Diriyah Farm Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; An apology to the foxes

Feb 13-18

The Prince’s party,  feeding the bodyguards, more biodiversity, an apology to the foxes and Al Khaledia Farm

The morning of the Prince’s party I gave a class to 6 ladies interested in growing organic vegetables and flowers.  We  looked at and tasted the insurrection of vegetables- purple and Romanesco broccoli, rainbow chard,  purple and red carrots , gargantuan orange/red tomatoes, the likes of which have never been seen in the Kingdom before, the vast array of greens, snow peas, Japanese vegetables and all other edibles, and discussed  the seasonality and practical aspect of growing them in Riyadh.  Compost and fertilizer use, drip irrigation,  and creating an environment  with a natural balance of  pests and predatory insects , and planting veggies in pots were also covered.  Some people have ground to work with- others just pots.


I had located a single lacewing egg on the large Calotropis procrea bush, a toxic shrub in the milkweed family that resembles a giant milkweed in a dream-world, that was surprisingly covered in the same orange oleander aphids that milkweeds often have here in late summer.  It was partially defoliated by them, and on the underside of one of the remaining leaves, I found a single lacewing egg that I showed to the ladies.  I had found a couple other lacewing eggs earlier on the Zizyphus tree, and wonder whether it is the beginning of the season for lacewings or there are few of them.  Both the orange aphids and the lacewing eggs are examples of the evidence of how closely our worlds are connected. I also showed aphid mummies on the chard to explain that a healthy garden should have a balance of pest and predatory insects in a balance, and this was evidence of it. We examined the many insects hovering around the alyssum to illustrate flowers that support predatory insects with pollen and nectar. The groups main concern was washing the aphid mummies off the leaves before eating them.

Creating a garden that strives to resemble- on a small level- an ecosystem- is a new concept here- and planting flowers that cater to predatory insects with pollen and nectar resources  is a new language that will take some time to engage.


Afterwards, the Prince had a grand party catered by his Egyptian friend Balbek, who has the wonderful Balbek’s Lebanese restaurant. A number of ambassadors were invited and their bodyguards stopped by the farm early to check it out.  The Prince had engaged a couple of ladies to make traditional foods, and there were many appetizers, main courses of lamb, rice, vegetables, salads  and tiny goodies of pistachios, honey, nuts, dates of various types, and fruit drinks and sodas in abundance.  The Prince made sure the bodyguards and all the workers were fed and personally brought around the desert trays. That is the kind of person he is.


He also announced that some of the vegetables grown on the farm were from the Japanese ambassador, and issued an invitation to the other Ambassadors to please bring him any vegetable seeds from their countries to have us grow. We got a new assortment of Japanese seeds from the ambassador and have planted Shiso in the greenhouse and an assortment of pac chois, green onions, Japanese parsley, braising greens, cress, lettuce and tat choi.  Japanese vegetables grow beautifully in the desert sands- at least so far.


Other guests were business people from many countries, lawyers,  and a couple fellows from the Mideast Policy Institute, who were in the Middle East  fundraising. Among the guests was a PhD from Germany with the German Technical Organization who is directing the efforts of the Saudi Organic Farming Association. His efforts and accomplishments have been to him- slow, but looked at in perspective- from starting from zero, with a large group of people who have differing opinions and a new awareness of creating an organic focused organization and standards, the structure of education and organic standards accomplished is huge. He is very obviously committed to the project.  We also invited Dr. Hassan to the party, who is the manager of recycling from Al Khaledia farm, one of the finest farms in the Kingdom, and owned by the defense minister.  He is the compost and animal feed king there, and converted the tremendous amount of green waste they generate into very high quality compost, fertilizer and sheep food.  We use this precious stuff at the farm and couldn’t continue without it.


We harvested a mountain of vegetables for people to bring home, and Ben was kept busy bringing food to the bodyguards and helping the ladies carry their coveted veggies to their cars.


