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Gardening: Figs in Space

Horticulture on your rocket.

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So it appears, ladies and gentlemen, that your humble fungus can get a suntan, too. Scientists recently announced that the melanin contained in some darker fungi absorbs and converts potentially dangerous ionizing radiation into usable forms. Which makes the chlorophyll used by green plants look like a little girl.

A couple of years back, scientists sent robots into the extreme radioactivity around Chernobyl and found, living in the reactors, loads of dark fungi, which apparently was just chilling, waiting for somebody to bring it a mojito or something.

In a May 22 Scientific American article, Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City says, "In many commercial nuclear reactors, the radioactive water becomes contaminated with melanotic organisms. Nobody really knows what the hell they are doing there."

But apparently they like it quite a bit. What this means is that life is yet cooler than we thought — that not only do organisms rely on sunlight, but other forms of energy can be turned into something to keep life lively. That's a big deal if it pans out. Fungi are responsible for the breakdown of organic material of course, and that they thrive on a pretty unfriendly form of energy is better than finding out that coat hangers can be turned into lunch meat.

And apparently melanin, the stuff that's in our skin, is pretty deft at handling a large amount of energy and twisting it into something more manageable and less like something that would blow up a potato in a microwave.

This is good news for space travel, because it means that astronauts could live off tasty fungi in space, which is chock-full of radiation and aliens. The fungi might even be put into clothing that could shield us from cosmic rays.

Who'd have thought it would be truffles that would carry us into the future?

It's about time. This lousy rock we're living on is getting too cramped and dirty as it is. It's high time — high time! — we pack up the good china, the "Northern Exposure" DVDs and a Scrabble board and got the heck off this planet. Sure, it'll take a while to get somewhere else, but if we plan ahead, we can get there and still catch the playoffs.

When preparing your spaceship, think about keeping a small garden onboard, probably a container garden. Consider that you're carrying the future of the human race in that little vessel, so plan accordingly to stay alive in a limited space. Virginia Cooperative Extension has plenty of intergalactic tips.

Let's make a list now so we don't forget anything useful as we head out into the endless night: Take along large-mesh wire, plenty of pots, garbage bags, basic tools, some soil, some fertilizer and, of course, pantyhose, for when things get formal. Oh, and bugs.

  • Lay in a supply of ladybugs, a few small garden spiders, and if you're going to a planet that's big on flowers, you can order a queen bee and some workers and set up a colony when you arrive.

  • Grow dwarf varieties of plants, like strawberries, figs and grapes, in containers.

  • The mesh wire is good for making compost bins and supporting tomatoes and other sprawling plants. And if you're pretty far from any star or good source of light, you can use it to make a mini-greenhouse by bending it into the shape of a hoop house and stretching plastic over it.

  • The nylon stockings are way handy out there in the stellar wastes. You can stretch them over pots to prevent insects from getting in through the drainage holes and use them as cradles for larger vegetables like cucumber, pumpkins and squash. Where space is limited — as in a spaceship, for example — use the walls to put up trellises for these big fat vegetables that will liven up your salads out there among the stars.

  • Squirrels will no doubt get into the pipes and probably chew through every important wire on the ship. Live trapping may be best way to deal with them. They seem to outwit poisons and most voodoo curses. After you trap them (use peanut butter), feel free to jettison them into space.

  • Take along herbs! Just because you live like a spaceman doesn't mean you have to eat like a spaceman. Rosemary, oregano and mint grow well with limited water and no fertilizer or mulch. They do pretty well in shade, too. If you brought bad soil, plant English comfrey — it's got tough roots and will really break up the soil.

  • For small-scale composting, put all your material — plant matter, space-kitchen mess, manure — in a garbage bag, get it damp, tie it and leave it out in the nearest sun, shaking occasionally and letting in fresh air every two weeks. Soon enough: space compost!

  • Lastly, those plants will be good for keeping the air clean and the oxygen a-flowin'. NASA research shows that spider plants are really excellent at purifying the air of toxins. Chinese evergreen, golden pothos and peace lily are also good.

    Of course, if we follow some of this advice on Earth, we may not have to leave this party just yet. And where else are you going to find a good corn dog in this galaxy anyway? HS

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