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Suburban lawn in the desert

 
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I live in Cairo, Egypt. I’m moving into a suburban residential area. This is a desert region but the landscape is far from sustainable and the status quo is grass lawns and ornamental hedges.

I’m looking for help, mostly with species selection for my hedges as I’d love a diversity of fruit and nitrogen fixing trees. The backyard (overlooked by kitchen and two bedrooms) faces North West and also looks out to a construction site so will need windbreak as well as privacy/security.

The front yard (living space and master bedroom) should also provide privacy as it’s directly on a residential street. It faces South East.

There’s also a corridor along the side of the house (East) but it will not need a hedge because my neighbor has one on his side of the fence so it seems redundant. I could plant vegetables there but it doesn’t get much sun. Sun is mostly in the front yard!

I have a toddler and planning on having dogs so some grass areas will be necessary. Aesthetic is very important to my partner but a vegetable patch for me would be great to incorporate. I’d also love a good habitat for birds and beneficial insects, although flies and mosquitoes are a big problem here (probably due to overwatering). Water is readily available but I would obviously like to use it conservatively.

A friend in landscaping made these suggestions so far, primarily aesthetic:
Back yard
- a mostly citrus hedge, thorns providing security and trees also serving as windbreak/privacy
Front yard
- Tacoma stans
- Areca palms
- frangipanis
- french hibiscus
- pink trumpet vine

I would love to hear your ideas!
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Hello, Sherifa,

a few questions. Your earth looks very sandy, have you made a test to see what is its composition? Best method is mixing it in a jar of water and letting it decant for 24 hours. You will see layers of your earth composition.
I am unfamiliar with El Cairo climate, but being a coastal city I don't think your temperatures will be too extreme, will they? Is there a chance of frost? How long is your dry season? How hot is your hot season?
I guess the measures you provided are all in meters?

Ideally you should look to plants with low maintenance, and this usually involves using native plants. However, you can slightly modify some conditions on your yard by a previous work. For example, in a sandy area I would only plant cactus and succulents, but if you manage to add lots of organic matter, that would open new possibilities.

Two other important factors are
+what do you expect to achieve there? and
+how much effort are you willing to pay?
I mean, I get you want some privacy and added security from a living fence, but are you looking for beauty, freshness, food security, any other things?

Until then, I can give a few tips, maybe you already know.
- Your front yard has plenty of sun, and probably will be the hardest to keep moist, while your backyard benefits from a little bit of shade. Fruit trees want sun in order to give fruits.
- If you want to cool the area, best way is to form an atrium (enclosed patio). You can do it with 3 m or more tall trees. In my country this is done with cypresses. Atriums are best shaped square.
- You might want to provide some shade to your south facing walls.
- The front yard is also what you are most likely watching the whole day, since it's next to the living room. You might want it to look nice and open, which contradicts the enclosement.
For instance, try not to block the sight from the windows, so no trees directly in sight (maybe flowers or low shrubs). Give something else to watch at the fence, let it not be just a wall of green. Or if you must have trees, then cut the cup high so the leaves don't block the sighting.
- Thorns are good against tresspasers, but beware that you have to cut them regularly, and you will inevitably hurt yourself. If you just want to keep 'wildlife' outside, maybe a stinging plant will achieve the same goal, and you wont hurt yourself if using gloves. If you still want thorns, what we usually planted here is Opuntia Ficus-Indica, but there's a virus that's killing them in my country now, so they look ill.
- The corridor will benefit from some 'indoor' plants. These don't need much sun, only water. Mostly aesthetical. You could hang some pots in the wall, to add some extra plants vertically.
- It would be great if you can keep a small area for composting your kitchen scraps and the pruning rests. It looks like more work, but actually you are saving some by not having to throw things in and out. Beware the fruit flies, they are a little annoying, so don't place your compost where you have to pass by frequently. A bonus if you can do it with worms or bokashi. Pruning rests and leaves make vegetal mulch with some watering and time, which is a great addition to your soil to keep it moist for longer.
- The backyard would be a nice area for a few crops, if you like to eat fresh lettuces and such. I don't recommend raised beds or hugelkultures, since those are intended for very humid and for cold climates, respectively.
- I don't have experience with dogs, but I suppose they could mess with any mulching you use. Also, shrubs should be safer from your dogs paws. For small flowers, you could raise them attached to the walls under your windows, so the dog doesn't step over.
- In the shady backyard, you could use flat stones as mulch. Don't leave them at plain sun, since they can burn your plants in extreme hot weather.
- Planning some meandering pathways could be a great idea. If you want to care about your garden, have these pathways layed out in such a way that you are forced to watch all your plants every time you pass by. If you just want to go straight from point A to point B, then what's the point of having a garden?
- Succulents don't demand much water, but they don't provide freshness either.
- Contrarily to what's is common wisdom, close patches of plants actually preserve water better than sparsely planted ones. The trick is to that these patches must be formed with a high diversity of plants. Plant in a small patch a diverse mix of wild desert seeds and see what grows. Sometimes you have to cut here and there to make room for a small plant that is struggling, but otherwise let them be crowded.
- Wicking pots might save water for plants that grow well in such devices. It does not work well for plants with short roots however.

