Monday, July 19, 2010

First Fruits and Harvest

Just a few pictures...

Suyo Long Chinese Cucumber:



Miscellaneous Heirloom Tomato:


The first Mutato:


The first pickle harvest:


The Farm

After months of starting seedlings, researching and building SIPs I was able to establish a small farm that is spread over several locations. Part of it is at home: in my studio and on the balcony, I called it Mutatofarm K31 (Kuglerstrasse 31). The other part is at the developing AIR (Artist In Residency) P142 (Pistoriusstrasse 142). I called it Mutatosatellitefarm P142. The people from P142 where so kind to let me use their garage rooftop and a small strip of land for in ground growing.
I build a wooden platform for 40 SIPs on the garage roof. The platform helped to compensate for the slight angle of the roof, to install gangplanks to walk on and trellis for the plants to climb on. I got most of the wood from Kunst-Stoffe, a place that recycles and resells used building materials to local artists.
I'm also collecting rainwater from the roof of the main house as well as from the garage roof that the SIPs are standing on. The water runs into a 750 liter giant bucket, "the jacuzzi", and is being pumped up with an electric pump for watering, excess water runs back into the jacuzzi.

Below is an schematic diagram of the P142 Mutatosatelliterooftopfarm:

This is what the farm looked like in the beginning:

This was two weeks ago, with the trellis system installed:
Most plants are doing fine except for the squash plants at the bottom right, they have the sunniest spot and might have just gotten too hot, as temperatures soared in the past few weeks.

The tomato row, about a week ago:

Below is the Mutatofarm K31. The Plants had a head start and grew up indoors, so they didn't have to suffer through the unusually wet and cold Berlin spring.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Potting Mix

The trickiest part of the whole project was to figure out what kind of soil to use for the planters. I spend two month on it and almost went crazy, while my seedlings where severely outgrowing their tiny plastic cups, waiting to get transplanted.
To support the capillary action of the SIPs one needs to use a material that wicks water well. Normal garden soil doesn't do it.
It could have been so easy and cheap if I would have done what most people that are using SIPs suggested: to use a largely peat based potting mix. But it turned out that peat is nearly as sustainable as fossil fuel, growing about 1 mm a year. Because it didn't make sense to me to finance the destruction of peat bogs so I could plant some vegetables, I had to find some sort of substitute. I had high hopes for coir, a by-/waste-product of the coconut industry. It wicks very well and breaks down very slowly, meaning that you can use it for a very long time. Its dried and compresses before shipping, so its very lightweight and doesn't take up much space. A brick-sized block of coir makes about 8 liters of substrat when soaked in water. People had good results with a 40% coir / 40% peat / 20% perlite mixture in SIPs, but nobody seemed to have tried only coir.  The guys from Global buckets started experimenting with it, so did Heidi and Bruce from Green Roof Growers ( check out their blog and rooftop gardens !!! ). I as well set up some test SIPs with 75% coir,  25% perlite VS 75% peat, 25% Perlite. So far none of us had good results with coir. There seems to be something in the coir that stunts the growth of the plants.
For most of my planters I used 40% coir, 40% peat, 20% perlite, 1/2 cup of dolomitic lime ( for fruiting plants ), 3 cups of earthworm casting and 1/4 cup of organic dry fertilizer mixed in + 1 cup of organic dry fertilizer on top of the soil. The plants seem to like it.
Another material that seems very obvious to use is compost, especially because it is cheap, local, sustainable and it would close the food cycle. There are a lot of people saying that compost doesn't work in SIPs, that it doesn't wick well or stay to soggy and that it causes serious problems with fungi growth. Although the people from the Montreal Rooftop Garden Project seem to be successfully using it for years. I also set up some test SIPs with a compost mixture.
There still has to be some serious experimenting done with alternative substitutes for peat in the future.
The guys from Global Buckets are doing something very interesting at the moment, based on research from the Echo Organisation. They are trying to grow plants in trash. The only thing roots need is air, water and nutrients, one really doesn't need something that resembles soil. The Echo website has plenty of documentation on successfully growing plants in anything from soda cans, Styrofoam balls, old underwear, wood chips, carpets and grass clippings. I think they are really onto something and their documentation is very worth checking out. Note that Echo is a Christian mission, I myself am not religious and I don't believe that religion generally is a good thing. They are however doing an awesome job on their urban farming research.
I will post again throughout the year on how the plants are doing in the different soil mixtures that I'm testing this season. I will also post more about the peat controversy.
Next year there will be more experiments.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Planters

