The Future in a Box? | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Future in a Box? 

A UN project with outposts in Chicago says this plastic container just might solve some of the world's biggest problems. At the very least it'll grow you some killer tomatoes.

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Last June thousands of Chicagoans descended on Navy Pier for NextFest, Wired magazine's second annual showcase of cutting-edge technology. Exhibits of hydrogen fuel-cell engines, desalinization processes, and cloned kittens claimed the glamour spots in the pavilion. But to a handful of attendees, the neatest thing wasn't the robot lobster or the flying car. It was a squat plastic box wearing a shower cap, the EarthBox.

Touted as the "garden of the future," the EarthBox is an innovative container gardening system invented by a Florida tomato farmer, Blake Whisenant, after a hurricane wiped out his crop in 1992. Two and a half feet long, 15 inches wide, and a foot tall, the EarthBox is self-watering and self-fertilizing, and its fans say that given enough sunlight even the brownest thumb can coax a crop from it. Plants grow in a sterile potting mix of peat moss and vermiculite and are nourished by a strip of fertilizer spread across the top. Water in a 2.2-gallon reservoir at the bottom of the box, which is filled through a tube jutting up from one corner, wicks up through the soil and into the roots, rather than seeping down from above, which means the box uses significantly less water than a conventional garden. A lightweight plastic cover--the shower cap--acts as mulch, keeping the soil moist and discouraging pests and weeds.

A decade ago Whisenant teamed up with Mickey Lynch, a plastics developer, to manufacture and market the EarthBox, which now retails for $37.95 through the company's Web site, earthbox.com. (A complete starter kit including potting mix and fertilizer is $59.95.) Made from recycled plastic, it's compact and portable, a boon for urban gardeners with limited open space. The self-contained design also prevents plants from pulling lead and other contaminants out of city soil. The reservoir doesn't need to be filled every day, and the box can be set at table height by anyone whose back or knees balk at ground-level horticulture. The Web site is stuffed with testimonials from happy gardeners ecstatic about record-breaking cucumber crops, four-foot-tall artichoke plants, and monster tomatoes. Whisenant says one season he harvested 137 pounds of tomatoes from a single box.

The two dozen EarthBoxes at NextFest were full of shiny Japanese eggplant, bright green peppers, towering stalks of corn, and, yes, monster tomatoes that had been cultivated all spring in a demonstration garden at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. After the expo the boxes were destined for the Cook County Jail, where a dozen detainees were already tending several of their own. Another EarthBox demonstration garden had been set up at the Garfield Park Conservatory. And there are now EarthBoxes at ten schools in Chicago and Evanston, part of an international project called the Growing Connection, a joint initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the American Horticultural Society.

Fueled by no small ambition, the Growing Connection aims to help end world hunger, stimulate economic self-sufficiency, and foster cross-cultural understanding by marrying EarthBox horticulture and wireless communications technology. It kicked off in 2003 with a few pilot sites in Ghana. In 2004 it added sites in Guadalajara and the U.S., including Chicago--the flagship city for the project in the States. Schools and community gardens were given a supply of EarthBoxes and vegetable and sunflower seeds. Most U.S. participants also use the EarthBox potting mix and fertilizer, but some experiment with local or organic options. In other parts of the world they use whatever's cheap and readily available--ground-up coconut husks in Ghana, for instance.

In Chicago the project's primary partners are the Garfield Park Conservatory and the University of Illinois Extension's master gardener program, which pairs graduates of its 12-week certification program with Growing Connection schools to provide hands-on advice.

The "connection" part of the equation is a work in progress, but the utopian potential of digital technology is an article of faith at Growing Connection, whose advisory board includes Internet infrastructure guru Fred Baker and de facto father of the Internet Vint Cerf. Students in the third world can already share stories about their EarthBox gardens with partner schools in the U.S. via e-mail and bulletin board postings, but new software combining live chat, e-mail, and forums is slated to launch at the end of the month. Ken Waagner, perhaps best known as the guy responsible for making Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot available on the band's Web site in 2001, is in charge of the IT end of the project. Ultimately, he says, the idea is to have kids around the world contributing information about their crops to a centralized database, which will also provide them with info about weather, water, and market conditions to help them decide what to plant and how to grow it and sell it--but that's about a year away.

