Seasonal Gardening: Space Station Crops, Plant Sounds, and Stinging Nettle Tea

The Seasons of the Garden column shares seasonal gardening news briefs on NASA's search for the best crops to grow in space stations, plant sounds in response to water and stress, and stinging nettle tea.
By Greg and Pat Williams
July/August 1987
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Purdue University researchers evaluated over 100 plant species on the basis of yield, nutrient composition, disease resistance—and, yes, even taste.
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT LESSER


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The Seasons of the Garden column shares seasonal gardening information and tips with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. 

Seasonal Gardening: NASA's Outer Space Crop Search

Scientists at several institutions are involved with NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) program. The goal of this undertaking is to find the best crops for astronauts to grow in future space stations. Purdue University researchers evaluated over 100 plant species on the basis of yield, nutrient composition, disease resistance—and, yes, even taste. They're now focusing on hydroponic lettuce grown using the "recirculating nutrient film technique." In precisely controlled environments, leaf lettuce has matured in as few as 19 days-allowing 16 crops per year! New enhancements such as special lights tailored to the photosynthetic needs of lettuce are expected to boost growth rates ever further.

Lettuce is the quick-growth champion, but what are the other "space-efficient" crops? The results aren't all in, but scientists are currently studying white potatoes (at the University of Wisconsin), sweet potatoes (Tuskegee Institute), wheat (University of California at Davis) and soybeans (North Carolina State). So far, wheat has been grown in only 65 days and soybeans in 80.

A more down-to-earth approach to efficient food raising is presented in David Duhon's book One Circle: How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less Than 1,000 Square Feet ($9 postpaid from Ecology Action, Willits, CA). Duhon examines and gives complete growing information for 14 crops with high potential for use in "minimal area" gardens. Six of these—potatoes, sunflowers, onions, turnips, parsnips and garlic—could conceivably provide a woman's complete, balanced diet for one year from just a 550-square-foot garden! (Duhon's other "wonder crops" are collards, filberts, leeks, parsley, peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes and wheat.)

Additional sections of One Circle show how to design full-nutrition gardens that provide a bit more mealtime diversity. If you want to learn how to get maximum food value from minimum land, Duhon's book is the place to start.

Seasonal Gardening Research Briefs

I heard it on the grapevine. The Acoustic Emission Technology Corporation in California wants to take advantage of the recently discovered phenomenon that plants emit audible responses to water stress. AETC is trying to design machines that guide grape irrigation schedules according to when the vines say, "We're thirsty."

Gypsy moth barriers. Studies in a Pennsylvania oak forest during a gypsy moth infestation have shown that caterpillar build-up on individual trees can be greatly reduced by placing barriers around the trunks three feet above the ground. Encircling bands can be made from a sticky material such as Tan-gle-trap, from double-sided aluminum foil tape or from burlap strips folded in half.

Is it real... or Weyerhaeuser? The rumors are true—the Weyerhaeuser Diversified Business Group is planning to market "embalmed" plants! A patented preservation process developed in Sweden gives plants a fresh, live look even though they're actually dead. No more worries about watering, soil quality, light or pests, just plant 'em and forget 'em. The first plants were treated about eight years ago and still look fresh. Weyerhaeuser claims the chemicals used in the process are nonpoisonous. These "living dead" techno-wonders are coming soon to a mall near you.

Stinging nettle tea works. Plant physiologists in Sweden watered plants potted in sand or a peat-and-sand mixture with either an aqueous extract of stinging nettle plants or a nutrient solution with the same macro-and micronutrient composition as the nettle water. The results? The shoots watered with real nettle water had about 20% greater fresh weight (with 15% more nitrogen). Leaves had higher chlorophyll levels, and the growing medium had greater microbial activity.

Don't plant asparagus . . . yet. Wait until the new Greenwich cultivar is commercially available from Nourse Farms (South Deerfield, ME). Why? Trials show that Greenwich produces about twice the yield (and more large spears) of Mary Washington, the current standard.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg and Pat Williams raise most of their own food on a small farm and publish HortIdeas, a fine newsletter on gardening research and products (available for $10 a year from G. P. Williams, Gravel Switch, KY). 


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