I am working on an idea to provide nearly unlimited amounts of water in desert regions. To make this commercially viable. I would use the water to irrigate desert sand and grow crops. Given my extremely limited understanding of biology, I cannot find an answer to the following question:

Are there any food crops (preferably high valuable/low maintenance ones), that can grow in a desert, given that I can just provide the seed, water and fertilizer and stop sandstorms.

My motivation for investigating this is the following map showing regions that are either already deserts or at risk of becoming deserts: enter image description here

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertification

  • $\begingroup$ I think the people behind seawater greenhouses have been exploring this very question $\endgroup$
    – 410 gone
    Aug 5 '13 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Just look at whatever grows in hot areas. If you can provide unlimited water and protect from the elements, then it is no longer a desert and desert plants will probably not even survive. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Aug 5 '13 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ With respect to nutrients, there is a big difference between pure sand deserts and ones with higher contents of clay and organic matter, and this will affect which plants can growth there. $\endgroup$ Aug 7 '13 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ I think many projects have shown that desert is self-reinforcing (so deserts expand b/c plants have trouble surviving at the margins), but also that non-desert is self-reinforcing (so if you're able to get a patch of forest that survives in the desert, it can also naturally expand to convert desert to forest). So it seems like a first step might be focussing your water/shelter/fertiliser etc. on giving an initial boost to a robust plant community that once established will work for you (ie. not need more external inputs). Cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaviotas. $\endgroup$ Aug 12 '13 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to check what food crops grow easily in hydroponics. Those crops require little soil nutrition as long as they are fertilized and watered. Also perhaps what grows in sandy soils(Watermelon, I infer coconuts,etc) $\endgroup$
    – Resonating
    Aug 12 '13 at 15:54

Even if you have unlimited water available to the plants you'd still have to worry about the high temperatures and light levels of these areas. In the hot periods I would look into any plant that uses c4 carbon fixation like millet, sorghum, corn, sugar cane... In the cooler periods maybe look into rotating to a cool season legume crop like the cowpea that would help fix nitrogen. Another really important thing to do would be to find cover crops that will hold down the soil and build up some life in the otherwise sterile sands of the desert.


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