We are in week seven of evaluating the control group in the GGC Microfarm. We started this plot by first weeding the area, then directly sowed seeds straight into the ground. Typically one would start seeds in a growth medium of some kind under favorable growing conditions and then transplant into soil. That we have had such good results with this garden plot attests to both the work of the Microfarm volunteers to enrich the soil with compost, and careful tending.
We planted tomato seeds at nine locations, bell pepper seeds at twelve locations, and lettuce seeds in seven rows. At first the seedlings were besieged by bugs and did not look very promising. Then, they began to grow stronger. The pepper plants were the last to sprout and had the lowest sprouting rate out of all seeds planted. Despite the harsh rain and sun following planting, the lettuce thrived and was first to be harvested.
We have nine tomato plants, five pepper plants, and had seven rows of lettuce. Due to the lack of control over the environment, we lost some pepper plants. The average rate of growth over these seven weeks for tomato plants is 4 inches per week, for the peppers 1.6 inches per week, and for the lettuce 2.3 inches per week (four weeks total for lettuce). We caged the tomatoes at week three and this improved their appearance and strength.
Around week four, we noticed that the lettuce was about to bolt, which means that it sends up a flower stalk and the leaves become bitter. We decided to harvest before this happened so we could donate the lettuce. Brandon Seay measured the lettuce for the last time and then donated seven pounds to the Lawrenceville Co-op Food Pantry.
We have limited time to work on the garden during the week, so we recently implemented a new way of weed control. We placed a layer of cardboard on the ground surrounding the plants and covered it with mulch. So far, a week later, there has not been a need to weed or any problems with this setup. Jessica Thompson, the laboratory supervisor on campus, assisted us with cardboard, and Brandon Seay coordinated and supervised mulch delivery.
We will continue to monitor the plants in the coming weeks and have noted several small tomatoes forming on the largest plants. With continuous watering and maintenance the plants will continue to do well, as proven through the results of the first seven weeks. We will donate all produce to the Lawrenceville Co-Op and document yields by weight when possible.
The hydroponic garden is also doing well. We expected it to grow at a faster rate than the micro-garden, and would be ahead of the micro-garden because it was planted first. This has not been the case, though. The micro-garden has outpaced the hydroponic garden in heights and width, and was the first to produce blooms and eventually tomato plants. However, the hydroponic garden was only a few days behind, and has not only produced several small tomatoes, but, unlike the micro-garden, also has small bell pepper plants.
There have been a few setbacks with the hydroponic garden. The electricity went out for an extended period of time in the hydroponic garden. The roots were not well established yet, so access to water was critical. The drip system stopped dripping and all the water drained from the ebb and flow system. The control system that does not use a pump was unaffected. Thankfully, when the power returned, the only real damage was some small amount of wilting, and the plants in the ebb and flow system needed to have the gravel repositioned to re-stabilize the plants.
There was another instance when one of the tanks ran out of water over the weekend. This, too, caused significant wilting of the plants. Fortunately, all the plants were able to recover (even the one pot of lettuce which has died on us twice already!).
We are working on a chart to compare the pros and cons of both systems and will keep everyone updated as developments warrant.*
In August, we will participate at Grizzly Days with a poster session on this project. We are also looking into writing a grant to start some sort of garden project for the Senior Living Center near the Microfarm on campus. Our primary goals for that project are to produce food with minimal inputs in a sustainable fashion in such a way that is accessible for residents of the living center.
By Samantha Franklin and Cody Reid, Undergraduate Research Assistants
*Contributed by Laura D. Young