Better Living Through Gardening (Earth Day edition)

I need life around me.
And, I am not alone in this; hence, community gardens.

That a sense of well-being is enhanced by walking through a forest, working in a garden, or having pets around is not exactly revolutionary. Philosophers and poets throughout human history have recognized that nature is more than something to be contended with or tamed. Being connected to nature is an integral part of how we see our own lives and relate to the rest of the world. Physicians have also acknowledged that patients heal faster when convalescing in a garden or with a companion animal. Even prison systems have found that involving inmates in gardening reduces violence and rates of recidivism.

I have come across several lists of the benefits of gardening. Most touch on common themes of improved physical and mental health while emphasizing specific aspects. My favorite list so far is one posted a couple of years ago in the UAE’s The National. Not only is at an interesting and fairly comprehensive list, it also references studies associated with each of the included benefits.

Along with the better understood aspects of the physical benefits – exercise, sensory stimulation, fresh air – some intriguing potential benefits found in these lists are:

A sense of responsibility: Here is this living thing that is totally dependent on you for proper watering, feeding, and adequate sunlight (or “sunlight” for indoor growers). Along with learning facts and fascination with nature, this is probably the best reason for including some type of horticultural program in every school.

Engendering hope: People suffering PTSD or depression benefit tremendously from a sense of hope that comes from helping a well nurtured garden grow, amplify life, and literally see the fruits of their labors.

Improved focus and attention span: This is one I can relate to. I fuss in the garden and few details escape me when I’m examining leaf health, making sure climbing plants are secure, or pinching back herbs. The idea is that this kind of primitive activity resets fundamental brain function which translates to better performance in a distracting modern environment.

Response with no judgment: Plants don’t care who takes care of them. They are not irrational nor do they harass a gardener with snide comments about the color of the border fencing or the type of cuisine they will become. They just grow.

A sense of accomplishment and reward: Vegetables that you grow in your own garden ALWAYS taste better than….anything. Especially if you also get some great harvest photos to post on Instagram.

Relieving Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Gardening during winter to counter some of the impact of SAD has historically been a remedy only available to those fortunate enough to have access to a heated greenhouse. But with the advent of hydroponics, and now the pPod™, off-season gardening is more accessible, even on a balcony in New York City. I love hearing “Can you get some thyme and parsley for the chicken?” from my wife when it is 15 degrees out. We also get to start our summer plants in February in the pPod.

Articles on the benefits of gardening and horticultural therapy tend to have a certain angle, or even bias, depending on the author’s intent, area of expertise and the interest area of the publication (academic and government research papers obviously focus on one particular subject). Looking at the array of points made by these authors, it is clear that the ways in which someone is positively affected by gardening depends on their personality and specific needs. For example, one article emphasizes solitary gardening as a way to relieve the stress of dealing with people at work while another promotes the health benefits of participating in a community garden. Some authors focus on physical fitness and the chores required in maintaining a garden, while others write about quiet times in natural settings for spiritual renewal.

Along with blogs and magazine articles that provide insightful overviews of the benefits of gardening, more detailed tangible information can be learned by exploring research papers found through medical journals and government agencies such as the NIH. What you may discover is that definitive clinical evidence of the psychological benefits of horticultural therapy has been elusive, as most studies are qualitative. However, the number of studies that identify direct, quantitative physical and psychological effects is increasing, adding to a growing body of research pointing to health benefits of gardening and the risks associated with being deprived of contact with nature. Recent studies have even shown a clear link between horticultural therapy and a reduction in chemical stress indicators.

The engineer in me really wants these kinds of quantitative results to show proof that working in a garden x number of hours each week improves work performance or ailment recovery by x%. Nobody could argue with that. The businessman in me knows that such hard evidence would be a powerful marketing tool. But then the gardener in me says “That’s nice. I just know that I benefit tremendously from watching to see which of my heirloom tomatoes will look like a duck.” The point is that anyone will feel better growing something, anything, especially if they can eat it.

