#ProjectMartian: Chapter 3 – The Weight of the World is Dirt or the #Zerodirt #ZeroWaste Beds

By Jim Bruner

Shelter in Place (SIP) orders were not an impediment to continuing the work that the PAST Foundation had committed to as we were able to continue the work we had planned for #ProjectMartian at Mezzacello. We had the added complication of the SIP with the lack of meaningful interaction with students and educators. COVID made face to face meetings and working together with students and teachers like we had been able to do previously very complicated and limiting. We quickly discovered that a large portion of this work would fall on just one person’s shoulders. Occasionally there would be help from interns, neighbors, and other neighborhood garden groups but the majority of the work would be conducted by Farmer Jim at Mezzacello. It was being faced with this reality that we came up with the #ProjectMartian name. Like Mark Watney on Mars, we needed a functional garden test bed to replicate some of the conditions we might find on Mars.

Setting the Stage for #ProjectMartian

Mezzacello had 3,338 meters spread across 24 beds 76.2cm x 183cm of planting space available. We refer to these beds as “BioLEGOs” as they are machines for converting organic material into food and they are in the shape of a block. We were keen to explore the air above the planting beds and container garden in five .6 cubic meter felt planters as well. All of these resources were enclosed in a gated garden that was 7.62m x 6.86m in size. We had an additional reserve of garden beds (not #Zerodirt) for growing herbs that was comprised of two boxwood parterre gardens with five 14.6m triangles that provided an additional .73 cubic meters of biomass. A 3m x 3.7m greenhouse for starting plants was also on site. Lastly, all 24 beds were completely comprised of #Zerodirt compost planting matrix that was 20cm deep and there was already three cubic meters of compost ready on site. Our last resource was access to water. We had a pond with 7,571L of water stocked with koi fish and a bio filter for pulling out 10L of algae every 14-day cycle. We also had 3 cubic meters of water available in 1000L IBC rain barrels that were pump connected and powered by solar arrays.

We refer to these beds as “BioLEGOs” as they are machines for converting organic material into food and they are in the shape of a block. We were keen to explore the air above the planting beds and container garden in five .6 cubic meter felt planters as well.

 

This is what our pivot shifted to: How do we grow food using only organic material (compost) and amendments mixed with a Martian soil analog (in this case, diatomaceous earth (DE) and silica dioxide aka sand)?

Two-Fold Goals

The goal was now two-fold:

  1. To experiment with growing food in a #Zerodirt organic and amended matrix and tracking every resource, waste stream and crop.
  2. To create a total of 8 cubic meters of rich biomass, chemically treated to accelerate compost breakdown and deliver as green or brown biomass in 39L tubs 5 at a time as a means to recreate Mezzacello’s BioLEGO gardens at PAST Foundation.

Goal Number One
The beds at Mezzacello were tested and amended as needed. Standard off the shelf soil testing kits and sensors were used to determine the start state of the beds. A dressing of compost, sand and DE was added to each bed and then all 24 beds received a mulch of fabric grade jute burlap which was designed to block weed growth and hold in moisture. It had the added benefit that jute is a natural material that would decay and enrich the BioLEGO planting matrix. This was the default state for #ProjectMartian. Minimal extra materials were required and the only factor that had to be addressed was positioning cameras to document and track the progression and provide security to the site. Those camera systems would prove to be invaluable in sharing the mission and creating content to accompany #ProjectMartian on PAST Foundation’s STEMStreaming online resources.

Goal Number Two
The second goal was much more challenging. Most people cannot imagine what eight cubic meters of anything actually looks like. It is quite easy to gather a cubic meter of leaves; however when you mulch the leaves they compress and you have .3 cubic meters. The scope of this project was a daunting 8000L of biomass that was transported 195L at a time with an additional 70L of water from Olde Towns East to the PAST Foundation headquarters at Kenny and Kinnear Roads. Each layer of brown and green biomass was deposited in place and then treated with Ethanol, Sucrose and Ammonia in ratios of 6L to over 39L. The biomass was then covered as a control for atmospheric water (aka rain) and slowly the biomaterials were collected, delivered, treated. This process would be repeated over and over again. Around 40% of this biomass came from Mezzacello. The additional 60% came from the neighbors of Olde Town East who graciously donated their grass clippings and raked leaf bags to their crazy Urban Farmer neighbor. With the need for eight cubic meters of material, we knew that this project was going to take all summer.

We were going to learn just what it was going to mean to both use a Martian planting analog and create a Martian planting analog in real time. This was the scope of #ProjectMartian.


Partners

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