By Sheldon Greaves
Occasionally, someone who works in science (or any other intellectual pursuit, for that matter) is well-served by taking a question that others have asked, and asking it again, just to see what shakes out. Such was the case when David Latimer planted a garden in a ten-gallon bottle that once held sulfuric acid, and then stopped up the hole. That was in 1960. Today the terrarium is still going strong, even though Latimer has watered his creation exactly once, back in 1972.
This is hardly a new idea; planting gardens in closed containers is a popular science projects for schools and hobbyists. There are endless variations to see which combination of organisms and environments will produce independent, self-sustaining systems. Sometimes the results, as in Latimer’s case, work spectacularly well. Others, such as Biosphere II, are less successful, but we can learn from both. The apparently simple question, “What happens if I plant something inside a sealed environment?” Changes to,”How can I grow certain plants where one wouldn’t normally see them, or in different ways?”
I’ve been reading lately about the surge of interest in “urban farming,” which on one level is just the backyard vegetable garden moved into a more urban setting. Turning vacant patches of land, a quarter acre here, landscaping there, is more of an administrative or political innovation than it is scientific or agricultural per se. Still you have to admire towns like Toddmorton in the UK (also the home of Mr. Latimer) who, by planting vegetables in every available space, hope to make their town entirely food self-sufficient by 2018–and they are easily on track to do just that.
What grabs my interest from a scientific perspective, however, is how DIY gardeners are finding ways to grow food crops in odd spaces with vertical gardens or using variations on hydroponics. Granted, vertical gardening is nothing new; the concept, at least, has been around since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon if not before. But growing food or herbs on an apartment balcony or patio is an interesting challenge. (Here’s a science project for you this spring and summer: how much food can you grow on a footprint measuring one square meter?)
There are plenty of ideas out there on how to do this in creative, efficient, and whimsical ways. This post on matetip.com has a good collection of ideas for vertical gardening. I am given to understand that gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, but it’s one that we don’t see very often in an amateur science context. New approaches to local food production are a large part of the evolving debate regarding energy usage, food safety, dealing with climate change, and other large issues. It seems a perfect opportunity for citizen science enthusiasts to explore what we can grow, where, and how much. David Latimer’s 53 year-old science project shows us that we are likely to discover or rediscover a few things in the process.