Growing Plants on the Moon

You’ve heard about gardening by the moon – an ancient approach to gardening based in folklore and superstition in which planting times are scheduled according to moon phases and astrological signs. Now, how about gardening on the moon! No pseudoscience necessary here. NASA scientists are currently on a mission to determine what it will take to grow plants on the moon in anticipation of setting up a permanent lunar base. After all, if we plan on sending people to the moon to live for long periods of time, we will need to figure out how to grow some food for them up there, right?

The first phase of the study will examine seed germination in a lunar environment and will observe seedlings during the first week or so of their lives. The seeds of cress, basil, and turnip have been selected as the first to be grown on the moon. However, these seeds will experience an environment that seeds of their kind (or any other kind for that matter) have never experienced before, because, unlike the earth, the moon has no atmosphere. Gravity on the moon is one sixth of what it is on earth; solar radiation is intense and direct; and fluctuations in temperature are extreme to put it lightly (about 150°F during the day to -150°F during the night). Oh, and there is one other important limitation: moon soil is dead. To start with, it’s virtually moisture-free. It also has no organic matter content, and it is void of life (compared to a tablespoon of earth soil, which is said to harbor about 50 billion microbes, many of which help sustain plant life).

NASA scientists have considered these limitations. That is why the first seeds on the moon will be grown in a lunar plant growth chamber. This growth chamber is designed to regulate temperature and light and will contain a filter paper inoculated with plant nutrients. Water will be stored inside the growth chamber and released when the chamber reaches the moon. There will be just enough water to induce germination and allow the plants to grow for 5-10 days. Plant growth will be monitored with an onboard camera and then compared to plants grown in a similar growth chamber on earth. Scientists will be observing how well the seeds germinate and grow in a low gravity, high radiation environment.

The first lunar plant growth chamber is scheduled to head for the moon in late 2015. It will be hitching a ride with the winners of the Google Lunar X-prize competition. Based on the results of the first phase of the experiment, following phases will observe sexual reproduction in a lunar environment. If sexual reproduction occurs, what effect will high levels of radiation have on subsequent generations? Only time will tell, so this will be an exciting project to monitor for years to come.

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photo credit: wikimedia commons

Do you want to help design future lunar plant growth chambers? Go here.

Assessing Your Soil

The latest issue of the magazine, Heirloom Gardener, has a great article on assessing your garden soil to be sure that it is ready for the coming growing season. The article addresses four main points that every gardener should be thinking about at the beginning of each growing season.

  1. Soil pH. This is a measure of the acidity of your soil. A pH of 7 is neutral – anything below that is acidic and anything above that is alkaline. Soil pH is important because it affects nutrient availability. The ideal soil pH for a vegetable garden (depending on what you read) is somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5 – if a soil has a pH above or below this range, certain essential plant nutrients will become less available, affecting the growth of plants in your garden and their potential yield.
  2. Soil Test. Determining your soil pH can be done by doing a simple soil test. The soil test will also let you know what nutrients are available in your soil and to what extent. Knowing the fertility of your soil will help you decide what steps to take in terms of adding organic matter and fertilizer to your soil. What amendments are needed will also be determined by what plants you are planning to grow, but having that soil test will at least give you a baseline to work from. Check with your local county extension agent for more information on how to take a soil sample and where to send it for analysis.
  3.  Soil Amendments. The spring is a good time to add amendments to your soil. The ideal thing to add is mature compost. The best soil for a productive vegetable garden is one that is loamy (referring to a mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles) and contains a large amount of organic matter. The organic matter (especially when highly decomposed) provides structure, drainage, fertility, and a flourishing microbial population to the soil. I have to emphasize “highly decomposed” because organic matter that is not well decomposed could end up being detrimental to your plants. This is because soil microbes, whose job it is to decompose organic matter, need nitrogen to do their job and can “rob” available nitrogen from nearby plants, resulting in a temporary nitrogen deficiency and stunted plant growth.
  4. Soil Drainage. The water-holding capacity of your soil is incredibly important and is something you should think about addressing in the spring. Soil that drains too quickly or not quickly enough are both scenarios that are not ideal for a vegetable garden. To test soil drainage in your garden, dig several holes that are at least 2 feet deep and fill them with water. After the holes have drained completely, fill them with water again and keep track of how long they take to drain. A rate of 1-2 inches per hour is ideal. If the test results from your garden are more or less than this standard, the soil should be amended. Adding lots of compost to the soil should address the problem whether it is slow or fast drainage.

The health (or condition) of the soil in your vegetable garden is hugely important and will have a large influence on the success and productivity of this year’s crops. So while you’re thinking about all of the things you want to grow this year, take a little time and think about the soil that they’ll be growing in. While it may not seem as interesting as the plants that will be growing in it, good soil will certainly make a huge difference in the long run.

Read the article, “Is Your Soil Ready for Spring?”, in the Spring 2013 issue of Heirloom Gardener for more detailed information.

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Photo credit: wikimedia commons