I am sorry to not be able to provide you a list of species since I am unfamiliar with the desert ones. But if you don't want your yard to look like a desert, then you need to keep adding organic matter to your soil until you can grow better options. Just don't plant bermuda grass or anything like that. Reserve areas for plants and paths for stepping over. If you can't water them properly, then go for cactus and succulents, then drought resistant plants if you can water a little more.




 
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I bet figs and pomegranates would do really well for you. Probably mulberries, pineapple guava, and jujubes too.
 
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When I lived near the Red Sea many years ago, we had the following plants in the garden (among others):

Frangipani (how I love the fragrance!)
Neem tree which attracted parrots
Guava
Cherimoya (custard apple?)
Lantana
Jasmine and other climbers like butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea) which can be used to make an infusion (blue!)
Edited to add: We also had a huge Sea Almond tree (Terminalia catappa). It might be a little too big for your garden but seems very appropiate for your climate.

All of these needed watering but did very well on the sandy soil.

I could also imagine pomegranates and other citrus fruits, and bougainvilleas.
I would also advocate composting. Nitrogen fixing sounds great but this would not be my main concern. Getting some food, flowers and shade, in addition beauty and perfumes, would be my goal,
 
Sherifa El Alfy
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Hi Abraham,

Thank you for your thorough response! There is so much to think about. I've tried to respond to most of your points.

a few questions. Your earth looks very sandy, have you made a test to see what is its composition? Best method is mixing it in a jar of water and letting it decant for 24 hours. You will see layers of your earth composition.



This is actually just construction sand.

I am unfamiliar with El Cairo climate, but being a coastal city I don't think your temperatures will be too extreme, will they? Is there a chance of frost? How long is your dry season? How hot is your hot season?



We're 170 kms (100 miles) away from the Mediterranean. We're about 180m above sea level. There is no frost, the coldest most extreme weather might be around 6 Celsius (43 F) on a cold winter night. The heat can peak well into the 40s (Celsius) in the summer. Our dry season lasts almost all year, with chances of rain sporadically between November and January.

I guess the measures you provided are all in meters?




Yes

in a sandy area I would only plant cactus and succulents, but if you manage to add lots of organic matter, that would open new possibilities.



Yes I will definitely be adding lots of organic matter.

+what do you expect to achieve there?
+how much effort are you willing to pay?



A little updated is that we have now planted grass in most of the yard and we left a 43m2 area untouched in the front yard for me to focus my attention and efforts.

I mean, I get you want some privacy and added security from a living fence, but are you looking for beauty, freshness, food security, any other things?


What I am primarily looking for with this empty lot is to practice some skills, so it's mostly educational. I would like to experiment with different permaculture practices that suit my climate, and build some vegetable gardening know-how. I would love for it to be a tiny food forest, but a little worried and obsessive about the movement of the sun and how much shade I'll end up creating with trees in this area. As you said, fruit trees want sun and do belong in the front yard.

For instance, try not to block the sight from the windows, so no trees directly in sight (maybe flowers or low shrubs). Give something else to watch at the fence, let it not be just a wall of green. Or if you must have trees, then cut the cup high so the leaves don't block the sighting.



Yes this is so important to the design, to not block the view front the window with trees, but also not putting them too far ahead and creating too much shade for vegetables or blocking the sunlight in the winter (maybe I should look at some deciduous options in that case).

A bonus if you can do it with worms or bokashi.



Have a small bokashi system for my garden, which will be contributing slowly but surely to the garden. Also been thinking about adding worm system directly into the garden but I think it'll be best to wait until it's a little more established so they can make it through the summer heat.

 
Sherifa El Alfy
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I've added a couple more photos of the area that will be planted. I'll try to add another shot of the grass area that it's now connected to.
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Sherifa El Alfy
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Steve Thorn wrote:I bet figs and pomegranates would do really well for you. Probably mulberries, pineapple guava, and jujubes too.



I forgot about pineapple guavas, I've only seen them here once but not too far away!