Just as solitary time in the garden serves a specific therapeutic purpose, sharing that experience with others can be more valuable. Not only do the benefits experienced by each gardener get aggregated, but the garden itself takes on a greater significance in how it affects the local community and surrounding areas. Health improvements associated with community garden programs are now being recognized such that the value of expanding these programs is being taken seriously by many local governments. Community gardens have proven to be powerful tools for improving distressed neighborhoods in many urban areas such as Detroit, empowering their residents to have a positive impact on the city as a whole. In response, cities have revised land-use policies and invested in community gardens.

As we celebrate Earth Day, we are reminded to pay attention to the complexity of every human and seriously consider how all of our interactions with nature impact our individual and communal lives, whether or not we fully realize or understand it.

E Pluribus Unum Food Supply

Let’s consider disruptive innovations. Examples that justifiably get immediate attention are smartphones, streaming video, LED lighting, digital photography, and pretty much anything else digital or involving the internet. But a deep dive into the history of farming is often needed to appreciate the impact of disruptive innovations in agriculture. Here are a few historical examples that completely changed how we grow and get our food and are often taken for granted in the 21st century:

  • Jethro Tull’s seed drill was instrumental in launching the British Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century
  • combine harvesters eliminated multiple steps in processing grain after harvesting beginning in the late 19th century
  • industrial refrigeration revolutionized food storage in the early 20th century
  • tractors eliminated the use of horses, mules, and oxen to pull field working equipment by the mid-20th century
  • no-till farming has displaced traditional tilling for many types of crops over the past 40 years and has had a huge impact on soil preservation and other ecological improvements

And now, we can add controlled environment agriculture (CEA), which includes hydroponic and vertical farming.

Every once in a while, I come across an article emphasizing the disruptive significance of CEA, particularly indoor vertical farming, implying that it could someday replace traditional farming with even cereal crops being grown indoors. A few months ago, a Forbes article quoted an up and coming hydroponics CEA company on the west coast as saying “Research shows that hydroponic farming could well be the future of global agriculture, combining the benefits of local outdoor organic farming with the high yields of large-scale agricultural production.” The impression that this could apply to all farming gets reinforced by news of projects where crops such as rice are grown in modern multi-use buildings.

Is it theoretically possible that all of our food could be grown indoors? Yes. Is it optimal? Probably not (at least not for the foreseeable future on Earth – farming on Mars is another story). We can gage that opinion against the limits of farming technology over the years. Let’s take a closer look at that select list of historical disruptive agricultural innovations:

  • Seed drills & combines: only apply to annual (or semi-annual) plants grown from seed in rows. Granted, this includes staple crops such as corn, wheat, and barley that comprise the bulk of our farmland, but not to other essential food sources like fruit trees and vines. Although, several types of orchard harvesting machines are in use and continually being invented.
  • Refrigeration is only required for fresh produce and meat.
  • No-till farming does not work for root vegetables.
  • Tractors are not necessarily practical for greenhouses – a rapidly growing farming segment – or micro-farms.

Ah, yes. Micro-farms. At first glance, they seem to be mere gardens for which the word “farm” is a bit grandiose. Yet, what if micro-farms were utilized strategically such that their combined effect was to reliably provide specific types of crops, such as herbs and micro-volume specialty produce, to local customers at a lower price and higher quality than “real” farms? This is a concept that is taking shape in many cities where local markets for produce grown in local lots or on building rooftops and terraces is being created.  Organizations such as Urban Farming are working to transform what has been a type of business sustained largely by esthetics and community support into a serious form of distributed agriculture that will only enhance the social and esthetic attraction of produce from local soil. Included in a distributed agriculture system are most types of CEA, including greenhouses and hydroponic farms.

Distributed agriculture is analogous to distributed energy where localized energy generation is beginning to aggregate to the extent that some utilities are now seeing it as a very useful supplement during certain peak and valley power demand times. And how that distributed energy gets used is also part of the strategy. For example, electricity demand is often highest during the day when solar PV panels can collect the most energy. The power from PV panels is most efficiently used directly as DC electricity to do things like charge phones and power PC’s and apply unused electricity to battery banks for those same applications during the night.

IronmanWindmill.com

Or consider that traditional windmills in the U.S. were built, and are still sold, to pump water for irrigation and watering livestock without any electricity being involved.

