Seeds without soil: a new use for old beds – Harry Wright

Grantham Scholar Harry Wright on how refugee resilience at Za’atari is inspiring a new way of growing plants – in old mattresses.

The ground may be brown, but many of the caravans have been painted or decorated and are full of colour.

I recently had a humbling experience at the Za’atari refugee camp.

What I saw there was incredible resilience. Displaced farmers worked with us on hydroponic growing systems, which might mean people can grow their own food.

Because materials are limited, we had to find a system that made use of what was available.

Za’atari refugee camp

Za’atari is the largest refugee camp in Jordan, hosting 80,000 Syrian refugees. Many were displaced from the Dara’a region in Syria.

The Dara’a region is known for its fertile soil. Every person that I spoke to who from Dara’a said they were farmers, either commercial or subsistence.

With Za’atari full of Syrian farmers you would expect the camp to be green with crops and trees. But this isn’t the case.

The Grantham Centre at Za’atari

refugee resilience at Za'atari: a group of young residents show off a hydroponic system they've made.
Young residents were proud of the hydroponic systems they built

Led by Tony Ryan, a group of scientists from the University of Sheffield work at Za’atari. I joined the group hoping to put my research into new foams for hydroponic systems to use.

After talking to residents and NGOs we started to work out why residents weren’t growing their own plants. By far the biggest problem is that camp rules don’t let residents to plant anything in the ground, as this signifies permanence.

So no growing in the ground. What about pots?

Well the ground is incredibly salty and has very low organic matter content, making it far from ideal for growing in. Those residents who were growing plants in pots had to wash the soil several times and use the precious little water they have for this (37 l per person per day).

Hydroponics at a refugee camp

This seemed like an ideal situation to use hydroponics (soilless growing) to help the residents.

Hydroponics use less water and fertilizer than conventional agriculture and can give increased yields. These methods could be adapted to grow plants in pots.

Working with NGOs and enthusiastic residents we were quickly able to repurpose old materials for the purpose of making hydroponics pots. Yogurt tubs would be used as pots and old mattresses as the growing media.

Refugee resilience

After introducing the basic principles of hydroponics at a workshop run with Za’atari residents, the attendees then eagerly set up production.

Simple hydroponic systems will hopefully bring more than just produce to the table. There is more to growing plants than harvesting the produce, the process is also spiritual.

People cut raw materials and passed them on. Others made up nutrient solutions. Finally another group planted seedlings and cuttings in the pots. Within an hour we had more than 30 pots.

The willingness of the residents to learn and eagerness to put a plan into action was truly astounding. Smiles, jokes and laughs were had between the work. Many younger residents drop out of school to help bring an income to their household, yet their excitement about learning hadn’t subsided.

It was incredible to see the resilience of the Za’atari residents, not allowing any situation to defeat them. Hopefully on our next trip, windowsills will be green with home hydroponic systems.


If you want to find out more about refugee resilience and hydroponics then check out our Za’atari project.

And if you want to keep up to date with work at the camp, then you can sign up to our newsletter.

All images by Harry Wright.

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