BEIRUT: Wiping his sweaty face, Rimon Abi Saber sat down in his shop, exhausted from the day’s work. “We have been working on the farm since 4 a.m.,” he said with a shake of his head. With more than 30 years of experience growing crops, Abi Saber is uniquely positioned to give Lebanese gardeners a piece of advice that will soon become indispensable: Choose your trees carefully.
“Let people grow trees and plants that don’t require much watering,” he said, almost shouting to be heard over the din of trucks passing his Mount Lebanon shop nestled in the heart of Kfar Amay.
He points to the garden of his neighbor, who has filled his land with water-intensive fruit trees and also has a pond. “If the pond dries up, and he can no longer water his trees, they will die,” he said with a sigh.
Lebanon is almost certain to face a water shortage this year following insufficient rainfall during the annual wet months. Although addressing such an issue falls under the government’s remit, preserving water also begins in people’s backyard, especially for those who have a garden or orchard.
Some fruit trees, for example, need less water than others and can also provide a hefty yield.
“If they [citizens] want to grow trees in their gardens, they can profit from it,” said Jamil Obeid, an agriculture engineer who specializes in plant production and protection.
Obeid’s shop in Aley is filled with gardening equipment; on one of the walls hangs a sign that warns: “Danger: Pesticides.”
“People should grow crops such as grape vines, olive trees, carob and figs,” Obeid said after a moment of thought. “Growing such crops in your garden will not require much water.”
Georges Battikha, horticulture professor at AUB, said that although such plants didn’t need much water in the summer, they tended to need more during the winter.
“They are the ones that are dependent on levels of precipitation during the year,” Battikha said by phone. “The level would range between 250-1,000 mm.”
From December 2013 until mid-March, there has only been 390 mm of rain, according to Rafik Hariri International Airport’s meteorological department.
Younger trees also tend to need more water. Those that are less than 5 years old must be watered “twice per month in the first year, once per month in the second year,” according to Obeid. “In their third year, you can manage to water them once the whole summer.”
Experts such as Battikha and Obeid emphasized the importance of growing trees rather than ornamental plants and vegetables, as most tend to require more water.
“Fruit trees have longer roots ... allowing them to use the groundwater,” Jamil explained. “Vegetables require more watering as their roots are shorter.”
Some fruit trees’ roots can reach around 10 meters, while tomatoes, for example, can only reach 10 centimeters into the ground.
Experts recommended gardeners choose their plants based on where they lived.
Those living at sea level should grow olive trees, grape vines and carob trees, while those whose land is 400-800 meters above sea level can also have fig and pine trees. Those who live at around 1,100 meters should concentrate on apple and pine trees, while in the fertile Bekaa Valley, residents can grow apple trees, grape vines, wheat and barley.
Some, however, dispute this list.
“Pine trees can live at sea level,” Abi Saber explained. “There are a number of pine trees in Beirut’s parks, for example.”
But it is important to differentiate between the species available.
“Those are decorative pines that don’t profit their growers,” countered Rizk Rizk, an agricultural engineer visiting Obeid’s shop. “Those that grow above 400 meters are the ones that produce good pine nuts.”
Experts also agreed that when it came to watering, people tended to overdo it.
Although some think they are helping their crops grow, overwatering is not only a waste of water but can also affect the yield of their trees.
Christian Nasr, a plant protection graduate, explained that there are certain irrigation systems that citizens can use at home to address this issue.
“They are encouraged to use drip irrigation and timers,” he said. “This would help them manage water consumption.”