Also, can you tell me a Latin name for jujubes? I'm getting a lot of different results in my search.


Thank you!
 
Sherifa El Alfy
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When I lived near the Red Sea many years ago, we had the following plants in the garden (among others):

Frangipani (how I love the fragrance!)
Neem tree which attracted parrots
Guava
Cherimoya (custard apple?)
Lantana
Jasmine and other climbers like butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea) which can be used to make an infusion (blue!)
Edited to add: We also had a huge Sea Almond tree (Terminalia catappa). It might be a little too big for your garden but seems very appropiate for your climate.


Getting some food, flowers and shade, in addition beauty and perfumes, would be my goal



Thank you for this, this sounds like a simple and wonderful objective. I already have a frangipani from our balcony that I've saved for my little patch. I love custard apples and will have to make that happen. Thank you for all the recommendations.

 
Abraham Palma
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Sherifa El Alfy wrote:Hi Abraham,

Thank you for your thorough response! There is so much to think about. I've tried to respond to most of your points.

This is actually just construction sand.


In this case I would consider to add some silt and clay, in addition to the organic matter.


We're 170 kms (100 miles) away from the Mediterranean. We're about 180m above sea level. There is no frost, the coldest most extreme weather might be around 6 Celsius (43 F) on a cold winter night. The heat can peak well into the 40s (Celsius) in the summer. Our dry season lasts almost all year, with chances of rain sporadically between November and January.



My climate is similar, except that my dry season is just in summer.



A little updated is that we have now planted grass in most of the yard and we left a 43m2 area untouched in the front yard for me to focus my attention and efforts.

What I am primarily looking for with this empty lot is to practice some skills, so it's mostly educational. I would like to experiment with different permaculture practices that suit my climate, and build some vegetable gardening know-how. I would love for it to be a tiny food forest, but a little worried and obsessive about the movement of the sun and how much shade I'll end up creating with trees in this area. As you said, fruit trees want sun and do belong in the front yard.


It's a fine thing to hone your skills in a small zone first. However, a grass lawn is just the opposite of what I would do.

For me, permaculture gardening is about setting a natural system that works itself in your garden with minimum input. A lawn might be pretty, but it requires lots of water that you have to bring from somewhere else, probably treated water apt for human consumption. So I'll forget that you mentioned that, and will focus on your front yard :)

About the sun exposure, if your climate is like mine, the fruits are better in the north face of the tree where they are slightly shaded, so a little bit of shading is ok. In the back yard they might get too much shade, though.

About the food forest, it's not so important to have real trees, or copying other food forests. The intention of the food forest is to understand the layers that plants occupy in nature, and using a desired specie for every layer, instead of letting nature choose the plant. Some plants are vines, if you don't plant a vine that you like, it is sure that a vine that you dislike will try to occupy the space, so just fill the space with things that you want.
Also, in choosing the varieties, it's best if you keep the ones that grow like weed. If you don't know which ones, you can try a seed bomb, with several different species you think might thrive in your garden and that you'd love to eat/smell/watch. Then let the ones that grow like weed to stay, chop the rest. Chop and drop, so the vegetal matter stays and decays in place. You know, organic matter decomposes and dissapears, so you have to keep adding it year after year unless you let nature take care of it.
A major difference with usual gardening is that in normal gardening you take a difficult plant for your terrain and through skilled work you make it thrive. In permaculture gardening you take whatever gives you less work instead. For example, I'm planning on switching my lettuces to dandelions, since I don't have water for irrigation anymore. The dandelion gives a much smaller leaf, but otherwise it tastes the same as the lettuce, the production is three times lower. But I can grow no lettuces without water, while I can grow many dandelions with just rainwater. I was happy with my choice. Then a couple of ladies came to the garden and generously 'cleaned' the weeds for us, leaving us without dandelions and lettuces. So bad. Another specie that they removed and that went into my salad dishes is the 'Portulaca oleracea'. It tastes good too.
I'd like to call your attention to this tree: ziziphus jujuba. It has too many thorns, but it gives sweet small apples and needs almost no water.

As for worms, just try a worm tower. It's a buried pipe with holes where you feed your worms and they stay safe underground. No worries of overheating.

A good strategy for our climates, especially with sandy soils is to use zai pits. They are common in Ethiopia. It's just a hole of 20 cm wide, filled with organic matter, slightly underground, where the rainwater would hold for longer.


 
Steve Thorn
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Sherifa El Alfy wrote:

Steve Thorn wrote:I bet figs and pomegranates would do really well for you. Probably mulberries, pineapple guava, and jujubes too.



