Engineering a different garden

by Despina Ioanidis

by Loretta N. Di Vita

Hydroponics—a new wave of gardening

Backyard vegetable gardens are a common sight these days and appear in all forms and degrees of seriousness. Some sport reclaimed hockey sticks holding up jumbo over-fertilized tomatoes, while others are of the more gen- teel variety—perhaps better called jardins—filled with soft, leafy vines crawl- ing up delicate trellises. No matter their particular style, they all share one common denominator: lots of rich, black soil.

Unless, of course, they are hydroponic gardens like the one Rico Massa, 25, a P.h.D. student in Civil Engineering at McGill University, is cultivating on the patio of the house he occupies with his parents and sister in Laval.

It is Massa’s fourth summer flexing his green thumb, growing tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, cucumbers and herbs, all sans soil. “To start, I had built a prototype which worked well. Now I’m implementing electronics— automating the system—so that it is intelligent enough to monitor the water and determine if the plants require fertilizer and adjust the dose accordingly,” Massa explains.

The unusual garden, which he has both engineered and assembled, could best be described as a multi-tiered unit filled with plants in little reusable plastic cages, all snugly fitted in perforated tubes. Eliminating the guesswork often associated with watering plants, recirculated water gurgles through a net- work of pumps and tubes (which Massa jokingly refers to as “my own backyard brook”) allowing roots to soak up water only when and in the exact quantity they need.

A recipient of the Robert Forsyth Convoca- tion Prize in Civil Engineering, Massa was also selected as one of the top-ten 100 “Leaders of Tomorrow,” out of 1,200 applicants from around the world, to participate in a panel dis- cussion at the spring 2018 St. Gallen symposium in Switzerland.

In keeping with its theme, “Beyond the End of Work,” Massa explored small-scale agriculture as a means toward self-sufficiency in the face of widespread job loss due to automation and artificial intelligence. There he described a futuristic scenario, both doomsday and promising at once, where individuals bumped from domains traditionally occupied by human workers would have to find alterna- tive ways not only to make a living, but also to source food. About that, he states, “If, in the future, robots take over my job, at least I will be able to feed myself and my family.”

An accomplished student, Massa credits his professional training for equipping him with a generalized ability to invent things and improve upon whatever already exists. “We engineers see things that other people don’t necessarily see,” he says. Consequently, he channels engineering principles into nearly everything he tackles, including his garden project. “It’s the problem-solving aspects of gardening that keep me in it,” he says, pointing out that for him gardening is an experiment and not just a seasonal pastime.

According to Massa, the potential of hydroponics extends beyond the backyard to macro farming. “There’s been a real effort to introduce hydroponics in developing countries,” he says. “That’s because you can use less water and spaces that are not traditionally or safely used for farming such as polluted soil by growing over it, and also for the fact that such soilless farms can be easily dismantled.”

As is often the case in the face of change, there will be the naysayers—apparently some within the family. Grandparents, Alfonsa Chiara and Fernando and Michelina Massa, more traditional gardening enthusiasts, are lovingly skeptical of their grandson’s newfangled method. “They have their doubts,” muses Massa. But judging by the looks of things, the emerging engineer has found an ingenious way to yield some killer tomatoes.