October 11, 2006

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Dr. Ron Lacey, Dr. Fred Davies, and Dr. Chuan He, (left to right) are collaborating on a NASA grant to find ways of growing fresh produce in conditions that mimic the atmosphere on the moon and Mars. Lacey, an agricultural engineer, designed the growth chambers. Davies and He, horticulturists, are planting and monitoring lettuce production.


Young, potted lettuce plants are put into growth chambers to resemble conditions similar to that of the moon and Mars. Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers are studying how to grow vegetables to enable space life.


Special chambers had to be built to create conditions similar to the moon and Mars for NASA-funded project aimed at finding ways to grow plants in space.


A pot of lettuce thrives in the low-pressure chamber designed by researchers to mimic conditions on the moon and Mars. (Texas Agricultural Experiment Station photos by Kathleen Phillips)

  Galaxy gardening more than hobby for future moon, Mars residents

By Kathleen Phillips
Texas Cooperative Extension

Long periods of total darkness and poor soil needn't stop an avid gardener — at least not one who's willing to go out of this world to grow plants.

Lush lettuce is growing by galactic measure in cylinders designed by Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers to mimic conditions on the moon and Mars.

"We're to the point now that we are confident with the systems we have developed, though it may not ultimately look like this (lab model)," said Dr. Fred Davies, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station horticulturist.

The research, part of the National Air and Space Administration's "Salad Bowl" project, is unique in that university-based scientists are tasked with finding a way to produce food in spatial conditions unparalleled on Earth.

Two certainties make this work important, the researchers believe: Humans will continue to explore uncharted expanses of the universe, and where humans go, food is a must.

"Exploration is part of our blood. Ultimately, we will start to inhabit lunar and Martian surfaces in the near future," Davies said.

For now, food is transported in shuttles in quantities to last a space trip. Food also is taken to the International Space Station for the three people who work there in six-month stints.

Astronaut fare has gone from "bite-sized foods suitable for eating with one's fingers, and pureed foods, squeezed directly into the mouth from flexible metal toothpaste-type tubes" to some 200 different menu selections now including fresh tortillas and chicken fajita meat served on more appealing food trays, according to NASA food nutritionists.

But ultimately, for people to live in space for longer periods, self-sustaining food production would be vital, Davies noted.

Enter agriculture. The age-old profession is much on the minds of space exploration scientists.

Davies said green produce in space has both nutritional and psychological benefits. While leafy lettuce may provide humans with essential nutrients such as vitamin A, it also provides a welcomed fresh texture for astronauts who quickly get their fill of reconstituted food.

"A part that is important is the psychology of eating something that is green, smells like something you are used to on Earth, that has some texture to it and some freshness," Davies said.

Developing equipment to hurl humans into space has been less a challenge for engineers than finding ways to grow food. Mainly, all the earthly conditions that make plants thrive either don't exist or are vastly different in space.

The moon, for example, has no atmospheric pressure (vital for the development of clouds and rainfall) and only one-sixth the gravity of Earth. Its days, or period of light, last the equivalent of about a month on Earth and are followed by the equivalent of two weeks of darkness, Davies pointed out. And it has no carbon, which is essential for photosynthesis.

Mars, on the other hand, has an atmosphere that is about 95 percent carbon dioxide and an atmospheric pressure one-hundredth that of Earth's. And while a Martian day is a little longer than earth's 24-hour period, there is less available light for plant growth, the researcher noted.

To figure out how to grow plants in space, scientists first had to toss out what is known about plant production. They also had to design, build and operate growing chambers to work under space-like conditions. That meant developing chambers that would work in low pressure and provide plants with what's needed to photosynthesize, or grow and yield adequate quantities of food.

Thus far, their research has shown that the plants are doing better in the low-pressure conditions.

"The advantage to low pressure means we have to have less materials which means less cost," said Dr. Ron Lacey, Experiment Station agricultural engineer. "But to create a system for plants to grow in low pressure is very challenging."

Lacey said previous research on such systems had numerous issues with leakage — perhaps leaking the whole volume of air in a day.

"But we were able to create a very tight system that only leaks about 1.5 percent of its volume per day or less," Lacey said, "and we see some very interesting things going on (with plant growth)."

"We have found that the plants grow better in the low pressure, and also that the gas ethylene has a big effect on plant growth," said Dr. Chuan He, Experiment Station researcher who plants, harvests and analyzes the lettuce for quality. Plants under low pressure produce less ethylene and use-up less carbohydrates at night (lower dark-period respiration), which produces larger heads of lettuce.

