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Vertical, dirt-free gardening – maybe the perfect pandemic pastime

Even though The Exploration Place is closed, a lot is going on behind the scenes. One of the most exciting projects we are working on is the transformation of our atrium space to a Paleobotany Hall. This combination garden/programming space will explore the flora and fauna of prehistory, including “living fossils.” We are designing and building the Hall with a focus on climate change, biodiversity, evolutionary and natural history, and Indigenous Ways of Knowing.

The centrepiece is a massive, 90-foot by 20-foot living wall which will be the home of thousands of plants. Not only will the plants in the living wall help to clean and purify the interior air, but they will also reduce the ambient temperature and provide a healthy indoor climate. We imagine that this indoor green space will be especially appreciated during northern B.C.’s long winter months. Living walls, also known as vertical gardens, are often grown using methods that offer many benefits over traditional gardening. Living walls provide a perfect opportunity to grow plants without soil, using continuously circulating water, which creates a closed system.

You are probably familiar with hydroponics, a method of soil-less gardening. Hydroponics has been around for a long time—the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are an example from ancient history, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II to impress his wife. A resourceful horticultural technique established by the Aztecs, who lacked arable land, used hydroponic principles to grow crops on rafts floating on lakes surrounding their cities. In short, hydroponics is used to grow crops in inhospitable environments, from urban warehouses and research stations in Antarctica to the International Space Station.

Modern hydroponics has become very popular, with interest surging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially in the winter, we have all been stuck inside more, leading many people to look for both a fulfilling hobby and a source of healthy food. (If you would like to learn more about indoor hydroponic systems, tune in to our Virtual Adult Speaker Series on Monday, April 12th, when Araham Gazana from CNC will discuss his recent research on soil-less agriculture. Visit https://bit.ly/2PPkBuV  for more information on this free event.)

“People often associate hydroponics with clandestine Cannabis cultivation, but it’s a great way to grow plants of all stripes, year-round wherever you live – this is really a game-changer in food security,” says Chad Hellenius, Manager – BioCultural Collections and resident Exploration Place plant nerd. “It really allows you to fine-tune and maximize all the plant’s needs and grow great, nutritious produce. Why else would NASA invest so much time into hydroponic research? I mean, you can grow plants in space!  Enough said!”

The living wall at The Exploration Place is based on a system similar to hydroponics known as aquaponics. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, or raising fish and other aquatic species, and hydroponics. The plants and fish have a symbiotic relationship—the plants get their nutrients from fish poop, and beneficial microbes and bacteria form that convert the waste into substances the plants can use. The plants keep the recirculating water clean, which keeps the fish happy and healthy. The aquaponic system means that no extra fertilizers or nutrient solutions are needed. This makes the system highly sustainable and requires minimal maintenance once well-established.

Both hydroponic and aquaponic systems offer many advantages when we compare them to traditional gardening. There are fewer negative impacts on the environment, fewer resources and water are required, plants grow much faster, and in the case of food gardening, they produce much higher yields. Plants can be grown vertically, such as with our living wall, which means less space is needed—important when many don’t have room in their backyards for a garden. Since they are mainly indoor systems, the growing season is also much longer—while I’m sure most gardeners would love to garden year-round, this isn’t possible in our neck of the woods without one of these systems.

The Exploration Place’s living wall is a local creation. True to our entrepreneurial spirit, it has been conceived, designed, and built entirely by our own team, rather than bringing in an external company for design and set-up. In January, The Exploration Place put out a call to the community for plant cuttings. And as always, when we asked the community for their support, the community delivered! Well over 500 of the plants used to populate the wall have been generously donated as cuttings by the people of Prince George. As both a science centre and a museum, the fact that some of these cuttings were from plants that have been growing for over 40 years seems more than appropriate.

We are so excited to see this project come to fruition, and we hope you’ll come check it out when we can safely reopen. In the meantime, why not try your hand at setting up your own soil-less gardening system? It seems to me that a global pandemic is a great time to stay at home and experiment!


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