Once I decided to grow these vegetables I had to figure how. Living in a south facing, 3rd floor apartment in Berlin City meant that i didn't have a garden, but a sunny balcony and studio window front. In addition to that I had access to an 32 m² Garage rooftop. So I had to figure out the best way to grow large plants in these off ground spaces. My first idea was to plant them in buckets. But what is the best kind of bucket to grow plants in ? After searching the web for about a week I found plenty of different designs, and the one that really stood out for me was a type of planter called SIP ( Sub Irrigated Planter ). SIPs are used by a number of rooftop- / urban-gardeners, especially in the States. The Idea is to create a hollow space in the bottom of the bucket that acts as a water reservoir. The remaining part of the bucket is filled with potting mix. A tube of some sort, filled as well with potting mix, connects the earth with the water from the reservoir. Through this tube the water is drawn by capillary action into the soil compartment where the plant can make use of it. A second, smaller tube is inserted through the soil into the reservoir for refilling. There is an overflow hole on top of the reservoir to prevent overwatering. The roof of the the reservoir has lots of holes in it to allow air into the soil and to provide drainage.  A cup of dry fertilizer is put on top of the soil. The fertilizer slowly seeps into the soil, providing the plant with all the nutrition it needs to thrive. The top of the soil is usually covered with plastic foil to prevent water from evaporating and the fertilizer from getting wet. The plant grows through a small hole in the plastic foil. The roots get air and moisture from below and nutrition from above.

This video from Home Grown Evolution shows you one way of doing it:

If you live in the States it's very easy to build one of these planters, by stacking two standard 5 gallon buckets into each other. The wide rim of the buckets automatically creates a hollow space for the reservoir. But in Germany we don't have these types of buckets. So i had to come up with an alternative design.

I bought 75 32 Liter Buckets, so called Hobbocks from an Ebay auction. They where previously used for transporting gravel on a construction site, but I got them spotlessly clean. The buckets where made of polyethylene (PE) which, along with polypropylene (PP) is one of the "better" plastics. Do not use PVC. If you want to be 100% sure use  only food grade plastic, you can tell by the knife and fork symbol on the bottom of any food grade container. 
I used aluminum blind rivets to create a rim, on which the false bottom could rest. I cut the false bottom out of old pieces of twin wall sheets that where leftover from an construction site.  The watering pipe is made from 4 cm diameter polypropylene drainage pipe, that was leftover from my installation Abyss. I cut them at an 45 degree angle. This allows water to flow freely into the reservoir and it also acts as a sort of funnel for watering. The center tube is made from an 11 cm diameter polypropylene drainage pipe. It also has a rim of aluminum blind rivets that support the false bottom in the center.  The buckets came with lids and aluminum rings to tightly fasten the lid to the bucket. These aluminum rings are perfect for attaching the plastic mulch. The lids will come in handy for winter storage. I plan on posting more detailed instructions on how to make this version of SIP in the near future.

So what's so good about a SIP ? SIPs allow to grow food in places that are not suited for in ground growing, as long as they receive enough sunlight, be it a roof top,  living room, cement slap or on top of contaminated soil.
SIPs are relatively lightweight, so you can also move your garden if necessary. The plants get all they need when they want it: Water, air and nutrition.  You have high control over what the plants grow in, so you can go 100% organic. The reservoir creates a buffer, so you can leave the plants for a few days without watering. Because the plants only take what they need it is also possible to build an automated watering system with siphons that suck water from a bigger reservoir when ever the SIP's water level drops. This way you don't have to water at all (more on that later). There is very little water wasted because the plastic mulch and the fact that its a closed container that is watered from below minimize evaporation and run off.
Whats the drawback of a SIP ? It requires some input, especially the potting mix isn't dirt cheap. But you can lower the costs by using largely recycled materials. It also is an artificial system. I don't think that it can compete, from an ecological standpoint, with growing plants in ground. But if you live in a city and ain't got no ground, it's probably the best way to go.


I planted 180 Seeds at a south facing window, in 0,2 liter plastic cups, with slits for drainage cut into the bottoms, one seed a cup. I made the common mistake to a) over water and b) to top water the planters.
As a consequence I had problems with fungus gnats multiplying in the moist soil, and a fungus disease called damping off. Fungus gnats are tiny, dark flies that hover around the plants at soil level. The flies themselves are completely harmless, but their larvae feast on the plant's roots, cutting of their life supply systems.
Damping off is caused by a fungus that grows on top of moist soil and eats away the seedlings stems at soil level, causing the plants to tip over. I was able to contain the damage by using organic pest controls:
I ordered Steinernema Feltiae Nematodes from Katz Biotech AG. These are tiny wormish parasites that introduce a bacteria into the fungus gnats' larvae, which eats them up form the inside out, breaking their propagation cycle.
Cinnamon sprinkled on top of the soil and chamomile tea for watering took care of the damping off fungi. Cinnamon and chamomile are powerful natural fungicides, plus they smell great.
Things I will change the next time starting seedlings: The plastic cups I used did the job, but where not perfect: they had too little drainage and airflow, were too small for growing plants to the size of strong transplants and they were opaque, so I didn't know what was happening in the soil. Next time I will try transparent 0,5 liter cups with plenty of holes about 3 cm from the bottom for aeration and drainage. The bottom 3 cm act as a reservoir to store water which will be wicked up through capillary action. When I see the soil drying out I can quickly dunk these planters in water, filling up the reservoirs to keep the wicking action going. Because the cups are transparent I can visually control soil moisture and root growth. This is a huge benefit, especially when you are starting seeds for the first time.
I'm melting the aeration / drainage holes into the cups with a hot soldering iron. The fumes are rather unpleasant so definitely do this outdoors.


