#ProjectMartian: Chapter 4 – Two Gardens, Two Worlds

One of the 21 trips with Biomass from Mezzacello to PAST Innovation Labs

By early spring of 2020 #ProjectMartian was in full pivot. The processes by which we were going to prepare the five raised dirt beds still needed to be amended and prepared to grow food and test the systems over our summer camp season. The beds were in fact stranded and were most likely not going to be used at the PAST Innovation Lab as an active site for growth. We needed to pivot again. What if we treated the beds at PAST Innovation Lab as an analog for greenhouses built remotely on Mars? We previously had seen the students in the PAST Innovation Lab do it, so why couldn’t we? We started to plan.

Some expectations needed to be put in place regarding this biomass. Since we had not planned to build BioLEGO Martian Greenhouse beds at PAST Innovation Lab we had some legwork to do.

The first step was to determine how much biomass would be required to get the #ProjectMartian outpost beds to the levels and fertility that would be required to support life. We have shared the dimensions of these beds in a previous blog; 1.8m x 2.4m x .81m (6’x8’x32”). We would need quite a substantial amount of green, brown, and mineral biomass in order for the beds to become what Jim at Mezzacello calls BioLEGOs. Some expectations needed to be put in place regarding this biomass. Since we had not planned to build BioLEGO Martian Greenhouse beds at PAST Innovation Lab we had some legwork to do. These BioLEGO beds are what we were calling the “machines” for growing the food that we were going to work with over the summer with student programs.

We soon learned we were not going to be receiving compost and soil due to COVID19 so we needed to find a source for the approximately 8 cubic meters of biomass for those BioLEGO beds. In a BioLEGO bed the bottom of the bed is lined with 10mil of plastic to create a dirt barrier. For the past two years I have covered the BioLEGO beds with a burlap mulch, but since I needed to control for water on “Mars” these beds got a waterproof tarp cover. The “mulch” I was referring to was the Burlap layer on top.

All five beds were covered with 2.4m x 3m tarps. The tarps were to provide water control since there is no rain on Mars. All water would be carefully controlled as the BioLEGO compost beds were assembled.

It Takes a Village

Back on our “Earth” analog, Mezzacello, Jim Bruner was busy prepping his beds for growing and conducting experiments that would accelerate and expand the biomass that the urban farm could produce. It quickly became apparent that it was not going to be enough. So, the PAST Foundation did what it does best: Partner with the community. Jim put a call out on Social Media to his neighbors in the Columbus’ Olde Towne East (OTE) neighborhood asking for sources of grass clippings, leaves, twigs or dead plants. The “donations” started coming in, but that was only the first step in a five-step process to get this biomass to “Mars”.

Grass clippings from my OTE neighbors.

Five Steps to BioLEGO on Mars

  1. Collect and stage the biomass, sift through the grass, leaves and twigs and dead plants for weeds, trash, and “foreign items” (needles, bullet casings, a Barbie doll or two).
  2. Shred the grass, leaves, twigs and various dead plants and clippings. If this biomass was not shredded, it would not decompose fast enough to be useful by summer’s end.
  3. The shredded biomass was then packaged into 39L (20Gallon) closed containers, five at a time. Two 39L Containers contained water. All of this was delivered to #ProjectMartian at PAST.
  4. At PAST, the BioLEGO beds were uncovered and the biomass was layered into the bed strategically. One bed at a time.
  5. The layered biomass was treated with water, and a mixture of amylase, ethanol, sucrose, and ammonia. It was covered over with cardboard and the tarp replaced and resealed.

This process would be repeated every time that five of the Mars BioLEGO biomass containers were processed, packed and assembled. That would be approximately twice a week. OTE and Mezzacello kept producing, sharing, and collecting the biomass that was needed to complete this project. It was going to take a bit of time to get there, but we had a plan. We had to collect, process, and deliver 105 of the BioLEGO containers to #ProjectMartian at PAST.

Building BioLEGO Beds:

BioLEGO compost beds

We needed to greatly accelerate the biomass composting process from 80 days to 14. But it only works so efficiently if the ingested biomass is treated with accelerants and covered. We just happened to have 8 cubic meters of covered containers at PAST.

Experimenting on the work done during the five years of research at Mezzacello and over two summers working with Urban Agriculture camps, Jim along with his PAST and Mezzacello interns started experimenting with compost accelerants. Generally speaking, compost requires four inputs: Greens and Browns mixed together, enough biomass to reach 60C (140F), water, and movement and time. But using enzymes to do the work both increases heat and microorganisms and what usually takes 3-5 months can be accomplishedjust one. Time is something we did not have a lot of.

At Mezzacello we switched gears and decided to create a biomass digester that is similar to a stomach. The biomass would be digested by mixing the BioLEGO accelerant of amylase (human saliva) ethanol (beer), sucrose (cola) and ammonia. This mixture was then added to the biomass. We needed to greatly accelerate the biomass composting process from 80 days to 14. But it only works so efficiently if the ingested biomass is treated with accelerants and covered. We just happened to have 8 cubic meters of covered containers at PAST.

How BioLEGO Beds Perform

At Mezzacello, these BioLEGO beds were being planted and harvested. The BioLEGO biomass at Mezzacello had been entirely produced on site. Each of the 24 beds were at least 20cm deep (deeper for root crops) and covered over with burlap fabric. At all times there are 3 cubic meters of compost processing going on, using only Mezzacello biomass. The BioLEGO bed is always #ZeroDirt #ZeroWaste There are mineral and nutrient amendments that Earth provides (dead and decaying micro fauna, insects, birds and animals) that we knew would not be available (or ethical) on Mars, so we used basic amendments (Iron, Phosphorus, bone meal, blood meal, magnesium sulfate, and manure).

The burlap is a terrific mulch. It allows water in and keeps the BioLEGO compost growth medium wet and in place. The burlap also inhibits sunlight and wild seeds (aka weeds) from rooting where there is not a slit in the burlap. Only the areas that have been cut will allow life to grow up from the ground. Al of thel weeds are weakened considerably and are easy to spot and pull. The system is very efficient because it maximizes growth and allows the farmer to focus the mineral and nutrient amendments at the plant site only. Amending crops this way is extremely cost effective. Additionally, the active compost matrix of the BioLEGO beds attracts life. This is both good and bad.

Stay tuned for the next installment where we discuss just how effective the BioLEGO process is. This is the heart of #ProjectMartian.


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