Scottish students grow astrogarden

GREEN-FINGERED Scottish students are about to take ­gardening beyond the final frontier.

Student Opal Rowe with a cabbage plant grown to further the S.P.A.C.E project. Picture: Scott Louden

Scientists experimenting with growing plants in space have concluded the Moon could support them if air, ­water, light and fertiliser were provided.

So now seven garden design undergraduates at Scotland’s Rural College have taken inspiration from Nasa to create their very own 2014 space ­odyssey – a self-contained life support system that uses hi-tech gadgetry to cultivate crops without soil.

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Set in a futuristic geodesic dome, the astrogarden will be stocked with edible plants containing all the nutrients essential for human survival.

“Men and women have long since gazed at the stars, but now we have ventured into space and are planning to take our vegetables with us,” said student Donald Ferguson, who dreamed up the concept.

“You could say our theme is to boldly go where no legume has gone before.”

Project leader Ferguson, 35, and his team have grown more than 1,000 plants from seed to create the display, which goes on show at Scotland’s biggest gardening event this week.

Crops have been selected for their vitamin and nutrient content and visual impact – they are vegetables, but not as most people know them.

Specimens include cherry tomatoes, cauliflowers, climbing beans and carrots in various shades of purple, a white pumpkin, two-tone sweetcorn and rainbow-hued beetroot and salad plants.

“The plants we have chosen ensure humans would get the required range of nutrients without any other food source available, said Ferguson, who is in the second year of a degree course in garden design.

“They include peas, cabbages, pumpkin, sweetcorn, beetroot and peppers,” he added.

The gardeners from the college – which has five campuses in Scotland – have also propagated peanut plants, a native of Bolivia that favours sandy soils to produce its underground pods.

Although the 14ft dome is made from PVC, a real-life version would have to be constructed from reinforced glass designed to resist solar flares that could kill plants within.

Though the scheme may seem out of this world, its feet are firmly planted on the ground, seeking to address 21st century Earth’s most pressing issues.

Experts have identified climate change, population growth, changes in land use, urbanisation and pollution as grave threats to global food supplies, prompting an increased drive to develop methods of growing food in hostile environments, such as on distant planets or in landscapes degraded by human use, poor soil and drought.

Ferguson added: “Astrobiologists are looking at how we might be able to grow crops on other planets, or even on meteors. There are huge challenges facing our population in terms of growing food, and we need to explore possible solutions. We hope our show garden will draw attention to the problems and act as a stimulus for taking positive steps to tackle some of the environmental issues we face.”

Inside the dome, water, light and lush green foliage will feature alongside the geometric lines of hydroponic and aeroponic cultivation systems. The vibrancy of the interior will stand in vivid contrast against a barren, arid outside world of dust and rocks.

But the S.P.A.C.E. biodome is just part of a much bigger scheme envisaged by Ferguson. “Imagine it as one of a complex of four,” he said.

“Ours is the experimental growing area, which is linked to domes housing a water recycling area, a waste recycling area and living quarters.”

And we don’t have to hitch across galaxies for a close encounter with farming’s future – S.P.A.C.E. is on show from Friday as part of Gardening Scotland at Ingliston, near Edinburgh.