– an ecological success story
Kibbutz Nir Oz is situated in the western Negev on the edge of the desert. Rain falls from November to end of March and averages 250 mm a year, and mean evaporation potential is 2,000 mm a year. The soil is a deep sandy loess and the scenery is flat. Irrigation water, piped from the north, is available in strictly limited quantities. When I arrived in 1955 just after the kibbutz was founded, I found a handful of houses in a parched landscape, surrounded by 10,000 dunams of field crops and buffeted by dust storms. There were in all four trees. There seemed to be a great need for a green space that could provide men and animals alike with a refuge from dust, heat and extreme radiation. To translate this dream into reality, we embarked on a long-term gardening project run on the principles of quality management. As the project progressed, plant acclimatization was coupled with development of agro-techniques for improving growth conditions and maximizing water availability to the plant. By adopting a policy of flexibility in response to evolving conditions and persevering in our strategy, we have succeeded in creating an environmentally sound water-wise oasis that consumes only 50% of the water recommended in the rainy north of the country for irrigating gardens. Out of our 200 dunams of gardens, only 92.7 receive irrigation; the rest are planted with species and varieties that need no watering or thrive on locally harvested runoff.
The various phases in the realization of the project included:
1. Formulation of the vision.
2. Quality management: accurate recording of resources and their allocation to different parts of the garden; year-by-year analysis of results; identification of problems and selection of appropriate solutions; where no ready-made solution was available, development of a new solution (after appropriate studies) and its implementation.
3. Upgrading the irrigation setup to ensure 'the right amount in the right place' – i.e. precision in water distribution. Runoff harvesting from impervious surfaces (rainwater in winter, dew formed on roofs and air-conditioning discharge in summer) and its transfer to the garden soil.
4. Improving growth conditions and optimizing utilization of available water: applying a top layer of sand to improve soil aeration and penetration of rainwater and runoff; applying an organic mulch to improve penetrability to water and conditions of root growth and to reduce weed proliferation and surface evaporation; choosing planting times that would allow optimal rooting and establishment; optimizing nutrition to obviate excessive growth and improve plant resistance to climatic stress and disease.
5. Acclimatization of plants resistant to drought and harsh conditions and capable of growing without any irrigation or under minimal irrigation (180-330 mm a year). Currently some 800 species are being tested on an area of 120 dunams.
6. Formulation and implementation of 'Ten commandments for a water-wise garden'.
7. Exclusive use of biological control and 'green' fertilizers and pesticides. This policy yielded an environmentally friendly garden with an improved microclimate. The upgraded environment enabled us to grow plants which could not be cultivated at the start of the project, and also resulted in the arrival of animals previously absent from the local landscape. Care was taken to detect and remove plant and animal species that could prove invasive.