Space | 24. May 2016 | posted by Paul Zabel

Studying botany to grow vegetables at the South Pole

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Although I won't be leaving to Antarctica until December 2017 on my one-year expedition as part of the EDEN ISS project, preparations for it are already under way. Ultimately, I will be responsible for the operation of the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica, and that includes all the tasks from sowing the plants to harvesting. My gardening skills will determine whether the greenhouse can contribute to the vegetable diet of the crew of the Neumayer III research station and whether all our experiments are successful. That is why I have spent the last week in the Netherlands. There, experts introduced me to the professional cultivation of vegetables in greenhouses. As a trained engineer who never really had green fingers, the trip was absolutely fascinating and very instructive.##markend##

It began on Sunday night with a three-and-a-half hour drive to the university town of Wageningen. Europe's leading research facility in the areas of food, food production and plant cultivation is located there. In the EDEN ISS project, the scientists from Wageningen are responsible for the selection of suitable plants and environmental conditions.

After the usual formalities, such as the issue of a key card – without which I would not even get through the next door – Monday morning was spent in dozens of rooms packed with climate chambers. A climate chamber is a kind of giant cabinet with fully automatic climate control. Scientists use these chambers for plant experiments because they can control all the environmental conditions of the plants regardless of the weather and then investigate the impact on the plants.

Counting leaves and weighing cucumbers

In two such chambers, Esther Meiner is growing precisely those plants that are being considered for my one-year expedition to the Antarctic. These include many varieties of lettuce, spinach, herbs as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and my favourite – strawberries. Esther and I were busy the whole of Monday and also all day Tuesday harvesting part of the seven-week old plants. That meant that every head of lettuce and every cucumber had to be accurately measured and weighed. With the herbs such as basil, but also spinach, this then also meant counting the leaves. Every now and then I could sometimes also take a small sample. In Antarctica, I will ultimately be responsible as the only gardener/farmer for the vegetables being scientifically analysed before most of them end up on the dinner table.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
The plants will provide food for the Neumayer Station for one year; all the better if they then also taste good
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Every harvested fruit had to be accurately measured and weighed to determine the optimum growing conditions

On Wednesday I went with Tom Dueck to an extension of the university in Bleiswijk. That's where the really big glass greenhouses are; here, scientists optimise the commercial cultivation of vegetables. They also research the effects of pests and diseases on the plants. For this, there are special isolated quarantine areas with strict hygiene regulations.

Visiting harmful creepy-crawlies

I spent the morning with Jan Janse, an expert on vegetables and in particular on tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. In the various greenhouses, Jan explained the differences in the cultivation of vegetables, and also how I must prune the plants to help them grow as we want. In the afternoon, Marieke van der Staaij explained the early detection of pests and plant diseases. For this purpose we went to a small isolated greenhouse where plants are deliberately contaminated with various flies, spiders and mini locusts to observe the effects. As an engineer quite new to this territory, there were plenty of creepy-crawlies to touch and observe.

On Thursday, my exciting time in Wageningen came to an end. I am now trying out what I learned in our own laboratory. In August, I will return for another week of training in the Netherlands to pepper my patient colleagues with countless questions once again.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
After the grown vegetables had been carefully counted and measured, a large part of them finally appeared on the dinner table

In addition to regular reports on , we will keep you informed about the progress of the project on the project website at


About the author

Paul Zabel has been working at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in the Space Segment Systems Analysis department since 2001. He has been enthused by science fiction since childhood. That ultimately brought him to complete a degree in aerospace engineering at the Technical University of Dresden. to authorpage