"What Will Become of His Carrots"
Sam the Gardener snorted
and chucked the book on his bed.
"You take souls for vegetables," he said
in a mocking tone. "The gardener can
decide what will become of his carrots
but no one can choose the good of
others for them. Well, I would like
to see HIM try that in zero gravity!"
It turned out that carrots hated space.
With comet sand and compost and
worm castings, Sam had made
respectable garden soil.
The potatoes loved it, and
swiftly filled their barrels
with food instead of dirt.
He had even managed
a few crops of onions.
The carrots sulked even in
the soil, refusing to grow
hydroponically at all.
Sam tried growing
the long skinny kind
and the short fat kind and
the ones that made little balls.
None of them did very well,
and he didn't know why.
What he really needed
was a way to start growing
things in zero gravity, because
Eden was big but not big enough
to provide fresh produce for
the entire Lacuna -- which
was also growing.
So Sam did what he
always did when he got
frustrated with the garden:
He browsed the ciphernet
for articles about carrots.
He found that most root crops
relied heavily on gravity to tell them
which way to grow and how to form
the shape of root they preferred.
No wonder the poor carrots
were confused. Eden's gravity
was good, but it wasn't Earth
and somehow they knew it.
Sam pored over articles
about selective breeding
and genetic engineering.
He toyed with the idea of
asking Dr. Syden Caermichael
for help, but she worked with
animals instead of plants.
Zymurgy made wine from
carrots, but those were imported.
Then Sam stumbled across
an article about landraces.
He read it and reread it,
with a sense of growing hope.
This might actually help.
Eagerly he sent a note to
Astin: I need carrot seeds,
as many different kinds as
you can find. Dozens at least.
Hundreds would be better.
It took months of begging and
bartering and buying before
Sam built up enough seeds
to do what he wanted with them.
Because he only needed
a few seeds of each type,
he divided the packets into
different sets and planted
plots of carrots in various soils,
in hydroponic fluids, and even
in a capsule with no gravity.
Each plot held some of
every type of seed that he
had managed to obtain.
Some of them didn't even sprout.
Of those that did, many fared poorly
regardless of the plot they grew in.
A fair number, however, managed
to do all right for themselves.
A few plants grew with vigor,
and Sam took careful note
of their place and condition.
From time to time, he intervened
to remove the worst plants and
feed them to the worms.
He pulled some with spindly
or yellowing foliage, and
those with misshapen roots.
When he discovered
the ones with their roots
shaped like starbursts,
however, he hesitated.
There was nothing like them
on Earth, but most of the carrots
from Earth wouldn't grow in space.
Maybe the starbursts would do better.
So Sam let them live, to see what
might become of them in time.
It would take a while, because
carrots were biennial. He'd have
to let them grow, vernalize them,
wait for the plants to flower and
set seed, gather that, and chill it.
Even after planting the new seeds,
he would have to wait for them
to grow into actual carrots so he
could see which ones looked good.
It would take years to develop
a real landrace in space, if you
could even call it that -- but
what else could he do?
If he wanted Lacuna carrots,
he would have to make his own,
like everything else out here.
Sam peered through a window
at the green frills of his crop.
"What will become of
his carrots?" he whispered.
He still didn't know, but it sure
would be interesting to find out.
* * *
"You take souls for vegetables.... The gardener can decide what will become of his carrots but no one can choose the good of others for them."
-- Jean-Paul Sartre
Humans have been trying to grow plants in space for slightly less time than we've been putting people in space. This poses some challenges, especially in zero gravity, but it can be made to work. It just works better with some species than others.
Certain things make roots grow or stop growing. On Earth, they generally grow down into soil where it is dark and airless. Therefore, air and light can stop roots from growing. The tip of a root has a sensitive little node that detects gravity, allowing it to grow down; while the tip of a sprout has another node that grows upward. This directional growth is called gravitropism. In low or zero gravity, some plants freak out and freeze, showing little or no growth; others grow exuberantly in wild directions. Leafy plants seem to do better on average than root crops, but potatoes do fine.
One of the peculiar stunts that plants can do is grow in a starburst or spherical pattern. It's not much use here except in tree clingers and aquatics, but the genes are there in the kitchen junk drawer for many species. That means they can activate under the right conditions. If you throw enough seeds into a space garden, sooner or later you'll get starbursts -- which can be a nuisance to clean, but they grow really well in space. We haven't seen much of this yet in our space program, because you need mass quantities to get sports like this, but the antecedents are there. Watch and we'll see more eventually. And if any astrobotanists are reading this: throw a few hundred heritage varieties at the sky and see what happens.
Carrots come in many root shapes. Long, thin roots grow well in light soil; wedge shapes pierce heavier soil. Cylindrical roots are good for slicing, while small balls can be put whole into salads. None of these are well suited to low or no gravity, because the shapes rely too much on that cue. The balls suffer least because they grow out, not just down. They make a likely source of starburst roots because they already have a less linear growth pattern. Starbursts capitalize on the resources and absence of gravity to produce more rootmass than a single downward spire.
Landrace gardening uses evolution to create varieties that do well in a specific environment. The slow way just involves choosing the best performers to replant. But if you can get your hands on many open-pollinated varieties, you can throw them together and the resulting orgy radically speeds up the process.
Growing carrots for seed is a bit tricky because they are biennial plants. They don't flower and seed until their second year.