How To Green the Desert with Permaculture

dry sandy desert with plants
Photo by Laker on

Greening a desert refers to introducing species that flourish in harsh conditions and improve the landscape by adding nitrogen, biomass, and other essential elements. Deserts are inhabitable ecosystems where it is difficult to set up agricultural systems.

With permaculture, desert landscapes can be turned green and more productive. Developing permaculture designs for a desert ecosystem takes a while due to the number of external inputs required. Permaculture in the desert is a complicated process that will take a while to establish. However, once established, the land can be productive and self-sufficient. To develop a thriving food forest in the desert, you must apply different strategies and choose the right plants. 

Techniques to green the desert

Desert greening can be achieved through the application of several permaculture techniques like:

1. Water management

In arid and semi-arid areas, water is a rare resource. It is, therefore, essential to capture and store as much water as possible to support a permaculture garden. Create swales, terraces, and other earthworks to increase water infiltration, reduce erosion, and retain moisture. Swales are the easiest and most efficient way to hold water in desert lands especially after rare rainfall.

Swale with water
Ria Baeck/Flickr

A swale is a shallow channel that has gently sloping sides. In the desert, you should build artificial swales to manage runoff water and increase rainwater infiltration. Dig swales across the slope of the land to intercept water flowing downhill at different elevations. You can also install dams and ponds on dry riverbeds and valleys to store floodwaters.

2. Plant diversity

After you sort out water storage, it becomes easier for your plants to flourish. Focus on support plants that enrich the soil. These include nitrogen fixers, groundcover, grasses, biomass producers and windbreaks. Plant drought-tolerant and native plants.

wildflowers growing

These plants will help hold the soil in place, help conserve moisture, and add nutrients to the soil, enabling fruit trees to prosper. You can also plant trees that will provide shade and thus cool the earth. Implement agroforestry and intercropping techniques to increase biodiversity and productivity. The goal is to keep as much moisture in the soil as possible to support plants in the early stages of development. 

3. Focus on natives

When designing your permaculture system, prioritize the areas of your land that hold the most water. The crops that need the most water should ideally be planted close to the living quarters.

Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.)

You should select native plants best suited to survive in desert climates. Amaranth, agave, prickly cactus, quaking aspens, and sand drop seed will do well in harsh environments. It would help if you did your research to identify the plants that thrive in the desert. Look into your USDA climatic zone and read botanical books to inform you about plants that control erosion, create biomass, and aid in weed control. 

The next step after planting the support plants is growing fruit trees. Begin by increasing edible natives and introducing other plants that survive in similar climates. Communicate with local nursery owners to learn about the best fruit trees for the desert. 

Examples of desert permaculture projects

Greening the Desert

Greening the Desert program in Al Jafwa, Jordan is designed to introduce permaculture principles to encourage people to live sustainably and adopt a regenerative lifestyle that makes the most out of the desert climate.

The project not only practices sustainable farming but also teaches permaculture design and provides permaculture training. It aims to empower everyone to become part of the solution in the reclamation of desert landscapes.

The site demonstrates housing built on natural materials, an energy-efficient system, rainwater harvesting infrastructure, diverse plants, and animal and tree systems for local food production and processing. It exemplifies the potential of permaculture to foster food production in degraded lands and challenging climates. 

The Great Green Wall

The Great Green Wall is a greening project launched in the Sahel in 2007. The project aimed to forest significant areas of the Sahel as a way to create seasonal jobs, feed farmers and their families and help reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. It has enabled the reclamation of the barren land and supported the growth of plants such as millet, beans, and peanuts.

Benefits of greening the desert with permaculture

Desert permaculture is beneficial as it builds soil fertility by planting diverse crops, which help in moisture conservation and add to the nutrient content of the soil. The innovative approaches to holding and storing water contribute towards better water conservation techniques in areas where it is scarce.

Further, desert permaculture helps to protect vulnerable crops from wind, sun and cold. Mixing different species of crops creates the perfect condition for a desert garden to thrive. Desert permaculture reduces stress on plants and encourages pollinators and wildlife to visit your garden. Permaculture will introduce life to your landscape as animals visit the garden for food and nectar. Food forests in the desert enable sustainable food production in harsh conditions. 

What to plant

Plant different species in your desert garden. Fruit trees are the best option as they are better adapted to cold, heat and dry conditions. Trees with edible pine nuts can be good options for the food forest. Chokecherry, mesquite trees, Asian pears, and serviceberry are well suited to the extreme conditions of desert lands.

It is best to grow native plants that can survive with little moisture and remain evergreen even during the dry seasons. Raspberries, plum yews, thickly scented mints, sweet cicely and autumn olives will do well in desert conditions as they require very little maintenance once the garden ecosystem has been established. Fruit trees and flowering perennials maintain year-round interest in your garden by attracting small animals and birds. 


Desert ecosystems are inhospitable to most plants and animals. Developing ways to increase the productivity of these regions is possible by implementing permaculture principles. It is crucial to first work on water management before you begin planting in the desert. Once your water needs are sorted, you can plant native food crops and trees, introducing colour to the desert.