I forgot about pineapple guavas, I've only seen them here once but not too far away!

Also, can you tell me a Latin name for jujubes? I'm getting a lot of different results in my search.


Thank you!



Glad too!

The Latin name is Ziziphus jujuba.

It's the only one I haven't grown that I mentioned above. I've grown all the others and they seem to thrive in the heat and can tolerate dry periods also. I've heard that jujubes are similar.

Peaches and cherries may be another two that could do well, if you have some local varieties of those available.

That's a neat list of plants that you are planning to grow,  excited to see how it turns out!
 
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You might want to work towards creating your own micro climate.  I am working towards this myself.  I am in a high desert area in Utah where my summer temperatures might reach 40*c if the summers are stay dry.  I did a quick search for micro climate and this is the first link that was listed.  You can search for other options but this link will give you an idea of what I am talking about.
https://www.gardeninginthedesert.com/creating-microclimates-for-the-desert-summer/

The more green things you can plant the cooler you will make the temperature in your yard.  The more shade you can make, or grow, the cooler you will make your yard and the less water will evaporate.  The more mulch you can put down around and in between your plants and trees the more less evaporation you will have from the soil.  

Try to add mulch or organic matter into the soil before you start planting, but keep in mind that things like wood chips will use nitrogen so you will need to add more nitrogen as your plants are growing.  I learned the hard way, after about 4 years of problems, but I recommend getting a soil test kit so you can test your soil and know what nutrients you will need to add.  My property was akaline and lacking all needed nutrients, I am about 3 months into a long process of correcting this deficiency.  

If you are allowed, put up some solar shades to protect the plants until the roots get established.  Maybe plants some grapes, or other vines, and have them grow on an overhead trellis to provide shade and a cool area in the yard.  Remember, every green plant or leave or branch or palm will provide a little bit of shade and a small amount of humidity to the area.  Moisture helps cool the air, which will make your yard more enjoyable most the year, and comfortable during the hottest days of the summer.

Also, plan your irrigation system BEFORE you go any further.  Consider maybe 3 different irrigation systems so you can water different trees or plants on different systems so they get what is right for them.  Maybe around the outside wall you would want a slow bubbler type irrigation to deep water the trees, and anything else, once or twice a week.  You will want a second system that will drip irrigate most all your plants and ground cover and anything else that needs a half gallon or gallon or water once or twice a day.  And finally you might consider the third system for overhead mister systems and mist or lightly spray most of the plants in the lat afternoon or early evening.  The mist of water will cool everything down, and it will cool down the air by evaporation making your yard more comfortable for you to sit and relax in the evenings.

As time goes on you will plant more and they will cool the yard down more, and the soil will gradually improve as more and more roots and more and more leaves and vegetation break down into the soil.

Good luck.   Oh, and you will probably need either fertilizer or natural, organic products to feed each and every plant to keep them healthy and help them grow.
 
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I won't address the plants you should plant. But you might want to look into the xeriscaping ideas as ways of doing your landscape to accomodate the desert climate? That's what we did when we lived in the Mojave desert; I wasn't trying to grow food, just not have to water things endlessly! If you already know about xeriscaping, I apologize!
 
Abraham Palma
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Oh, another idea.

Since your current ground is sterile sand, start by designing the pathways. Plan where your trees are gonna be, draw a wandering path that forces you to walk over your whole garden, and leave this path without any amendment, it will stay bare sand that you can walk over safely, no weeds. Or you can place some flatstones over it to make it easier to walk.
 
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Sherifa,

Lots of good information here so I can I can only add or reinforce one or two points.

Firstly, what type of grass are you growing?  Is It a drought tolerant type?  There is a variety called Zoysia grass that is extremely drought tolerant.  In the United States it commonly planted in desert city areas like Phoenix, Arizona.  Also, it is planted with little plugs and spreads rapidly by root sections called rhizomes.  If it ever gets a hole or disturbed, the rhizomes aggressively fill in the bare spots.  Zoysia grass thrives in heat, sun, and poor soil conditions.  Also it grows sideways faster than it grows up so it does not need much in the way of mowing.  It also needs very little in the way of water.  You may already have a very good grass, but if you don’t, this may be be the perfect lawn grass for you.

Secondly, since it appears that irrigation is a must for you, I highly recommend drip irrigation.  I can recommend one company called Dripworks.com.  They are based out of California but I am pretty certain they do international sales.  Dripworks provides both drip line and bubbler type irrigators in addition to numerous other types of irrigators such as mini sprayers.

The picture of your planters looks great!  Nice job.  I am looking forward to seeing how project evolves.

Eric
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