Seabed Crops, Underwater Vegetable gardening

The air of the greenhouse stands at 79 degrees with humidity hovering around 83 percent. That’s a pretty good environment for a typical plant.

But this is no ordinary greenhouse: It’s 20 feet under water, anchored to the floor of the sea just off the coast of Noli, Italy.

This is Nemo’s Garden, an experimental project in its fourth year, operated as part of the family-run Ocean Reef Group.

The balloon-like biospheres take advantage of the sea’s natural properties to grow plants. The underwater temperatures are constant, and the shape of the greenhouses allows for water to constantly evaporate and replenish the plants. What’s more, the high amounts of carbon dioxide act like steroids for the plants, making them grow at very rapid rates.

Ocean Reef Group — a diving equipment company — is monitoring five balloon-like biospheres that house a number of plants, such as basil, lettuce, strawberries and beans. The group has a patent on the structure and plans to build a few more to experiment with other crops, such as mushrooms, which should thrive in the humid environment.

Sergio Gamberini, president of Ocean Reef Group, came up with the “crazy” idea of growing plants under the sea while on a summer vacation in Italy. He immediately made a few calls and started experimenting, sinking the transparent biospheres under the ocean and filling them with air.

“I try to do something that’s a little different and to show the beauty of the ocean,” Gamberini said. “I hope to do something for the young people and to inspire new dreams.”

Two years — and many rough storms — later, the company had their fleet of biospheres anchored to the seafloor, complete with live Web streaming and sensors collecting data in real time on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

“It’s been a learning curve,” said Sergio’s son, Luca Gamberini. "We completely lost the crops four times, but it didn’t really matter because we have such great growth rates."

The company has boasted a decent crop output every year despite its challenges. Although they have not sold the produce yet, Sergio Gamberini’s wife has used it to make pesto for large parties.

The hope is that the company’s success so far may lay the foundation for a new form of crop production that can be done without harming the environment.

In fact, the biospheres are attracting wildlife. Octopuses seem to like taking shelter under the structures, and endangered seahorses have gathered beneath the biospheres to develop nurseries. Crabs have also been known to crawl up the anchors and into the greenhouses. So far, none of the animals have posed a threat to the plants.

“It’s so kind of sci-fi to see these two different forms of life interact,” Luca Gamberini said.

Right now, the group is only able to set up their biospheres during four months of the year, from May to September, as allowed under a permit with the local government.

That may change in time, but at the moment, the project is providing information for a new area of underwater plant growth. As a small company, Ocean Reef Group isn’t able to spend a lot of money on the research for the project, and Luca Gamberini said he relies on support from a number of partners to keep it going. The company is also planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign next week to support further development.

The company plans to roll out a much smaller aquarium version of the biospheres that people can experiment with in their own homes, with hopes that a broader use of the technology could lead to new insights.

But the plans don’t stop there.

“In the future, it’ll definitely be something that’s economically sustainable,” Luca Gamberini said. “I see possibilities for developing countries where harsh conditions make it difficult for plants to grow.”

The company has already received some of interest from groups and countries wishing to expand on the concept, but so far they have declined selling their product.

“It’s incredible the great excitement surrounding our project,” Sergio Gamberini said. “We want to test first because we want a project that’s professional. We want to do this in the right way.”

In the homeland of pesto, a group of diving enthusiasts have come up with a way of growing basil beneath the sea that could revolutionise crop production in arid coastal areas around the world.
The pungent green herb has long been synonymous with the steep, terraced cliff-sides of Liguria, the northern Italian region known for its spectacular Riviera coastline and for producing one of the world’s best-loved pasta sauces.
Those two standout features of the region could now become even more intimately associated thanks to the pioneering efforts of Sergio Gamberini.
A diving nut and specialist in under-water communications, Gamberini has begun growing basil in large plastic spheres anchored to the sea bed 100 metres off shore and eight metres below the surface in an experiment he has dubbed “Nemo’s garden”.
“The idea came to me because I wanted to create more interaction between the surface and the diving activity,” Gamberini told AFPTV.
Having started with a simple plastic ball into which he place a tub with herb seeds planted in compost, he is now in his fourth season of production from an under-water garden comprised of three “biospheres” which he is allowed to keep in the water for three months a year.
“I chose a typical activity of farmers, and I said ‘why not bring it under water?’” he said. “I realised that there was an opportunity to create a new site to grow vegetables.”
Project coordinator of Nemo’s Garden, Gianni Fontanesi, checks immerged Biospheres, in Noli
Project coordinator of Nemo’s Garden, Gianni Fontanesi, checks immerged Biospheres, in Noli
Evaporation ensures humidity between 80 and 90 percent inside the spheres, the condensation provides the necessary moisture and, even well below the waves, there is enough light in this sunny corner of Europe to ensure the plants themselves regenerate their oxygen supply via photosynthesis.
Having proved the system works, Gamberini’s challenge now is to prove that it can produce herbs and vegetables in a cost-efficient way.
“I don’t know if it will be the future because we have to prove that it can be self-supportable,” he said. “If a pound of lettuce (grown underwater) costs too much, it won’t have a future.”
Parasite-free zone
The primary advantage of underwater growing is the stability of thermal conditions.
“The sea maintains the temperature without a great difference between day and night,” said Gianni Fontanesi, who is in charge of running the project.
Ocean Reef CEO Sergio Gamberini, head of Nemo’s Garden project, pictured in Noli
Ocean Reef CEO Sergio Gamberini, head of Nemo’s Garden project, pictured in Noli
In late June, at the start of the European summer, the water on the coastal shelf of the northern Mediterranean is 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), while inside the spheres the temperature reaches 29 degrees C.

The plants are thriving in an environment where they are protected from the insects and parasites that would normally be giving a basil grower headaches at this time of year.
The results so far have have been encouraging, with the spheres producing more densely-leafed plants than is usual—perfect for being ground up with pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil to produce authentic Ligurian pesto.
An experiment with lettuce is already underway and mushrooms, tomatoes, tomatoes and green beans will all be given a go this summer.
“In the longer term, this could be a solution for arid regions next to the sea,” said Gamberini, who admits there is still much work to be done to work out how to apply his principles on a larger scale.
But he is not the only one to have faith in his idea: under-water basil was one of the 20 food-related innovations chosen to represent Italy at the ongoing World Expo in Milan which has “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” as its theme.Nemo's garden off Italy offers hope for seabed crops