He, who said tending plants on Mars is his wished-for occupation, has sampled the product of his labors.

"The lettuce actually tastes quite good," He said.

Davies noted that plants also are useful for producing oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide, both important factors for humans.

"It may be that these plants are grown below ground in special growth chambers on Mars and the moon," Davies said. "They are looking at ways to be able to catch and store light on the moon and then be able to use that light later on."

More information about the project is available at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/faculty/davies/research/nasa.html.



Thoroughly washing fresh produce before eating can help remove many disease-causing organisms. (Photo by Chris S. Corby)
  Web site information helps reduce cases of foodborne illness

By Linda Anderson
Texas Cooperative Extension

After the recent nationwide outbreak of foodborne illness linked to spinach contaminated with E. coli, consumers might be concerned about buying and eating fresh produce. But that shouldn't be the case, said Dr. Suresh D. Pillai, professor of food safety and environmental microbiology at Texas A&M University.

And he should know. As a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station Faculty Fellow and researcher, he was also project director of the Tri-State Fruit and Vegetable Safety Consortium.

"The ultimate goal of the project was to improve the safety of fresh produce," according to the consortium's Web site at fruitandvegetablesafety.tamu.edu.

In addition to Texas A&M, the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded consortium also included the University of California-Davis and the University of Florida.

"Our research indicated that agricultural practices are so varied across the United States and that there was no 'one size fits all' solution," Pillai said. "Our study highlighted the importance of preventing pathogen contamination at the farm, during transportation, (and) during packing and processing."

Consortium members studied how and where pathogens are introduced onto certain fruits and vegetables, what kinds of processes are most effective in controlling this contamination, and how these findings can best be used by producers and processors, and consumers.

"Foodborne illness in the United States needs to be dractically reduced," he said.

An estimated 76 million cases are reported each year in this country, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, fever and headaches; some cases are serious enough to require hospitalization or cause death, according to the CDC.

While most of these foodborne illnesses are not linked to fresh produce, in recent years an increasing number have been caused by fresh fruits and vegetables, Pillai said.

Contamination by such pathogens as E. coli, salmonella or Hepatitis A can occur while crops are growing, being harvested or during the time between harvest and consumption, he said. But food safety practices from both producers and consumers — and some basic common sense — should help eliminate many of these illnesses, Pillai said.

The simple practice of thoroughly washing fresh produce before eating can help remove many of these disease-causing organisms, he said. Cooking also kills many of these pathogens, he added.

But eliminating foodborne pathogens begins from the ground up, Pillai said.

"Producers need to understand how to deal with this issue, and consumers have the right to demand pathogen-free produce," he said, adding that not all microbes are harmful; pathogens are.

Both consumers and producers will be able to find answers to many of their questions through the Tri-State Fruit and Vegetable Safety Consortium and its Web site, Pillai said. For example, the page for consumers has links to information on safe ways of handling, selecting, storing, washing and preserving fresh produce.

The page for the produce industry has links to information for growers, packers and shippers, and processors.

But don't forget to use a little common sense, Pillai said. Don't let fear and news reports eliminate fresh fruit and vegetables from your daily diet.

"There are billions of microorganisms in just one gram of soil," he said, "so there's no such thing as a sterile fruit or vegetable."



Narcissius is one of many bulbs that can be planted in late fall. (Photo by Chris S. Corby)

 

 

It's not too late to plant "buried treasure"

Gardeners are such optimists. They're always looking forward to the next growing season. As autumn begins to shut down the garden for the year, it's the perfect time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Planting bulbs now is like planting buried treasure, because in the dead of winter many of us forget that we've even planted bulbs. When spring arrives, we're pleasantly surprised with the treasure of colorful flowers that greet us.

Garden catalogs are filled with delightful new varieties of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses and other spring-flowering bulbs. Generally, bigger bulbs mean bigger blooms, so don't buy the cheapest bulbs or you might be disappointed come springtime. Tulips are very popular bulbs, but squirrels, chipmunks and deer find them tasty. Sometimes deer nibble on the flowers and squirrels dig up bulbs planted less than 5 inches deep. So, if four-legged varmints are frequent visitors to your yard, plant daffodils or hyacinths instead. (Critters don’t like the way these bulbs taste.) For a great selection of fall bulbs, visit www.mailordergardening.com and click on Bulbs. You’ll be instantly connected to links to 38 different companies that sell bulbs via websites and catalogs.


 

  Readers' Gardening Tips

"I'm a seed collector," writes Christine Reid, "so along with baggies and small envelopes, I also keep an empty egg carton in the car to hold any seeds I may find along the way!"

