The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

June 12, 2013

How does your garden grow?

By Amy Kent Herald Staff Writer
The Clinton Herald

---- — McCAUSLAND — A new hydroponics garden project is happening at Lost Grove Lake near McCausland.

Project organizer Dr. Charles Theiling, and his team of students and interns from the Upper Mississippi River Center, is attempting to grow crops and native aquatic plants in a floating treatment wetland.

“It’s a college science experiment now, but it will be an industry soon,” Theiling said.

The idea of the project is to grow the floating treatment wetlands and, if successful, eventually place them in ditches surrounding floodplains farmland in Iowa. The plants rooted in the wetland will receive nutrients from the fertilizer used on the farms, and in turn will reduce the excess nutrients from going into the Mississippi River.

“This project accounts for improving water quality, while providing food,” Theiling said.

The group spent Sunday planting native wetland plants, herbs and vegetables into the floating gardens for the launch of the summer project.

Green leaf lettuce, red basil and green basil made up the produce wetland, while the native wetland consisted of Cardinal Flower, Swamp Milk Weed and Iris.

Along with the variety of plants used, there were three different platforms utilized, two of which were donated by commercial manufacturers for the project. By testing different platforms, the group can decide which is the most economically sound.

A Beemats Managed Aquatic Plant System houses the lettuce and basil in a group and one individual mat is used for native plants. The Biohaven platform is a very thick structure made of recycled soft-drink bottles. Theiling compared it to a “large fish tank filter.”

Due to its large nature and heavy weight, the Biohaven will remain in the lake and therefore will only support the growth of native wetland plants.

The third platform is the most environmentally friendly of them all. It is made by winding willow branches and leaves together and binding them with rope made of natural fibers.

Theiling hopes the willow rafts have a successful growth outcome because they are the only biodegradable option the project has found.

“The commercial products are nice but they are not recyclable. That just creates more garbage in the environment,” Theiling said.

The willow rafts are also the most economically sound option because the materials are free, but labor costs still must be taken into account.

One of the most important outcomes for this project is to successfully mix economics with ecology. Farmers need to be able to make money from the floating treatment wetlands in order for them to want to participate, he said.

If the experiment does succeed, Theiling and his group can apply for government funding through the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and then apply the ideas through a national and a global spectrum.