Behind the Seeds at Disneyworld

Posted on October 17, 2013 at 12:55 AM

by Rachel

My hubby and I just returned back from a visit to Orlando Florida, where we enjoyed some of the sights, sounds, and tastes at Disney's 2013 Food and Wine Festival.  Being foodies, the trip was planned as an elaborate birthday celebration; in addition to the Epcot festivities, we managed to visit all the other Disney parks, ride various rides, and see many of the shows and other attractions that make Disney Disney. It's fair to say we had a magical time.

One excellent side excursion that we took while at Epcot may be of interest to fellow gardeners. Called "Behind the Seeds", it provides a walking tour of the research and greenhouse areas which are normally just glimpsed during the Living with the Land boat ride, the one that meanders through a few portions of the six acre Land pavilion.  The more in-depth access provided in the Behind tour serves to showcase Disney’s innovative approach to all things agriculture; with its Sustainable Agriculture and Research Center, Disney manages an operation focused on conservation efforts, ways of offering helpful food production techniques to people living under different climate and soil conditions, and even possible approaches to gardening in space.  The walking tour makes stops at six locations, each of which highlights a specific facet of the research being done:  Integrated Pest Management, Plant Propagation, Nutrient Film Techniques, Airoponics, and two greenhouse showcase areas, which I tend to think of (and refer to here) as the String and Sand gardens.

Right off the bat, the group learns that the aquaponic seafood and hydroponic garden veggies grown in these areas are used in the offerings of many of the Disney restaurants. I ask our docent Erin whether Disney grows all of the food served in the park systems. She smiles and patiently explains that there is no way they could possibly grow enough food to satisfy the requirements of all the people served in their restaurants. (In 2012, the attendance numbers for Epcot alone exceeded 11 million; I can't even begin to imagine the logistical issues involved in serving food to so many people, let alone the task of growing that food).

With this bit of introductory info firmly in place, we set off. Our first stop on the tour is the IPM (integrated pest management) lab, where we learn how caretakers actually grow and harvest parasitic wasps that are used to control leaf miner infestations.  These particular wasps are very tiny and they lay their eggs inside of the bodies of the miner caterpillars so that when they hatch, the wasp larvae can use the caterpillar’s soft tissue as food.  As a pest management practice, the Disney people grow controlled starter sets of these wasps within an enclosed aquarium and release them into the greenhouse areas, where the wasps begin the cycle of hunting the leaf miner caterpillars and laying new eggs.  Introducing these wasps into infected areas helps keep the leaf miner population in check without the need to resort to the use of chemicals.

The second area we visit is involved with creating new plants from existing populations. Here, plant propagation is done in a number of ways, one of the most interesting being the cloning process known as plant tissue culture, which works by taking a small piece of tissue from a mother plant and putting it in an augur containing nutrients and a growth hormone.  The result is a new plant that is genetically identical to the mother plant.  A good many plants are cloned in this way because Disney is very involved in programs that use tissue cultures to ensure the survival and preservation of endangered plants. I notice a shelf lined with vials of plants, all labeled and growing, perhaps destined to one day grace the grounds of one of the Disney parks.

We move on to the next stops on our Disney agricultural excursion, which are the Nutrient Film Technique and Airoponics areas.  These two systems of growing are actually very similar, and the handout we're given indicates that over 60 different types of plants are grown in the greenhouses using hydroponic growing methods.  NFT provides a way of growing a plant by running a thin film of nutrient rich water over its roots.  The growing takes place in what is esentially a length of rain gutter set on a slope.  Plants are started in rockwool that eventually gets inserted into holes cut into the covers placed on top of the gutters in such a way that the plant's roots are left dangling out the bottom of the block of rockwool; the roots partially submerge themselves in the thin stream of nutrient rich water running in the gutter.  The proportion of roots not submerged in water is important, as the air to water ratio must be kept at just the right level to ensure that the roots receive their required supply of air and at the same time do not rot.  The angle of the slope of the entire length of rain gutter is also very important, for much the same reason.  The airoponic setup is even more elaborate, with plants set to grow in long vertical tubes of PVC pipe (each about six to eight inches in diameter, with holes in them where the plants are inserted).  They move about on a type of conveyor belt, passing through spray jets of nutrient water that wash over the plant's roots. In the case of larger plants like brussel sprouts, additional supports are used to keep the plant upright. It turns out that this growing method can be employed by just about anyone, with all kinds of info about hydroponics, including plans for DIY systems, readily available online.

We next make our way to the String garden (my name for it), an area in which the vertical space provides a key growing component. That space is truly used to maximum advantage here, where hanging strings and tethers are in abundance, and where plants and their fruit appear to float in the air. One of the most interesting residents of this area is a tomato plant which has been pruned into the shape of a tree, its main vines being held up by strings and trained onto a large overhead netting canopy.  Other plants being handled in a similar way include peppers and various types of squash, including pumpkins.

At our next stop, we are treated to a view of what I think of as the Sand garden. In this area we learn that fruits and veggies can be grown in sandy regions of the world, and are shown examples of normal, everyday crops being grown in sand. Yes, trees here are rooted in three to four feet of nothing but sand and are provided carefully regulated, nutrient rich water through a series of soaker hoses.  It is truly surprising to see the variety of things being grown in the sand, crop mainstays such as cotton, millet, tomatoes, peppers, various types of squash, pommelo, and lemons, not to mention herbs and flowers.  And as I say, all of these plants were fruiting, flowering, and producing in abundance.

Our final destination is the Aquaponics area, where the farming operation turns its attention to raising tilapia, catfish, alligators, shrimp, and a few other kinds of fish, each in their own tank.  As our docent explains, aquatic animals excrete nitrogen and other biproducts known to be beneficial to plants, but those excretions can quickly reach toxic levels if left unused.  The devised system is designed to benefit both plant and fish: the nitrogen rich water is used to nourish the plants, and in taking up what they need, the plants end up filtering and purifying the water, which can then be returned to the fish tank, where the cycle repeats. (Does anybody else hear the Lion King Circle of Life tune playing in the background?)

At this point, we're told that our tour of the Land is done, and as we make our way over to Soarin', I can't help but think how great it is to see how seriously the people at Disney take their role as steward and educator. It's clear that Walt's vision of living sustainably and in harmony with mother nature is alive and well.

Categories: Gardening, Vegetables, Sustainable Living

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