By Jim Bruner
This Spring and Summer have been one of the greatest surprises for both PAST and Mezzacello in terms of urban ag programming. COVID19 changed the trajectory of the original program at PAST Innovation Lab and the COVID19 pivot at Mezzacello. The gardens at Mezzacello have never been healthier or more productive. The Scotts Miracle-Gro and Columbus Foundation Urban Farming grant has had a lot to do with that. We have finished writing the final report for the grant and the data looks great, but the results are nothing short of remarkable. There were so many insights gained, many new practices discovered, so much food that has grown, biomass that converted back into soil, and there was so much water that was SAVED! This last part is a truly remarkable factor of this grand displaced experiment. You can learn more about the vision behind #ProjectMartian here at Learning Unboxed with Annalies Corbin and JIm Bruner from the PAST Foundation.
Our society has the luxury to never have to think about this fact, but here it is: no one has to water the forest floor. Being mindful about the amount of water we were ALLOWED to use during the program transformed the garden into a machine for life. Water is as we all know critical to life. On Mars water is going to be even more precious. In Columbus, OH average water use in a garden is 120kL (3,200Gallons) We cut that to a tenth. There were two 39L (20 Gallons) of water every OTHER day for the 24 beds at Mezzacello and 39L of water on each of the five 1.25 cubic meter bio compost beds at the PAST Foundation. A combined 1.95kL (100Gallons) of water was added each time biomass was deposited. As a society we have used water as an afterthought. Being offered the opportunity to reframe the LUXURY of water literally changed the format, soil, and the way we thought about growing food. The ecosystem was far more balanced. It held much more water naturally, and the plants and animals that interacted in the beds actually increased the yield.
There were also mistakes and failures. But waste and weeds were not one of those. The real problem – ironically just like in “War of the Worlds” – was the microorganisms in the #ProjectMartian beds. Some of the pathogens and larvae that live in the bio soil simulation of #ProjectMartian are not suitable for many of the cucurbits (Cucumbers, Squashes), the Lycopersicon (Tomatoes) and certain Legume families (Peas but not Beans). We did not anticipate, that growing food on Mars was going to require managing the bacteria, micro life, and insect life within the soil. We learned this the same way that the Martians did in HG Wells’ book. It was the microbes and bacteria! The solution was equally ironic: adding a simulation of the Martian soil or in this case Diatoms – the sharp microscopic shells of plankton. This is commonly referred to as Diatomaceous Earth (DE) and it has the same sharp consistency as Martian or Lunar regolith. The diatoms quickly damaged the exoskeletons of pests and managed the microorganisms that were attacking those class of plants. The solution was not to add the DE as a general amendment to the beds; That actually promoted weed growth. The DE had to be added selectively and the problem resolved itself. Meanwhile everything else that was planted thrived. Moving forward we will plan for this anomaly of growing food in an organically rich #ZeroDirt environment.
The final valuable lesson we learned with #ProjectMartian are the four truths that gardening on Mars will require; planning, growing, harvesting and preserving food will each be important. When what you grow is mission critical, saving as much of it as you can will be very important. This is challenging lesson on a planet where food access is not really an existential threat. But for many large populations on this planet it is. And for those living on another planet it most certainly will be. We worked all Spring, Summer, and Fall with these two seemingly dichotomous truths centrally planted in the front of our minds and our mission: Grow as much as you can, with as little water as possible, maximizing land and resources and harvesting and preserving as MUCH AS POSSIBLE. We are so glad that we did. We are also glad that we were able to document all of it and share it with a world that is really going to reframe the way they interact and imagine food. It is something we as a society know that we SHOULD do. It was a privilege to really get to explore that concept. Thank you for coming along for the ride. Next stop: Mars.