Feed the world with foam! Old and discarded mattresses are being used to replace soil and grow vegetables for refugees in desert environments

  • Researchers used the foam from mattresses to grow seeds using hydroponics
  • This is the technique of growing plants in a nutrient rich water rather than soil
  • The mattress foam is used to hold the seeds while they grow and guide the roots 
  • Experts from the University of Sheffield say it could help create ‘desert gardens’ 

Old and discarded mattresses are being used to replace soil in order to grow herbs and vegetables for refugees in desert environments.

A team of experts in hydroponics from the University of Sheffield have been working with refugees in Jordan to create ‘desert gardens’ using foam from mattresses.

At the Zaatari refugee camp the research team, led by Professor Tony Ryan, have worked with residents to grow peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and mint.

The mattress foam is used to hold the roots of a plant in place as it grows in in a nutrient rich water solution. Seeds are placed in the foam and they grow through it. 

Professor Ryan says the technique could be used to create self-sustaining gardens around the world and help millions to thrive in barren landscapes.

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The team have been able to grow a range of herbs and vegetables in discarded boxes and using old foam mattresses including basil as seen here held by a young refugee girl

The team have used mattresses destined for landfill that were left behind by aid workers after they leave the refugee camps.

They use the foam to guide the roots in their lab based hydroponics experiments at the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Food. 

Researchers worked with the refugees at the camp as many of them were experienced farmers. The team say they learnt from each other. 

‘The refugees we have worked with have taken our training and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials,’ said Professor Ryan.

‘We are only at the start of what might be possible, in terms of what refugees and their situation has to teach us about all of our potential futures.’

One of the project team, Abu Weselmani, is seen here spraying the plants, which require 70 to 80 per cent less water than if they were grown in water

Community Services Office for the camp Rehab Osman Khalifa is standing by some of the plant pots. The ‘Desert Garden’ project has been described as a community effort

They have created a ‘desert garden’ at the camp in Jordan but want to make the project more sustainable and roll it out worldwide.

They hope to raise £250,000 to supply seeds, nutrients and training for another 3,000 refugees. Nearly 1,000 have been taught so far.

It would give families displaced by war the opportunity to have an unlimited supply of fresh produce – in some of the harshest places on the planet.

‘I’m a researcher and a Syrian refugee myself,’ said Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, Desert Garden Project Manager.

‘Now I’m helping others like me to learn new skills and feed their families with fresh herbs and vegetables in the desert.

‘When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss – like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. 

‘This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.’

Abu Wessam, who is living in the camp, said they came to Joran due to the desctruction and killing in Syria.

He said the conditions in the Zaatari camp were very bad when they first arrived with six or seven people in one tent.

‘”This type of agriculture taught us a lot. It’s free from pesticides and growth regulators and it uses 70-80 per cent less water.

‘It would be good if all people in the camp learned this, because the soil isn’t suitable for growing. Now we have only done a pilot project, but we’d like to make it more productive and bigger.’

Duncan Cameron and Tony Ryan are inspecting some of the thousands of mattresses left behind by aid workers after they leave the camp

Aid workers discard thousands of used foam mattresses in refugee camps across the globe, according to the Sheffield team.

They showed the study participants how to fill waste containers from around the camp with mattress foam and a carefully balanced nutrient solution.

Seedlings were then planted straight into the foam – which supports the roots as the plant grows.

Working closely with the refugees, the team has created ‘desert gardens’ that provide people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities and longed-for greenery in a challenging desert.

In turn the scientists have learned from the refugees whose use of the foam in real-world conditions has demonstrated its potential to grow crops more sustainably – and in places with degraded soils.

The method uses 70 to 80 per cent less water than planting straight into the soil – and eliminates the need for pesticides. 

Women from the camp examine one of the plants grown in the plastic pots. The roots grow through the foam and in a solution of nutrients

Professor Ryan examines the roots of one of the plants as it grows through the cut out foam and in a small plastic cup. They are trying to reuse as much of the camp waste as possible

The initial money for the pilot project – that saw 1,000 refugees trained to turn old mattresses and ‘junk from the camp’ into gardens – is running out.

That is why they launched a public appeal and hope to continue their ‘train the trainers’ model that will lead to refugees sharing their knowledge and skills with each other as well as sell produce to buy more supplies.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs Zaatari camp, provides Syrian refugees with enough money to buy staples like bread and chickpeas.

But life-enriching fruit and vegetables are often out of reach and traditional fresh mint tea is considered a luxury.

Professor Ryan and Professor Cameron are working with others to train refugees on how to make use of their technique to grow their own plants

The research team say they have learnt a lot from the refugees, many of whom are farmers, on how plants grow in desert environments and how to adapt their techniques

The project gives people the tools and techniques they need to grow their own food and gain future employment – as well as boosting mental health and greening the camp.

‘UNHCR see this as something that can work in nearly every refugee camp to improve mental health and well-being,’ said Professor Ryan.

“If we can make desert gardens economically and culturally sustainable in Jordan, we can ultimately roll this out around the world and help millions of refugees to thrive.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at Sheffield, said he was amazed at the ingenuity of humanity when they come together to solve a pressing issue.

‘Our research on synthetic soils meant we could re-imagine the UNHCR’s waste disposal problem – where aid workers saw used mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate.

‘This project is about co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in. 

‘As scientists, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the refugees about how our research can be applied in the real world, and they’ve gained valuable skills for the future.’


Hydropnics is the growing of plants without soil. It involves a nutrient rich water solution and something like foam to hold the seeds. 

Plants most commonly grown in this way are tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and herbs such as mint and basil.

There are a number of different hydroponics techniques but they all require a liquid solution rich in nutrients for the roots to grow

The technique also uses significantly less water than traditional agriculture. 

In soil 2.2lbs of tomatoes require about 88 gallons of water, whereas in hydroponics the same weight of tomatoes only require 15 gallons. 

This makes it an idea technique for growing food in water poor environments including deserts – and possibly space.

NASA has experimented with hydroponics for growing plants on the International Space Station, as well as aeroponics, which involves plants growing in a misty air environment, rather than a water solution.

While we have traditionally grown plants in soil and they naturally do grow in soil, the process of photosynthesis doesn’t require it – all it needs is sunlight, water and nutrients. 

The key is the nutrient rich solution, which can be made up of organic or chemical nutrients usually found in the soil. 



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