National Geographic : 1945 Aug
Greens Grow for GI's on Soilless Ascension BY W. ROBERT MOORE With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author THE United States Army has achieved a second notable victory on lonely Ascen sion Island in the South Atlantic. First was the construction of a strategic air field in its chaos of cinders and lava rock to serve as mid-ocean way stop and fueling base for warplanes flying between the Brazilian bulge and the African coast. An impossible task, some had said, but the Engineers did the job in three months!* Now the Army's latest triumph is the grow ing of fresh vegetables on this barren volcanic ash heap for the GI's stationed here. "Boy, is it good to sink my teeth into a real honest-to-goodness tomato again!" said one GI. "I haven't had one for nearly two years. And the lettuce and cucumber salads, ummm!" I watched another lad enthusiastically piling lettuce leaves between two slabs of bread to make a huge fresh sandwich. The face of everyone in the messes reflected the success of the gardens when the first har vest of vegetables reached the tables. Cu cumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, and green peppers had become happily realized adjuncts to rations of tinned foods. Vegetables from Cinders and Sea Water Look at Ascension Island and you appreci ate why the growing of green vegetables here makes news. The whole island is one vast rust-red clinker thrust above the sea by some ancient spewing volcano. Thirty-four square miles in extent, Ascension is knobbed by forty fire-seared cones and is ribbed by broken lava flows and de posits of rough, sharp ash. Over much of the island even walking is difficult. Virtually the whole area is as devoid of vegetation as the dump pit of a furnace, save where a few scattered cacti and thirst-tortured shrubs have found precarious rooting. Only atop Green Mountain, whose head rears 2,817 feet above sea level to be caressed by moisture filled clouds, have grass, trees, and other ver dure covered its nakedness. On this green crown the few British families who normally dwell on the island, to maintain the cable station, plant their vegetable gardens and pasture their small herds of sheep and cattle. Here, too, in hillside catchments and reservoirs they collect the limited water sup ply that is piped down to the tiny village of Georgetown. So limited, however, is this little hanging garden oasis that when hundreds of Americans arrived to build and maintain the airfield it could furnish neither water nor greenstuff for their needs. Today the garrison has both. Distillation apparatus was set up to redeem drinking water from the sea. And now vegetables flourish in Ascension's cinders by the magic of hydro ponics. The Magic of Hydroponics Hydroponics (water working) is the scien tific name applied to soilless culture of plants, as it utilizes only water to which essential food chemicals have been added. For years scien tists have experimented in such production and successfully grown plants independently of the whims of soil and rainfall. Because of the island's desolation and the impossibility of shipping to the troops green foods by refrigerator ship, Ascension was picked by the Air Quartermaster of the U. S. Army Air Forces as its first testing laboratory for large-scale cultivation of vegetables by this method. I was one of nine correspondents to fly to Ascension from Washington, D. C., as guest of the Air Forces, to see the first harvest. In about 35 hours' flying time we skirted the Caribbean and the green Guianas, crossed the Equator and muddy mouth of the Amazon, and hopped halfway across the Atlantic from Natal. Some 6,500 flight miles distant from our own sprouting Victory gardens we saw the full fruition of this Army project, labeled "Hydroponics Station No. 1." "What's this all about, bringing these fel lows here?" we overheard one GI ask shortly after our arrival. "Haven't they ever seen lettuce grow before?" We had! But never in quite the manner that green things were growing in the lush trim gardens set up in Ascension's volcanic waste. Only a few months before, this garden plot had been a bare level space between rust cindered hills where the GI's had marked out a baseball diamond. Now it had been converted into an 80,000-square-foot area of fertility by Engineers and enlisted air personnel under the direction of Mr. Kendrick W. Blodgett, a *See "Ascension Island, an Engineering Victory," by Lt. Col. Frederick J. Clarke, NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1944.