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DESC Desert Food Forest
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Dubai English Speaking College, Academic City, Dubai, AE
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DESC Desert Food Forest

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Academic City, AE

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Creating Ethical and Organic Soil in the Desert - Part 3

Project: DESC Desert Food Forest

Posted by Gaina Dunsire about 11 years ago

The last of a three part blog on soil creation for the Desert Forest Garden

In 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 as 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.

However, 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.

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.




Comments (2)

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María Luz Cardozo
María Luz Cardozo : Congratulations!!! I can't wait to see that Forest Garden! great job!
Posted about 11 years ago

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Dennis Edwards
Dennis Edwards : Hello Gaiana, Im really happy for you and your project, it sounds really challenging.....but you are make in it work! Congrats on that!!!! Dennis
Posted almost 11 years ago

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