This is last in a four-part series of articles on this subject, somewhat separated from the other three by time, because of COVID. Links to the first parts are at the bottom.
In searching for a new way of creating natural, non-irrigated landscapes in the Middle East, I have already shared how certain species, often non-native, will regenerate on abandoned brown-field sites across the Middle East; my personal experience is from observations in the UAE but I suspect this holds true across most of the region. I have suggested that to recreate such unirrigated landscapes (xeriscapes), designed with conscious intent, we must seed them, rather than plant. That sounds simple, but is actually quite complex and reveals yawning gaps in design and horticultural knowledge, as well as seed supply. So how could we rectify that?
I think the UAE in particular needs a place of horticultural learning, but I don’t mean just a conventional horticultural college (though it needs that too), but a place to test and learn new things. Perhaps that would be a botanic garden, but one focused on future adaptation rather than what is or was; seed collection is generally part of the remit of such places. There was one being designed in Sharjah, but I understand that is not going ahead, which is a great shame. Such knowledge is desperately lacking in the region. It is also true that the UAE needs much greater horticultural and arboricultural knowledge and practice, to advance all standards and methods of care. However, to achieve what I propose, such a place would have to first study, trial and learn, then disseminate new techniques.
There is a huge volume of knowledge needed, of soils, species, of seed gathering and storage, seeding trials and combinations and of how to design, create and then manage such landscapes. The one thing we have to realise, is that this approach is contrary to pretty much all conventional landscape and horticulture conventions and practice. In fact, the best place we can look for inspiration and instruction is in permaculture (see Greening the Desert) and regenerative agroforestry. Such practices are gradually moving from the fringe into mainstream thinking, for one simple reason: they deliver results with relatively low inputs. The principle difference here is that we are focussed upon novel ecology building, rather than food production. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be food produced, or other useful products.
The “dream team” that might be assembled to carry out such work, might include:
Ecological landscape designer
To me this is exciting and a combination all these elements would emerge as a new land-management practice that could be utilised in many parts of the world. It is the Middle East and other arid regions who need this the most; if through the effects of climate change the native flora should fail as the environment becomes ever more hostile, what will replace them? We need to tip the balance towards resilience first, then regenerative ecosystems. As wet-bulb temperatures threaten to reach the 35°C and make the Middle east uninhabitable, we need to employ the benefits of evaporative cooling on a massive scale.
So how do we design such landscapes? First, we should see this as the creation of novel ecosystems: new, functioning ecologies that serve the needs of the moment and are adapted and will continue to adapt, to changing climatic conditions. As such, they will be a mix of natives and non-natives, even some plants labelled “invasive”. The key to this system is long-term development and management as a resource. In my last article (third in this series) I looked at the effects and benefits of coppicing as a system of management, a source of mulch materials and so the generation of fertile and water-retentive soils. Such landscapes, created en masse (think of green corridors surrounding cites for hundreds of miles) would have a major beneficial effect in mitigating the heating effects of climate change, moderating dust storms and absorbing the occasional but problematic flooding from rainstorms.
Next, we have to understand the nature and habit of the particular piece of land we are dealing with. Key to success is the capturing of whatever rainfall there is (as mentioned above, even Dubai has rain – and occasional floods). We need to encourage and enhance the capture and retention of this rainfall with the use of contoured swales, heavily mulched. Even small changes in elevation create micro-climate and a plant’s success may be favoured by a few inches of contour. We also need to maximise the soil’s ability to retain that water with the addition of soil ameliorants and organic matter (the aforementioned mulch). We might band the planting into ribbons that follow these swale contours, and choose different plants in different bands. It is at the transition between different eco-zones that we get the greatest diversity of species, both flora and fauna. It is possible that if carried out on a large enough scale, such landscapes might have a benign effect on the local hydrology, even inducing rainfall. Whatever the potential, this needs serious effort and resources to implement and that implies government backing. Pilot schemes could be carried out though, on a small scale, with the backing of ecologically aware business and/or philanthropists. I’d love to have some conversations!