The farm really came into micro-focus for us this trip.  Besides the several lacewing eggs we found, I saw several wolf-type spiders and a rove-type beetle.  In addition there were some mouse babies in one of the beds.  I realized now what the foxes that live in the rocks were doing digging all over the garden at night- mouse hunting!  We thought they were just being destructive and owe them an apology.  The place is perfect mouse habitat- plenty of food and shelter, even water. The place could be over-run with them.  I planted a lot more flowers including sunflowers for bees, beauty and the green parrots who love to eat the flowers- and whose brilliant green plumage colors are so decorative against the yellows of the sunflower blooms- a painting on the wing. Little does everyone know that the farm will burst forth with waving color and insect habitat under the intense Saudi sky- an insurrection of petals, pollen and nectar.


Al Khaledia Farm

Al Khaledia Farm is a mecca for diversity.  It has 35 hectares of organic greenhouse with peppers, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and other high value crops.  Outside, for the prince, there is a number of acres of vegetables- lettuce, onions, garlic, fava beans, salad greens of all kinds, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, coriander, wheat, and in greenhouses- beans, peppers and a forest of eggplants.  There are also date palms, citrus, table grapes, olives, a wildflower meadow, a gazelle and onyx preservation area, sheep, 700 Arabian horses and 100 hectares of compost and fertilizer facilities, besides extensive landscaping.


The veggies were grown in flood-irrigated plots and also with drip- the drip line and veggies being planted in furrows- instead of on the top of furrows.  In addition the cauliflower and broccoli were planted really deep so they would root on the whole stem like tomatoes.  The bean greenhouse looked like a bean fairyland with delicate leaves floating in the air as lovely as embroidered air, and the eggplants created a glorious eggplant forest well over our heads in height and dangling with deep purple, glossy fruits.  They live 1.5 years.


We saw some of the Arabian horses- the best in the world glossy and sleek in deeply bedded stalls and out on grass their foals beside them.


What was most interesting was the extensive composting operation and the wildflower meadow. The compost is made from all the green waste on the farm and is segregated into what is suitable for animal feed and for compost. There is also fertilizer made from the quail and sheep manure. Dr Hassan has a system where he inoculates the windrows with a bioactivator of bacteria and enzymes, waters it once a week, and turns it several times. It is ready in 6 weeks. He also has larger piles he doesn’t turn and they are ready in 6 weeks as well. All the nutrient levels are higher in the compost made using the bioactivator. He has also done a lot of research on the different farm waste and its nutrient levels, palatability and its potential to put weight on the livestock- even the palm, olive tree and citrus waste. He found they can supplement the alfalfa and grain feed 40% with green waste and get a better rate of gain than with grain and alfalfa alone.


To us, the most exciting aspect of the visit, besides a delicious lunch, was a 35-hectare wildflower meadow that we had seen when just planted last year.  It was seeded with a seed blend of non-native alyssum, Gaillardia, Linaria, and Oenothera berlanderi. They were together gorgeous, red and white gems against the desert sands.  But what were most exciting were the native desert plants that came up with the addition of water.  Annual legumes, plantain, grasses and halophytes sprang up in profusion, their seeds having been dormant for possibly years waiting for moisture.   They were Salsola, Alhaggi maurorum and the grass Panicum turgitum, a plantain,  Cyperus conglomeratus, Rumex vesicarius, Heliotropum crispum, all very important for sand stabilization, grazing and seeds for birds.  The contrast between the meadow and the bare sands surrounding it was astounding, and the amount of birds that were in the meadow was amazing.  We saw a number of bird scrapes- nests of ground nesting birds that were evidently occupied. The meadow was irrigated two times a week for 1 hour, and I think not at all after March.  We didn’t know whether there was nesting success with the disturbance irrigation involved.  It was far too windy to look for insect life on the day we were there.  No bees were in immediate evidence.  We will have to try and come back.


To see the farm with its rich diversity of crops and interests: organic greenhouses, outdoor vegetables, table grapes, olives, wildflower meadow, palms, citrus, nursery, landscaping, horses, quail, sheep composting, wildlife preservation area with rare and endangered gazelle and onyx is to see the workings of a very creative mind on the bare desert sands of Saudi Arabia.  When the Prince first began the farm in the 1980’s it was bare- now it is a universe unto itself made up many small worlds of endeavor and interest.


I am now home in cold, green California where life feels strangely flat after the minute interest of life in Saudi Arabia, where each day brings surprises and epiphanies beyond current realization- and yes- the everlasting pursuit of the Hoopoe.



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