Our pioneering academics and the Desert Garden project

The Desert Garden project, is a unique project born out of innovative science and is giving families displaced by war the opportunity to grow fresh food in the desert using discarded mattresses.


In 2018, Sheffield scientists travelled more than 3,000 miles - to the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp - to put their pioneering research into solving the issue of food shortages for thousands of people, living in the desert in Jordan.

The technique used to grow food in the desert by these Sheffield Scientists, who are based in the University’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and at the University’s Institute of Sustainable Food, has been developed in their Sheffield labs for many years.

As world-leading experts in hydroponics systems, the team has been using foam from discarded mattresses found in the refugee camp, as a growing medium for the crops in a hydroponic system. In normal agricultural processes, soil supports a plant’s roots, but in a hydroponics system plants are supported artificially and suspended away from the ground.

Learn more about the Science behind the project here

“Nothing prepares you for visiting a refugee camp, it’s hard to see so many good people lose so much. But it’s inspirational too, to see the optimism and generosity but hard to hear what they have been through and what they have lost. When Tony visited he met a lady that said she missed the colour green. She’s tried to make a garden but the salty soil and lack of water made it impossible. It’s something you notice, the landscape is brown and dusty with the white UN tents and caravans. Creating a desert garden has meant the world to refugees we have trained.

"I feel really humbled by the experience and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved."

Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of The Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food, and Soil Microbiologist

Duncan cameron

There are currently around 80,000 people living in Zaatari, the world’s largest camp for those displaced by the Syrian Civil War - now Jordan’s fourth largest city.

To date, over 650 of Zaatari's refugees have been trained in hydroponics. And they're sharing their new-found knowledge within their community. Within the next three years, this 'train the trainer' model will mean the camp's desert garden will become fully self-sustaining.

The project is being managed by Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, a visiting researcher in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. He said: “In this very complicated world and with global food shortage, with poor access to food, and the absence of food security, in most parts of the world. All these growing challenges require answers. This motivated me to think about what can be done to help the people who do not have enough to eat. Studying science has helped equip me with the tools I need to become a problem solver and tells me a lot about how things work.

“To be able to help my fellow people, I think it’s a moral responsibility. As a scientist I should be doing something to help and support other people and it makes me very happy to be doing this in the camp. I am also very grateful to everyone in the camp who helps make this happen.”

In December 2019, the University hosted its first-ever Sustainable Festive Fayre where funds raised here are donated to staff and students £669.50 to the Desert Garden Appeal at the University’s Sustainable Festive Fayre in December.

Maddie Sinclair, Community Fundraising Manager at The University of Sheffield said: “Desert Garden is such an exciting project, from the real world application of research carried out here in Sheffield, to the positive impact on wellbeing of families displaced by war living in Zaatari. Their lives are being transformed by gaining new skills, putting existing skills to use, gaining a sense of purpose and being able to take part in culturally important traditions, such as drinking mint tea and eating Syrian salads at large gatherings.

“I’m really proud to be involved in fundraising for Desert Garden, and I can’t wait to see the University community get involved. Each department will have received a fundraising pack, and we’re asking everyone to pop their loose change into our fundraising boxes. We’re also asking departments to host coffee mornings within their offices, to host a fundraiser for Desert Garden but also as an opportunity to check in with colleagues over a cup of tea and some baked goods.”

Find out more about how you can donate to the appeal here


The Desert Garden Project talk

Thursday 27 February 2020 - Diamond Lecture Theatre 2 From 5pm - 6pm

Jacob Nicles, N8 AgriFood Fellow explores the work that the team involved in the Desert Garden project are doing to provide refugees with the tools to grow food hydroponically.

Book your tickets here