The project was developed by Robert Patterson, an FAO officer who calls it "the most powerful people-driven project in the world." He and his colleagues were looking for a practical way for people around the world to engage with the problem of hunger and malnutrition when a friend of his, the CEO of the American Horticultural Society, introduced him to the EarthBox. "We knew we wanted to work in school and community gardens," he says, "but the boxes were the tool whereby we could truly say these kids are all doing the same thing, whether they're rich or poor."

Some people might argue that shipping a bunch of plastic to the third world can't be the most economically sustainable or ecologically sound plan, but proponents of the Growing Connection say EarthBox gardening could provide fresh fruits and vegetables to people in some of the poorest parts of the globe, where at least 800 million are malnourished. (The shower cap reverses from heat-retentive black for temperate regions to reflective white for desert and tropical ones.) They say the boxes could be the key to financial security for many in Africa and Latin America, especially women, helping them break cycles of abuse, prostitution, and disease. Patterson says that in the U.S. the boxes provide, among other things, a hands-on lesson in nutrition for urban kids weaned on fast food.

Whisenant and Lynch, now CEO of the EarthBox company, have become enthusiastic foot soldiers for the Growing Connection cause, hitting the road with Patterson to train new users and demonstrate the product at venues ranging from NextFest to the Future Farmers of America convention. "It's a nice way that the UN and the private sector can collaborate," says Patterson. "They have a tool, we show how the tool works, and they get exposed to new markets."

The Growing Connection now has 45 sites in the U.S., several more sites in Mexico, and new programs in Nicaragua, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Kenya. Haiti starts up next month. Overseas program costs are covered by a variety of sources, including foundation grants and private and corporate donations. In the U.S. the schools are responsible for the $1,000 start-up fee, which so far has proved a deterrent to some otherwise interested classrooms. But Patterson says he's talking to 60 or so Rotary clubs interested in sponsoring a classroom, and in Chicago the Growing Connection was just adopted as part of the After School Matters job-training program, the nonprofit behind Gallery 37, which will bring a few more schools into the fold this spring.

On January 13 ten volunteers convened at a Garfield Park greenhouse to assemble and plant 60 donated EarthBoxes that in March will be the centerpiece of the Growing Connection's latest big outreach effort, an exhibit at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. Under the direction of Nancy Kreith, the master gardener program coordinator, they filled the boxes with potting mix, dampened the mix with a hose, and spread fertilizer down the middle of each one.

EarthBoxes allow gardeners to extend the local growing season a little, but Kreith was still a bit worried. "It's going to be tough to get them yielding fruit by March," she said. "I tried to get stuff with just a 60-day germination." But, she added, once the plants are flowering they'll be very low maintenance.

A friendly tortoiseshell cat roamed the damp workbenches, hopping up occasionally to snag some kibble from a battered glass dish, as the volunteers stretched the plastic caps over the boxes and sliced holes through which they'd sow the seeds and out of which, in a couple weeks, the plants would poke their heads.

"You just want to make a hole with your hand and push the seeds down in the soil," said Kreith. "Here--who wants to do corn?" Peas, mustard, spinach, Swiss chard, Italian long-leaf basil, Intimidator and Wellington cucumbers, and three kinds of lettuce all went into the boxes.

Some of the gardeners hadn't worked with EarthBoxes before, but others were old hands. Nancy Block, a master gardener who volunteers at the Cook County Jail garden, is a convert. She's demo'd EarthBoxes at schools, garden clubs, civic associations, and "just about anyplace anyone will listen." She's the coauthor of an article on EarthBoxes in this month's edition of Chicagoland Gardening magazine, and she's currently organizing an effort to send a slew of the planters to the gulf coast to help out Katrina victims. "The soil there is poisoned," she says. "We just need to do something, and I really believe that this little box can help."

On Saturday, April 22, there'll be EarthBox demonstrations at the Garden Faire, a daylong event sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension, the Chicago Master Gardener Program, and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Call 773-233-0476 for more. They'll also be demo'd the following weekend at the Garfield Park Conservatory's annual Green and Growing Fair; see garfieldparkconservatory.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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