Have a favorite gardening tip you'd like to share? Texas Gardener's Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will seed you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here's a chance to get published and keep your head in the shade! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.


  Did you know...

A hornworm can eat an entire tomato plant by itself in one day.


 

 

 

 


The Plantmobile at last year's HerbFest. HerbFest returns to Austin on Saturday, October 21.

  Upcoming Garden Events

Ernesto Velez Koppel of Colombia will lecture on his country's flower industry October 11 at Texas A&M University. His talk is the second in the Distinguished Lecture Series on International Floriculture. Koppel is the Association of Colombian Flower Growers and Exporters board of directors chair. The lecture series is sponsored by the Texas A&M horticultural sciences department's Ellison Chair in International Floriculture. The presentation will include background on what led to the formation of the Colombian flower association, known as ASOCOLFLORES, its current activities and its plans for the future. Koppel also will describe the group's global impact. For further information, contact Tammy Landry, program coordinator, at t-landry1@tamu.edu or (979) 845-7342.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hosts "Dying to Know What's Bugging You?: Forensic Entemology, " with Dr. Donald Tuff, Ph.D., Thursday, October 12, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. The three branches of forensic entomology are: Urban, Stored Product, and Medicocriminal Entomology. Dr. Tuff will address the Medicocriminal branch, which is concerned primarily with violent crimes and strives to determine the postmortem interval (PMI), or the time since death, to discovery and possible significant factors about the site of death. Lectures are free to the public. Parking lot opens at 6:00 p.m., speaker reception at 6:00 p.m., lectures begin at 7:00 p.m. No reservations are necessary, but seating is limited. For more information, contact sbrueggerhoff@wildflower.org.

The Highland Lakes Master Gardeners will hold free gardening classes on Saturday, October 14 from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Lily Day Gardens, 1918 W. Hwy 29, Burnet (1.25 miles W of the 281 intersection). The Green Thumb Program topics include Selecting & Planting Trees & Shrubs, Growing Fall Herbs and many other Fall Gardening Tasks. Learn with Sylvia Williams and many other Master Gardeners. There is no charge but bring a lawn chair to sit in. For more information, call Ann Bybee at Lily Day Gardens, (512) 715-0001.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, will hold a public sale Saturday and Sunday, October 14 and 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Choose from nearly 270 species. Enjoy guided walks and tips on preparing your garden and, if you can, please bring a wagon to carry your plants. Plastic pots (4 inch, 1 gallon or 5 gallon pots only) will be recycled. A collection bin will be at the front entrance. Garden tours starting at 10 a.m. Children's activities include planting demonstrations and a chance to make an Ecopot. For more information, call (512) 292-4200.

The McLennan County Master Gardeners will sponsor The Texas Superstar Seminar, Sunday, October 15, 2 p.m., at Carleen Bright Arboretum, Woodway (near Waco). Dr. Jerry Parsons, horticulture specialist with Texas Cooperative Extension in San Antonio, will conduct the lesson. If you have never heard Dr. Parsons speak, don't miss this chance to hear one of the most knowledgeable and funniest horticulturalist in Texas. For more information, call the Extension office (254) 757-5180 or Barbara Vance (254) 741-0000.

The Austin Herb Society celebrates Herb Awareness Month in October with HerbFest, Saturday, October 21, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, located in the Burger Center, 3200 Jones Rd., off I-290 between Brodie Lane and Westgate Blvd. No entrance fee for shoppers, free parking. For additional information, call (512) 468-9126.

The San Antonio chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas will host the groups' annual symposium Convergence and Diversity: Native Plants of South Central Texas, October 19 through 22, San Antonio. The symposium will feature guided tours to natural areas, seminars on native plants and a special program on cooking with native plants. For more information, contact (210) 733-0034, (830) 997-9272 or visit www.npsot.org.

The Johnson County Herb Society will hold its Herbal Thymes Show and Symposium, October 28 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Cleburne Senior Center, Cleburne. The event will feature speakers, demonstrations herb plants and related products. For more information, contact Esther Chambliss at (817) 263-9322 or visit www.cleburnearea.info/herbies/.