This concludes my series and my thoughts so far. As an observer and some-time participant in aspects of landscapes of the Middle East (particularly trees). I may be very wide of the mark here, or I may just have spotted something that hasn’t yet been thought about. What I do know is that the ME region will desperately need to create ecological resilience and buffers if it is to remain habitable over the next 100 years.
The first three articles in this series are below:
This is the third in a four-part series. In previous articles (links at bottom) I talked about the spontaneous regeneration on brownfield sites in the UAE and the utilisation of seeded landscapes to create semi-natural ecosystems without irrigation. Another factor of these landscapes would be to make them productive in a way that would enrich the soils of not just that landscape but, by the production of useful products, returning fertility to the soil for both the site concerned and also urban landscapes and gardens elsewhere.
Coppice woodland is not a term that you normally associate with the Middle East, yet there are many trees, both native and introduced, that would work in this manner. So what would be the point? Well, we have become used to landscapes being either for agriculture, or for ornament, yet this simplification overlooks the fact that we can have landscapes that are multi-functional and that they can also be productive in other ways.
To understand this concept, we should look to agroforestry, or forest gardens, where multi-functionalism is the order of the day. We think of these systems as being in tropical or temperate regions, yet there are many plants that can be organised and used in this fashion in arid lands. I want to focus this article on one aspect only, the production of biomass. Biomass has multiple functions: the production of poles for building and firewood, compost, and when shredded, mulch. We can produce biochar, which is seen as an increasingly important part of long-term soil enrichment and carbon sequestration. There are also food and fodder crops which would be a valuable product, dependent upon species. And of course, verdant biomass supports verdant wildlife.
Many of these plants are also nitrogen-fixers and these are especially valuable for building fertility and assisting the development of other species. Whilst some may have allelopathic properties, which inhibit the germination of other seedlings within the root zone, my general observation is that this is not particularly effective, nor a problem.
So a list of trees that would grow in the Middle East unirrigated, can be coppiced and are nitrogen fixers, would include:
Acacia (Senegalia) senegal
Prosopis cineraria (possibly)
Other species, coppicable but non-nitrogen fixing, would include:
Azadirachta indica (assumed from observed regrowth)
Conocarpus lancifolius (assumed from observed regrowth)
There will be many other species that could fit these lists, but it’s a start. Many ornamental trees, such as Millingtonia and even Delonix show tendencies to throw up epicormic growth from wounds and therefore, in theory might coppice, but I am concentrating on trees which can do this without irrigation.
It’s important to say right here that this shouldn’t ever be designed as a monoculture; there is sound ecological reasons to to maximise the diversity of a planting. Naturally, you wouldn’t use everything, for conditions will suit some better than others for any given site. Nor would you coppice everything all at the same time. Staggering the harvest evens out the work-flow but more importantly, creates communities of plants at different stages of growth. The “edge zones” are always where the greatest biodiversity occurs, for you get the overlap of differing ecologies. Whilst each species will have it’s own regrowth rate and optimum cutting cycle, this can also be varied, according to the use of the product.
Of course, there is a problem, for many of these species are incredibly thorny, which is a real issue for those carrying out the coppice-work. Young vigorous growth also tends to have the most vicious thorns! On a larger scale, it may be possible to use forestry-style Forwarder tractor-trailer units to collect the brush and load it directly into the chipping machine hopper, without human intervention. Someone’s still got to cut it and do initial handling though.
So how do we express this idea, of coppiced woodlands, arid-land style? it would depend on context but there are several approaches we could take. On a large scale, machine operated (as mentioned above), we would have to do traditional layouts with alleys or rows, firebreaks etc. Mixed planting though, would be preferable although strips of one species are possible. If kept narrow, with different species to either side, the effect ecologically would be similar to mixed planting.