I ordered most of my seeds for this season online. Most of them are heirloom-varieties, they are open pollinated, so with a bit of work I will be able to save my own seeds for future seasons. There are many companies selling seeds of old plant cultivars, just search the web for 'Heirloom Seeds'. One German organization that specialises in the conservation of old varieties is Dreschflegel EV. They also sell seeds.

Below is a list of what I planted:

Cucumbers / Gherkin:
Lemon Cucumber
Mexican Sour Gherkin
West Indian Burr Gherkin
Dragons Egg Cucumber
Boston Pickling
Suyo Long Chinese Cucumber
Miniature White Cucumber
Armenian Cucumber

Rosa Bianca Eggplant
Thai White Ribbed
Turkish Orange ( didn't make it )

Bishops Crown Pepper
+ 10 seeds from a mixed back of sweet pepper varieties

Reisetomate (Voyager Tomato)
Pink Accordion Tomato
Tlacolula Pink Tomato
Pink Pondarosa
+ 30 seeds from a mixed bag of these heirloom tomatoes:
Omars Lebanese
Golden Sunburst
Black Russian
Aunt Ruby's German Green
Djena Lee's Golden Girl
Black Prince
Early Cascade
Flame Orange
Garden Peach
Green Zebra
Lime Green Salad
Pink Ping Pong
Pink Oxheart
Prudens Purple
Silvery Fir Tree
Black Crim
Black from Tula
Cream Sausage
Brandywine Pink
Cherokee Purple

Prescott Fond Blanc Melon
Tiger Melon
Jelly Melon Kiwano ( African Horned Cucumber )
Common Foo Gwa ( didn't make it )
Swiss Chard ( Rainbow blend )
Miscellaneous Summer Squash mix
Turk's Turban

I chose mostly fruiting plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants. Their fruits are sculptural entities to me: I can isolate them for photographic studies, similar to what I have done in the Mutato-Project. In the future I will expand the studies to entire plants, such as lettuce or cabbages, but for now it is easiest for me to concentrate on the fruiting parts of plants.

Why am I doing this ?

In 2006 I was strolling through a local market in Neuk├Âlln, Berlin, when I found a five-headed eggplant among the vegetables of one of the stands. Stunned by the sight I kept looking for more anomalies and found one or more at almost every stand of the market, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, lemons, all with very unusual features and shapes. I took my finds home and started photographing them. That day I got hooked on collecting vegetable and fruit mutations and the Idea for the Mutato-Archive was born.
The Mutato-Archive is a collection of non-standard fruits, roots and vegetables, displaying a dazzling variety of forms, colours and textures, that only reveal themselves when lawfully enforced standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project serves to document, preserve and promote these last remainders of agricultural diversity.
Since 2006 I am collecting, documenting and eating
Mutatoes. Over the years, through research on the topic, I learned more and more about the logic and workings our food system. At a certain point I started to realize that it is not only the natural occurrence of morphological irregularities in the growth of single plant varieties that is being suppressed and filtered out by the industrial food system. In fact, only a tiny fraction of high yielding, good looking varieties are being grown and distributed today, even though there are literally thousands of varieties of any domesticated fruit or vegetable. Since the green revolution agriculture has experienced a mass extinction. A vast majority of plant varieties that humans have bred over the past 10 000 years has vanished within the last 50 years. The detachment of the people from the land, from the processes of food production has allowed this extinction to happen behind the scenes, without any public awareness. The ever increasing amount of processed foods and food imports also contributed to the illusion that the diversity of our food supply was increasing not declining.
I started a farm to be able to experience what it takes to grow food, to botanically, culinary and visually experience part of the remaining fraction of agricultural diversity, to expand the visual repertoire of the Mutato-Archive and to potentially and eventually help raise awareness of the forgotten, breathtaking diversity of domesticated nature.