Utilities can plan for these types of independent, supplementary, distributed power sources when estimating how much electricity is needed from local and regional power plants.

Hydroponics, micro-farming, and greenhouse innovations are beginning to disrupt the agricultural industry in the same way and will continue to do so until an economic equilibrium is reached where costs are minimized and quality meets expectations for each farming method. What will that look like? At this point, a pretty good guess is that most grain and orchard crops will continue on their current path because of the high volume and low density of these crops; but vegetables and fruit that can be grown in high density or vertically year-round will become standard CEA crops, with many of them also being grown in micro-farms. Ponix MicroAg pPods™ will fill an integral niche and support a broad spectrum of these industries. Today, distributed farming is best suited to urban centers, but once it becomes an established business model, there is no reason it would not be adopted nearly everywhere, just as solar PV panels are becoming ubiquitous.

Each farming technique and technology has a place in food production – it’s just a matter of figuring out which is best for each product in each market. Vertical farming is destined to play a critical role for certain applications just as advanced greenhousing will continue to establish itself as a source for year-round produce, new equipment and techniques will improve efficiencies in farming field and orchard crops, and micro-farming will fill its niche of supplying low-volume and specialty produce for local markets. The next time you go to the grocery store, think about the increasing diversity of growing methods for all the produce you see.

And as you are checking out, remember:
from many farm sources, one cartful of food.

Filling a Big Gap

I’m walking into the garden center at Home Depot and the first thing I see is 2 long rows of pots and planters in dozens of different styles and sizes. Everything from small plastic containers to beautifully glazed 50 gallon planters. These hundreds of plant containers are bought by nearly as many people for their home growing each month.

And they are planting more than just flowers. At an increasing rate, people are growing their own herbs and small vegetables, according to the latest National Gardening Survey. This survey supports other reports indicating that nearly 20 million Americans have active indoor or outdoor container gardens, including as many as 3 million who are trying some type of hydroponics.

Unfortunately, these surveys do not address how or if the outdoor container-grown plants are protected from the elements, i.e. storms, wind, bugs, etc.  You can buy a small greenhouse at Home Depot but it will probably not fit on a typical balcony, or be appropriate for a terrace, deck or rooftop.

I assume you are familiar with greenhouses – specialized structures with glass walls (typically now clear plastic panels) designed to let in as much sunlight as possible and then hold in heat when needed or vent the heat during warm weather. To a great extent, a greenhouse is a managed environment for growing all kinds of plants and one of the oldest forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

However, the environment in a greenhouse is not necessarily completely controlled unless it also has air conditioning, supplementary heat, artificial sunlight (grow lights), circulation fans, and humidity control. Most serious commercial greenhouses have these features where and when they are necessary. Going even further with CEA, hydroponics techniques control growth media as well by replacing soil with very specific exposure to air and nutrient-rich water. All of these concepts have found their way into technologies available to individual consumers as well as commercial markets.

Commercial farmers also have use for very simple plastic film coverings with no additional environment control. This is often referred to as “modified environment agriculture” (MEA) since they have a limited effect on light, temperature, and humidity. Some overlap exists between what is considered CEA and what gets called MEA, so a bit of latitude in terminology may be in order when talking about a plant enclosure that incorporates partial control of its environment.

 

Now, looking at these two industries – home gardening and commercial CEA/MEA – what is missing is a controlled-environment outdoor plant enclosure small enough to fit on a balcony, yet also expandable to help commercial growers who want a compact version of their CEA greenhouses for starting plants and enhancing low-profile plant growth. This could be seen as a niche market, but a pretty big niche that includes:

  • Home growers in cities, suburbs, and even rural areas
  • Restaurants and grocery stores capable of growing their own produce and herbs on their rooftops or terraces
  • Micro-farmers and urban farmers
  • Specialty and research farms
  • Schools, hospitals, and other facilities where people pay attention to food quality and education

At Ponix MicroAg, our goal is to become a major CEA resource for all of these people and businesses as we bring pPod™ compact enclosures and complementary products and services to these markets in the near future.

To learn more about Ponix MicroAg, our initial design, the pPod, and other developments we are working on, visit our website at www.pponix.com .

Thanks for checking in!

Chris