The 2006 Annual Garden Tour in Victoria County will take place on Saturday and Sunday, October 28 through 29, showcasing five gardens at historic homes in Old Victoria. Imagination will be fulfilled beyond garden gates with the theme "Nature's Beauty Beyond the Gate" in fall and pre-Halloween garden settings. Highlighted garden plants will be catalogued in educational materials and for plant sale identification on the weekend of the tour. Guided tours at $18 per person are scheduled from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. on Sunday. Individual garden tours are $5 per garden. Workshops will be conducted on culinary cooking and holiday decorating from the garden for additional fees. For further information, contact Victoria County Extension Office at (361) 575-4581.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hosts "The Amazing World of Dragonflies and Damselflies," with Dr. John Abbott, Ph.D. Thursday, November 2, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Explore the amazing world of dragonflies and damselflies with Dr. John Abbott. Through breathtaking photography, Dr. Abbott will review their habits, riparian habitats and the many wonderful species particular to central Texas. Lectures are free to the public. Parking lot opens at 6:00 p.m., speaker reception at 6:00 p.m., lectures begin at 7:00 p.m. No reservations are necessary, but seating is limited. For more information, contact sbrueggerhoff@wildflower.org.

The Texas Gourd Society will hold its 11th annual "Show and Tell" at the Waco Convention Center, Waco, November 11 and 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. The two-day show will include gourd artists, seminars, demonstrations and much more. Admission is $5 for adults; children under 12 free. For more information, visit www.texasgourdsociety.org.

The Highland Lakes Master Gardener Association will sponsor the Ninth Annual Hill Country Lawn & Garden Show March 31, 2007, at the Lakeside Pavilion in Marble Falls. It is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Free Admission and seminars. It features garden related vendors, demonstrations, a children's booth, raffle and seminars by Malcolm Beck, Bill Luedecke and the Antique Rose Emporium. For more information go to hillcountrylgshow.com or call (325)388-8849.

The Garland Organic Club meets the first Sunday of each month in the little red school house at 1651 Wall St., Garland. All interested gardeners are invited to attend. For more information, call (972) 864-1934 or (800) 864-4445.

Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7:00 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit www.main.org/aog.

The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 676-4326 or visit www.dogc.org.


  Book Sale:
  Garden Bulbs for the South

In Garden Bulbs for the South, acclaimed garden expert Scott Ogden introduces Southern gardeners to more than 200 warm-climate bulbs that will perform wonderfully in their garden — bulbs new, exotic, extraordinary, or unjustly neglected. A bulb for any need and any reason — many of which will return to increase in beauty. With nearly 200 gorgeous, full-color photographs, Garden Bulbs for the South is an inviting way to take the guesswork out of bulb planting. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $24.50 while supplies last!
 

  Gourds in Your Garden

At last! Ginger Summit's complete, easy-to-use guide to help you identify popular gourd shapes; plan and prepare your garden; grow, train and harvest a bountiful crop of gourds; and prepare your gourds for use, from recipes to art projects. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $21.30 while supplies last!
 

  The Louisiana Iris

A comprehensive guide to the culture of the Louisiana Iris, Marie Caillett and Joseph K. Mertzweiller's The Louisiana Iris represents more than 200 years of combined experience of the editors and 18 other contributing members of the Society for Louisiana Irises. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $29.84 while supplies last!
 

  Roses in the Southern Garden

In this valuable review of 100 antique roses, from and for southern gardens, G. Michael Shoup shows each rose as a separate personality. Included in Roses in the Southern Garden are hundreds of evocative photographs illustrating creative and imaginative gardens blended with Old Garden Roses. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $37.36 while supplies last!
 

  Southern Lawns

If you're tired of your neighbor bragging about his superior lawn, this is the book for you! Southern Lawns provides complete step-by-step instructions for planting and/or maintaining every major type of southern grass lawn, including Bermuda Grass, Centipede, St. Augustine, Zoysia, Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass. In addition to a special "month-by-month" section with activity lists for every month of the year, author Chris Hastings includes a complete glossary of lawn care terms. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $26.62 while supplies last!
 

  Texas Wildscapes

Noreen Damude and Kelly Conrad Bender's Texas Wildscapes helps gardeners design gardens to provide habitat for native wildlife. More importantly, it furnishes lists of beautiful and useful native plants appropriate to the specific region of Texas in which you live. This book is not available through the on-line bookstore. Limited supply available.

 $26.63 while supplies last!

Order any of the above books by calling 1-800-727-9020.

(Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)


  Fiber Row Cover valuable year-round

Grow-Web encourages plant growth and development, and also provides protection from insects, birds, diseases and frosts. It is also air and water permeable and allows for ventilation. Grow-Web provides excellent protection to seedlings when applied directly to the seedbed.

 $30.64 per 12.3' x 32.8' roll (includes shipping!)

Order by calling 1-800-727-9020. Not available through on-line bookstore.

(Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)


 


Texas Gardener's Seeds
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