to finish the earthworks, lol. Small and slow, but magnifies over time.

  2. I am glad you got some rain, Chris but it would be nice to get more. At the beginning of the week we had about an inch of rain but only a few drops in the last couple of days when it has been raining elsewhere in the region. I too think we will have to deal with hot, dry weather more often in the years to come. Whoever thought that Toowoomba would have 40C days in summer and 35C days at the beginning of spring.

    1. I spent the last of my teen years, growing up in Stanthorpe, so moving to Toowoomba, felt like moving to Brisbane. So much warmer! However, temps are more like Ipswich now. Flagstone Creek, gets all the best rain. North Toowoomba and Murphy's Creek, hardly sees as much.

  3. Hi Chris, so glad you got some rain to add some water to the tanks. Here's hoping there is more rain and the tanks get full before the summer. What Geoff does is brilliant and inspiring. I remain inspired and try and put small amounts into practice. I will never attain a Green Desert without the addition of sourced water. I accept this and move on. I can also use sourced water either from the Mains or from our spear(bore). I am lucky enough to have these extra sources available to me. So here's to more rain to fill tanks and flush through underground water systems.

    1. It's taken me a while to accept water must be in consistent supply. I hoped the natural interventions would be enough. Without additional water though, I can't get plants to establish. Lesson learned. ;)

  4. That rain was just wonderful and I love seeing how nature responds. As I look out to the forest just beyond my home here, what was the yellowy-brown grass is now greening again.The forest doesn't look as parched! The typical birds are still coming in but since the rain we haven't seen the king parrots or the rosellas. Our water tanks are full. I agree that we have to really consider carefully what to grow and use that precious water on. In my veggie patch and wicking barrels, over the warmer months, that's salad veg because that is what we eat, that will save us money and in previous Summers that's what's grown well here. Meg:)

    1. I was amazed how quickly the bush responded to the first rain event, here too. Our wattles are setting seed now, so the King parrots are visiting quite regularly. As are the Cockatoos. It's fantastic to see life returning, with more pep!

      You must grow a well conditioned salad veg for your area, because I always struggle to grow lettuce, or any leafy greens, during the warmer months. They bolt or taste extremely bitter. I like your wicking barrels, I saw on your blog recently. Very nice.

  5. I'm glad you got rain! One of the greatest delights is seeing a new water feature actually holding water!

    I think following the permaculture principles is the most important we do it with the resources we have is going to vary often between neighbours in the same street and certainly within different rainfall areas. I'm very glad of my wicking boxes. I would never have the time to water all my annual food crops without them. And I'm in a better position than you, because I have town water as well as the tanks.

    When the majority of people realise that much of their future food is going to have to come from home, there are going to be a lot of very steep learning curves!

    1. I got excited looking at your ponds, filled with water, when you shared them too. There's just something about a water source, that's so comforting. Especially if you're fortunate enough to have it on your land.

      I wish my wicking boxes did as well as your's. I think the fact yours got some shade during the day, helped. Mine had full sun exposure, so even in winter, when we had a few uncharacteristic warm days, my veg bolted to seed. I expect with a better location, they would work!

      I know we're hopelessly unprepared, and we've been trying to crack this goose's golden egg, for at least 8 years. It's going to be a real challenge for those who haven't yet started.

  6. Excellent post, Chris. I love Geoff Lawton's videos and resources. I love the idea of permaculture, but we have thought too, that it is something that can't be accomplished with a lot of resources. The slow pay-as-you-go plan doesn't work for us, because too many other things barge in and take over while we're trying to create our ecosystems. Not criticizing the concept, just saying that it's a logical and attractive idea with many, many challenges to make a working reality.

    1. Like you, I love permaculture too. It doesn't hurt to implement the things we can afford to. Only, takes heaps longer to achieve a similar outcome as Geoff's, when on a "light" plan, lol.

      Which is why I appreciate the work of Peter Andrews in Australia, as being specific to natural cycles. His system is called, Natural Sequence Farming, and you may have heard me mention it before. He basically uses the resources the landscape already has, and from the outset, it's all about the natural water cycles that trigger the change. Natural, for Australia meaning, flood and famine. It's all or nothing. There's no illusion that abundance can be manufactured on a consistent basis. It's determined by the natural sequences instead. Which fluctuate.

      But I really appreciate both men's work, for a broader perspective. They're just not always going to apply to my limited field of influence. It's good to learn from them nonetheless. :)

  7. This is a helpful post Chris, it is good to get your perspective on things.

    I love watching Geoff Lawton's videos and the desert ones were the first ones I watched, thinking if they can grow food over in those desert countries, then surely I can. But like you say they have access to equipment that we don't. I also enjoyed Geoff's Zaytuna farm tours on you tube plus any others I could find.

    I am slowly progressing using permaculture methods, but there is only me to do the work as my hubby is not that interested in what I would like to achieve. He does help with if I ask though. I will get there, but it will take me a while at this rate. I am hopeful that one day I will get to do a course to help me along my way.

    We haven't had decent rains since April, so things are getting desperate around here. I wanted a good drenching out the back around the fruit trees so I could get started on laying my cardboard and mulch, but I am tired of waiting lol! I also wanted to see the lay of the land after a down pour, hopefully that will happen during spring or summer.

    I think we are in for a few years of drought, so that will make it tough for me to keep the veggie garden growing. We do have quite a bit of rain water collected and at the moment the tanks are pretty full because we are being very careful not to use too much as we don't know when it will rain. Every time they forecast us to get some, it doesn't eventuate! Shade is a definite here too!

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge,


    1. Slow is the way to go, when it's just one or two people. Dave helps with the big jobs, but it takes a personal effort of weeks to months, to finish a project. Chipping away. Slowly. Day by day. It's a challenge, when it's just you.

      But keep with it Tania, because the rewards are still coming. They're just delayed. This is the reality for most people on limited time and financial budgets. When that rain finally does arrive for you though, you'll hit the ground running again - observing and interacting with all those systems.

      That's what happened to us recently. I started cutting back the long grass and putting it around my trees. Because I know I have a short window for this season of abundance. I want to get that carbon into the soil as quickly as possible. Turn that grass into a tree, as they're easier to manage, lol.

      Fingers crossed, summer brings the rain for you. :)


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