by Emily Vaughn
Gardeners are problem-solvers. Depending on their circumstances, they become experts on coping with rocky soil, too much shade, rural varmints or limited space. But very few people besides Carissa Carman and her team of collaborators have firsthand knowledge of how successfully install a garden on the bed of a seafaring barge.
Carman, a social practice artist and seasoned gardener, was the Living Systems Director & Designer for The Waterpod—a stunning biodynamic sculpture and autonomous living structure organized by artist Mary Mattingly. As it toured the waterways of New York City last summer, the Waterpod fed, powered, and watered itself by virtue of innovative technologies like a bike-powered electricity generator, and a series of gardens that others have only imagined.
The original plans for the living systems included a contained garden bed, and were outfitted with detailed co-designs from an engineering class at Humboldt State University. But as the project took shape, constraints emerged– like high winds, salty air, Waterpod residents’ food allergies, and lack of space—that changed the planting methods used, and the plants themselves.
Carman viewed the group’s ability to evolve its designs to meet such obstacles as one of the project’s greatest successes. “There were so many systems that were exciting and new,” says Carman. “Some of the basic construction was one of our biggest challenges.” With the help of volunteers and visitors, the Waterpod food system expanded to include a wide range of growing methods, like self-irrigating planters (SIPs), companion planting (like a three-sisters garden and a “stacking and packing” bed), and hydroponic installations. Even the flowers (“aesthetic pollinators”) contributed to the central mission of the gardens: “make sure there’s plenty to eat!”
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