Auck­land

Grow­ing your own fruit and veg­eta­bles is of­ten con­sid­ered to be a some­what old-fash­ioned skill but I main­tain it will stand us in good stead, what­ever the fu­ture holds.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS -

Jo McCar­roll on the cu­cum­bers that re­ally are out of this world

And based on what I see on TV and movies, the fu­ture seems likely to be ei­ther a bleak dystopia peo­pled by zom­bies or we’ll be liv­ing on space­ships trav­el­ling in outer gal­ax­ies. Now, it’s pretty ob­vi­ous that if zom­bies take over, then any walled com­pound of trau­ma­tised hu­man sur­vivors will be look­ing for some­one with a de­gree of ex­per­tise in grow­ing fresh food; but I think know­ing how to grow your own will be use­ful in space too. It will give me and other as­tro-ex­plor­ers some­thing to do, as well as some­thing to eat, plus it will help us re­cy­cle car­bon diox­ide.

Ap­par­ently the as­tro­nauts and scientists aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion chow through 5kg of wa­ter and food per per­son a day.

At the mo­ment that is be­ing sent to them from Earth, which is fine be­cause the ISS is in low earth or­bit and so (in space terms) not far away at all. But ob­vi­ously that won’t be fea­si­ble when we want to ven­ture fur­ther afield from our own planet. ”The far­ther and longer hu­mans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, at­mos­phere re­cy­cling and psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits. I think that plant sys­tems will be­come im­por­tant com­po­nents of any long-du­ra­tion ex­plo­ration sce­nario,” is how Dr Gioia Massa puts it, and she is the NASA sci­en­tist lead­ing the team de­vel­op­ing biore­gen­er­a­tive food pro­duc­tion sys­tems for the space sta­tion and long-du­ra­tion ex­plo­ration mis­sions.

As reg­u­lar read­ers know, NZ Gar­dener has a track record of driv­ing sci­en­tific re­search. We have run ex­ten­sive field tri­als (of­ten in actual fields) to prove or dis­prove var­i­ous gar­den­ing tru­isms, such as whether slugs and snails are de­terred by cof­fee grounds (no); whether slugs and snails will cross over eggshells (yes); and whether beer traps are use­ful as a con­trol for slugs and snails (yes, but ef­fec­tive­ness di­min­ishes quickly over a short dis­tance, so it is what we in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity call a waste of per­fectly good beer). We have other ar­eas of in­ter­est too. We are con­stantly ex­per­i­ment­ing to find out what plants grow well in a small space; what plants grow well in a shady space; and what plants grow well in a damp space. But based on Dr Massa’s com­ments, we need to widen the sphere of our re­search. So I have been in­ves­ti­gat­ing a new topic: what plants grow well in in­ter­stel­lar space.

NZ Gar­dener is not the only body do­ing re­search in this area.

Var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional space agen­cies have been in­ter­ested in grow­ing crops in space ever since 1982, when the crew of the Soviet Sa­lyut 7 space sta­tion grew rock cress in a small as­tro-green­house. Since then there have been other ex­per­i­ments grow­ing mizuna, wheat, bras­si­cas, rice, onions, peas, radishes, let­tuce, gar­lic, cu­cum­bers, pars­ley, dill and cin­na­mon basil; along with non-ed­i­bles in­clud­ing a sun­flower, a zin­nia, flax and a minia­ture kalan­choe. Rus­sian cos­mo­nauts have been eat­ing half of the ed­i­bles they har­vest since 2003 (the rest is used in re­search); while Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts ate their first ISS-grown crops (Red Ro­maine let­tuce) in 2015.

I’ve been read­ing a re­search pa­per on grow­ing plants in mi­cro­grav­ity and it’s im­pos­si­ble to put down.

No re­ally! Ap­par­ently on earth, plant roots seek wa­ter, which is called hy­drotropism; but roots also grow down­ward be­cause of grav­ity, which is called grav­it­ropism. Ja­panese scientists had ob­served the roots of cu­cum­bers grown in mi­cro­grav­ity would bend up to­wards wa­ter and wanted to know whether grav­ity or wa­ter had the greater in­flu­ence. So as­tro­nauts on ISS grew some cu­cum­bers in a mi­cro­grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment and some in a cen­trifuge which sim­u­lated Earth’s grav­ity. In mi­cro­grav­ity the roots bent to­wards wa­ter, but in the cen­trifuge they grew down­wards – sug­gest­ing roots have an abil­ity to seek out wa­ter that is masked by grav­ity. The find­ing might help en­gi­neer more drought­tol­er­ant cu­cum­bers to grow on earth!

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