Disney is Green!
Posted: November 20, 2012
This attraction featured a boat ride through Disney’s Sustainable Agriculture and Research Center. The first part of the ride was focused on teaching about agriculture throughout the world, but the most intriguing part was saved for the finale - riding through the experimental greenhouse where produce is grown for Epcot restaurants using some rather unusual methods. This was by far my favorite activity as there were some amazing things happening with fruits and vegetables. Over 80 different food crops were being grown in air, sand, spirals, cool containers and even above pipes. Although none of these techniques were truly cutting edge, there were definitely some things that I had never seen before.
The greenhouse was divided into several distinct areas: the Temperate Greenhouse, the String Greenhouse, the Creative Greenhouse, and the Tropical Greenhouse. The Temperate Greenhouse showcased crops grown in temperate climates. Of particular interest were the large sized plants including Prizewinner and Atlantic giant pumpkins, winter melons, pomellos and a nine pound lemon. One of the more amazing sights in this greenhouse was a huge tomato tree. The science behind creating this type of plant was originally developed by Chinese scientists. Disney’s horticulturalists borrowed the technology and expanded upon it. The tomato tree was provided with a matrix of structural support that enabled the plant to grow much larger than normal without gravity weighing it down. The largest single tomato plant ever grown at Epcot yielded 32,000 tomatoes and was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tomato plant that yielded the most tomatoes in one year. There sure would have been a lot of canning involved in preserving that kind of yield!
The String Greenhouse featured innovative, high density growing methods such as nutrient film and vertical growing techniques. Pepper plants were one of the crops successfully trained to grow vertically by attaching ropes to the plants to support their weight. This resulted in a much more plentiful harvest as individual peppers had more room to grow. And some of the peppers being grown were really HOT! The Bhut Jolokia variety is one of the hottest peppers in the world as it provides 1,000,000 units of heat as measured on the Scoville Scale compared to only 2,500 – 8,000 units of heat provided by the lowly Jalapeno. Vertical growing also worked well for heavy fruits and other vegetables. I was surprised at the size of huge winter melons and pumpkins that were hung individually with extra strong rope from elaborate trellis systems.
Hydroponic or soilless gardening was also used extensively in the String Greenhouse (as well as in many of the other greenhouse areas). There are a variety of reasons why this technique is so important. First and foremost, most diseases and pests are found in soil so by not using soil this problem is largely eliminated. Secondly, there is a severe shortage of good soil in many parts of the world so traditional farming is not particularly successful in these areas. Over 60 plant varieties are being experimented upon with some exciting results.
Healthier crops with better yields are being produced – simply by providing a re-circulating supply of water and nutrient solution. One of these methods of gardening is called the Nutrient Film Technique. One example of how this technique works is the planting of lettuce individually on sloped hydroponic water racks. Nutrient water is pumped from a tank through tubes into growth trays. Plants take what they need and the rest of the water solution is collected and reused.
Another hydroponic method used is Spiral Gardening. Lettuce was used again and planted in a spiral container – nutrient water flowed in at the top, continued down through the spiral and was collected at the bottom of the container and re-used. This technique is terrific for growing plants in a small area and it also conserves water and nutrients. One more hydroponic technique used in the String Greenhouse is bag culture in which rockwood, perlite or coconut coir bags are used for plantings. Most commercial hydroponics is done this way to grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
In the Creative Greenhouse most plants are grown using a technique that is a subset of hydroponics called aeroponics. In this technique plants are placed above a nutrient spray that continually provides nutrients as mist on roots. For example, brussel sprouts are supported by metal poles while their roots are suspended in mid-air. The plants move through the greenhouse on a conveyor belt system while their roots are continually misted with nutrient water. Okra is also grown using aeroponics by misting their long roots in massive containers. In addition, herbs, cabbage, kale, bok choi, peppers and much more are grown this way as are edible flowers including nasturtiums, violas, marigolds, California poppies, lavender and snapdragons.
In the Tropical Greenhouse 30 different edible crops from tropical areas around the world are grown. Some of these are typically considered to be ornamental plants in the United States (i.e. canna and cleome), but in other countries they are used as food. One of these crops is the fluted pumpkin that usually grows in West Africa. Its seeds and leaves are a dietary staple for millions of people. The seeds when roasted taste like almonds and the pumpkins grow even in the worst of soil. At Epcot this crop has been very successfully grown suspended from large wire trellises. Nearly 45 crops here are grown using the sand culture technique. The use of this technique at Epcot shows that plants can be grown in desert regions using hydroponics. Nutrient water is supplied to plants grown in sand using subsurface drip irrigation. This technique is used in some places, but not commonly. Sunflowers, cotton, cleome and pummelo fruits grow very successfully using this technique.
One final technique showcased is the super hybrid called Aquaponics. Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics. Using this method waste from the fish tanks is piped to a hydroponic system where the by-products from the aquaculture are filtered out by the plants and used as vital nutrients. The filtered water is then re-circulated back to the animals. This technique is practiced both as a hobby and in commercial operations throughout the worlds. It is a wise use of resources plus a very environmentally friendly system. Another interesting thing in this area is the use of beneficial insects throughout the greenhouses. Little packets of parasitoid wasps, mites, lacewings and ladybugs are hung from plants so that the little guys can crawl right out and do their things.
After viewing all of these innovative techniques firsthand, I couldn’t help but wonder why these methods were not used more widely throughout the world. Disney horticulturalist Les Frey explained that much of the problem is a lack of communication. Epcot hopes to change that through their Science Professional Internship program, which began in 1982. Sixty interns at a time learn hydroponics, aquaculture, biotechnology, entomology and plant science. Many of these interns go on to teach at all levels, become county extension agents or continue their studies in graduate programs. Many of the interns have gone back to teach agriculture and hydroponics in Bangaladesh, Tajikistan and other parts of Africa. One even went to Antartica to do research on hydroponics. Hopefully, they will continue to successfully get the word out to countries all around the world about improved farming techniques.
So on your next visit to Epcot don’t miss out on Living with the Land – I guarantee that you will be both entertained and educated. And if you have a bit of extra time, don’t miss the Behind The Seeds tour that is given at various times throughout the day. On this tour you can actually get up close and personal with all of the plants as you walk through the greenhouses. I was sorry that I missed this tour, but my visit was a short one and I simply ran out of time.
Joan Kober, Penn State Master Gardener, Montgomery County
Behind The Seeds Tour at Walt Disney World