In smaller areas, or where human interaction is intended, then these could take the form of the mixed, seeded landscapes that I discussed in my previous article. In other words, we can combine the function with the elements of aesthetics and ecological diversity. Not to mention desert reclamation. Remember, all this is proposed as unirrigated land. The verges along main roads are a prime candidate, instead of over-manicured lawns and hedges that you see at many junctions.
My next article will discuss design, the knowledge and training needed for the creation of such landscapes. I believe we could transform the landscapes of the Middle East, without the intensive irrigation that is required by conventional approach.
This article was written in 2013 and updated in April 2019.
I’ve written before on the subject of adaptive landscapes and trans-migrational landscapes but I’ve been reading recently of a real-life ecology that was created by man in the last 150 years, and is thriving. This is on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a once barren volcanic rock, which now has a thriving cloud forest on green Mountain, created by Sir Joseph Hooker the famous botanist. He was inspired by Darwin’s comments that someone should try engineering a new environment on the island. As a result, where there were once just 25 species, there are now over 200, as this article and this article tells. There is also a BBC Costing the Earth program worth listening to.
Conservationists dislike what has happened here and say the novel ecology is incomplete and uncomplex, but it’s kick-tarted a transformation and now work is being done to refine and develop the work. Hooker planted trees near the summit to trap moisture and create a source of water for the navel personnel stationed there. Many species failed but those that adapted went on to form a fully fledged cloud forest which produces huge amounts of water. One thing of note is that some of the 15 or so endemic ferns are now growing as epiphytes on the moss-laden branches.
Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns. photo Fred Pearce.
Whilst this example may be a one-off, it is nonetheless a hopeful sign. If new and thriving ecologies can be created with little scientific thought, it gives hope for what we can do if we put our minds to it. I always maintain that nature is an opportunist and will try anything anywhere. that would seem to be the case here.
In my previous articles mentioned above, I outlined the reasons why this is necessary. To recap, it is due to the planetary changes that are now occurring, whose effects we have yet to fully experience, which is going to change this planet for millennia to come, even if we get a grip on carbon emissions, which we must do. If we don’t, runaway climate change could make this planet largely uninhabitable (at least to higher life forms). Ecologists and particularly conservationists have to radically re-think what they consider to be “natural” ecology, for Nature cannot adapt the landscape at the rate of our man-induced changes. That means that species cannot adapt and move with the shifting region of climate zone they are used to. These zones are moving North and South, away from the equator at a rate which may change 20% of the world’s climate zones by the end of the century.
Of course, Nature will correct things given time, but mankind cannot afford to wait, if it wants a planet worth living on – and the ability to live on it. That’s why the Ascension Island story is such good news. I would dare bet that we could extensively re-vegetate (or terraform, to use a word found in science fiction stories) areas within a 50 year period if we turned our minds to it, and our political will. I understand the island is being studied with an eye on how to terraform Mars, although adapting our existing planet might be more relevant.
Ironically, I can see some of the stiffest opposition to this coming from conservationists. Much is made of the negative effects of the global migration of plants and insects, but we have to balance that with the positive gains, which are seldom mentioned, yet so taken for granted. And the planet is going to change now, whether we want it to or not. I’d rather the UK (for example) had a more Mediterranean flora and fauna (although adapted to cope with heavy periods of rain and flood) than none at all. We may one day grieve the loss of our native oaks, finally unable to cope with the higher temperatures, but we would surely welcome the holm oak (already naturalising in the South coast area), cork oak and olive here. Having an ecology of beauty and abundance is what counts, not preserving what we used to have, which is merely a snapshot in time. Get used to that; it’s already too late to prevent change.
But new adaptive ecologies, created by transferring plants, insects and microbes from other similar zones in the world, would give us a new practice, that of trans-migrating landscapes, and a new science, a new understanding. In this we must learn not to manipulate, but to understand Nature, to assist in what she would herself do, but over millennia. And we must do it within a lifetime.
To cope with this, we need a New Horticulture profession, one balanced with science and ecology, not just focused on the ornamental.