When I met my WWOOF host Alexis Torres in 2008, he was living on a South American island and growing a flourishing garden……..in sand.
Today at age twenty-seven this Chilean is one of his country’s foremost experts on permaculture, the design of sustainable and self-sufficient human environments. Since permaculture’s a rather broad area, Torres does several things, but they all fall under a common theme: teaching people and communities how to lead a comfortable lifestyle in which they render all their own necessities from their local land without damaging or exhausting the natural resources.
Unfortunately one of those natural resources, fertile soil, the base of nearly all our food, has already been decimated throughout several regions of the world. “Modern agriculture has destroyed a total of farmland equal to the area of Canada and the United States combined,” Torres explained. “Heavy machinery compacts the soil so plant roots can’t penetrate it. Pesticides and tilling kill the microbes that fix nitrogen and break organic matter into the minerals plants need to grow.
“Additionally, most farmers leave soil bare, exposing it to the elements. Wind and rain erode uncovered soil while the sun fries microbes and evaporates water before it can reach the deeper layers of soil where many plant roots are located.”
The result is desertification and less space to cultivate food in an increasingly populated world. Throughout central Chile, one can see acres of barren dirt, former fields that are now glazed with dust whenever the wind blows. Similar sites blot Asia, Africa, and the other inhabited continents.
It’s this expanding collection of scorched earth that prompted Torres to start farming sand.
“I want to inspire people to recuperate the soil where they live,” Torres said. “Whether fertility was lost from war, modern agriculture, or urbanization – for example, buildings that got torn down and now there’s just an empty plot – that land can be recovered and used to grow things. People just need to see that it can be done and understand the basic principles of how to do it.”
How did Torres make his sand garden? In 2006 he began creating a border between the island’s sands and the river that ran by them. Since the island was a thirty-minute walk from the village where he grew up, he was already familiar with the seasonal patterns and challenges he faced. In summer the river bordering the island was merely a trickle, but when the winter rains came the waters swelled and carried a portion of the bank away. Torres and some friends first altered the flow of the river by strategically placing small sticks that tilted the water away from the island and allowed sediment to build up against the shores. They planted cattails along the banks, which raised the soil as the plants grew, the next generation growing out of the decay of the previous generation. In winter then the elevated rooted banks protected the island’s sands from being washed away by the river.
Another dilemma Torres faced was the absence of organic matter in the sand he wished to cultivate. Without organic matter, the sand was unable to maintain water in the hot summer sun. Torres and friends dug a series of banks and lined them with sticks and rocks. They planted weeds at the bottoms of the banks and covered the tops with leaves, cardboard boxes, straw and sediment that had accumulated from the altered course of the river. To provide gradual irrigation to the beds, plastic bottles were cut and the top portions were encased at the tops of banks to funnel water into deeper layers of the soil. The second year chards, strawberries, and lima beans, which nitrated the soil, were planted. As the sand gained fertility over the years other vegetables and fruits were placed in the garden.
Obviously, Torres’s methods cannot be successfully copied detail by detail everywhere; basic conditions like protection from erosion and accumulation of organic matter will need to be reached in some form suitable for the environment of the desolated land. Luckily Alexis Torres is not alone in his effort to save humanity’s source of life and nourishment. If you are interested in learning more about how to turn a wasteland into a green land, you can check out these links to see what more people are doing:
For a great National Geographic article on fertile soil click here.
For an instructional video about see balls click here.
Photo Credit: Alexis Torres-Peña
 WWOOF = World-wide opportunities on organic farms