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.
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!