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

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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT LESSER
Purdue University researchers evaluated over 100 plant species on the basis of yield, nutrient composition, disease resistance—and, yes, even taste.

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).