Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Space Crops

In a fun parallel growth cycle, my lettuce seedlings and the lettuce on the International Space Station have been maturing at approximately the same rate this past month. Astronaut Peggy Whitson harvested the ISS crop of Chinese cabbage on Friday, saving some leaves for eating and some for sending back to Earth for analysis. My lettuce just got big enough to transplant it into the garden containers. Unfortunately the Veggie grow container on the ISS isn't big enough to hold full-grown lettuce, so they had to stop while the plants were still small. 

My lettuce grown in my apartment on the ground
The cabbage grown in the Veggie module on the International Space Station

Plants are hard enough to grow on the ground, so why do we grow plants in space? Astronauts on several different space missions have grown, harvested, and even eaten plants they grew while in space. They have been grown for a variety of reasons. The following are just a few:

Arabidopsis, a weed with a very well mapped genome, is used for all kinds of experiments both in space and on the ground. Astronauts used this plant to study root growth in the APEX-TAGES experiment. It turns out roots don't grow down because of gravity! This meant that plants could grow perfectly well without gravity. 

Wheat was grown on the Mir space station to study the effects of space flight on future generations of plants. Wheat seeds from plants grown in space were planted and scientists found no difference between them and the control group grown and re-seeded on Earth. 

Last year Zinnias were taken to the space station and flowered, showing us that flowering plants can also be grown in space, given the right care. Astronaut Scott Kelly earned the title "autonomous space gardener" after he saved the crop from mold damage by assessing crop conditions and adjusting accordingly. Don't talk to me about space flower. I get emotional. lol. 

Space Flower, tiny pioneer for flowering plants

If we are going to go visit other planets someday we have to know how to grow healthy plants to take with us for food. Lugging enough food for a few years' stay on a faraway world is nearly impossible. Carrying seeds is less so. Sometimes I wonder if the plants wanted to go to space all along, and we're just their mode of transportation. ;) 

Back on Earth my lettuce crop needed the same things as the space plants for awhile, since it was too cold outside to grow them. They had grow lights on a timer to keep them well fed, were watered in little cups full of soil, and even had exercise. That's right- just like people need exercise to grow big and strong, so do plants! I set up a fan to blow across the seedlings for an hour or two every day to encourage their stems to grow sturdier. We jokingly called it the lettuce elliptical. 

My seedlings have their own personal gym.

All of that care has paid off. Now that the weather has warmed up enough my lettuce is outside where it can get natural sunlight, water, and breezes. On the space station... the lettuce is harvested for research. The next crop is being installed and given its first good watering under the purple-tinted LED lights. Soon there will be a second Veggie habitat installed, giving twice as much room to grow! Someday maybe we will be harvesting lettuce on Mars, boldly growing where no food has grown before.

PS: If you would like to grow plants that have grown on the International Space Station, try these varieties! They are also sold here on Earth. :) At some point I'll have a themed garden which contains only plant varieties grown in space...
- "Outredgeous Red Romane" Lettuce
- "Tokyo Bekana" Chinese Cabbage
- "Profusion" Zinnias
- Mizuna Lettuce (Unsure of exact variety)
- "Super Dwarf" wheat

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Slow Lessons with Horses

It's been about a year and a half since I started volunteering at The Big Purple Barn. I've fed and brushed every horse there. I've picked up everyone's poop and hauled everyone's water bucket. I've even picked most horses' hooves and put lots of blankets on. (Both myself and the horses in some cases. hehe.) I've seen a lot of changes in myself since I first arrived there, both physically and mentally. I can pick up and sling hay bales around first of all, which is useful.

Yeah bro, I lift.

I've gotten better at throwing poop accurately into the wheelbarrows from the inside of the stall instead of having the fork catch the side and dump poo everywhere. (Pee-soaked sawdust is even worse to dump everywhere.) I manage to mostly remember to take small steps when hauling full wheelbarrows so I don't run it into my heels, lift from the legs not from the back, and keep my feet out from under horsey hooves. 

Mentally I'm learning the difference between "yelling" and "screaming," which appear to be two completely different things. Yelling is when you're doing something slightly differently than its supposed to be done, or when you're too far away to hear the directions at a normal volume, and screaming is when you're in imminent danger and need to GTFO now. I'm slowly learning to only freak out when "screaming" is occurring, a process that I think many of the horses have also learned over time. lol. Mental improvements also include being more attentive to detail, something that I've tried to improve on for years that is just now getting a big boost. The "something about this is different, I wonder why it's put there that way" thought process is really useful when working at the barn. I'm even slowly learning all the necessary steps to put Abby in the upper field properly, or let everyone out for breakfast properly, or dear God not to lead a horse through the wrong field if other horses are out. (There was screaming involved in that one). All of these require memory and awareness of where I am and what I'm doing at that moment. It's a bit zen, in an active sort of way. 

"I impart my wisdom, two legged one, and also promise
not to crush your puny skull beneath my hoof."

My favorite form of lessons is from the horses themselves. These are slower lessons, as the horses communicate in their own speech instead of mine and sometimes it's hard for me to interpret. A lot of it is observing them when they're communicating with each other, then trying to apply it to their interactions with me. Sometimes I fail at it. I tried getting Jewel to move her head away from me without touching her and she didn't pay a bit of attention to it until I was forcibly pushing on her cheek. Other times it's worked pretty well. I can get Maggie to move out of a stall I have to clean just by moving toward her or standing and staring at her intently. 

"Stall inspection! May I come in?"

One of my favorite learning moments was one evening when I was about to brush Aspen. He was eating hay and as usual I showed him the curry comb before I started brushing him. He looked at it and then looked away, so I started forward to brush his shoulder. Usually he just lets me start brushing with no break in eating, but this time he looked directly at me with a face that said "wait a moment." I hesitated, and he moved over, took a drink from his water bucket, then went back to eating hay. At that point he didn't react when I moved forward to brush his shoulder. It was a request, which I hadn't seen before in horse-speak. Later that week I was putting Aspen back in the field when Miles decided to come over to see what we were up to. Aspen started backing up because Miles was getting too close too intensely. It wasn't a big deal, because I already had Aspen's halter off, but I wanted to spend a second with Aspen before he was run off, and I looked at Miles and tried to imitate the "wait a moment" face and stance I'd seen earlier. He stopped moving toward us and looked kind of puzzled. I pet Aspen on the nose for a few seconds, then went back to the barn to put his halter away. It seemed to have conveyed what I wanted it to convey. Who knows if it would work again or in different circumstances, but I think I learned something at least! 

I think this is the "Do you have treats, but also I'm a little concerned about Taz sneaking up on me" face.

I'm reading through the books I got on trying to communicate more effectively with horses, and some stuff seems to apply to The Big Purple Barn herd and other stuff doesn't. At the very least I'm learning what other people think about horse communication. It seems like books are a rapid starting-point way to learn, but don't necessarily convey everything or apply to everything. A lot of my lessons are just watching the horses chase each other around in the field while I'm shoveling poop out of their stalls. I'm enjoying this slow process though, and look forward to learning more.