November 01, 2014 06:49 UTC

Science in the News

Farmer Invents New Way to Grow Crops

Tomatoes and other vegetables can be grown in EarthBox.
Tomatoes and other vegetables can be grown in EarthBox.


Play or download an MP3 of this story

From VOA Learning English, this is Science in the News. Today, we tell about an American farmer and an unusual device he developed. For 20 years, people around the world have been buying his invention.
Blake Whisenant and his family are farmers. They live in the American state of Florida. For nearly 100 years, Mr. Whisenant’s family has grown fruits and vegetables, and sold them to businesses around the world. The warm weather in central Florida is good for growing crops, especially tomatoes. That is what he grows the most of on his eight hundred hectares of land. In 1992, Mister Whisenant had some bad luck.

It began to rain. And…it rained. And it rained some more. Nearly 50 centimeters of rain destroyed the tomato crop that year. Blake Whisenant was not a happy farmer.
“I just thought there’s got to be a better way!”

So, he began looking to find a way to make sure this never happened again. He wanted to develop a system that would provide water to the plants from below. He thought some kind of cover would keep rain away and the soil warm. He wanted the plants to be grown in a box that would take up little space. He became obsessed with the idea and thought about it day and night.
“And I told my wife, before I die I wanted to see if I could build me a box above the ground that I could grow tomatoes in.”

And…after years of work…he knew what to do. He found a company in Pennsylvania that agreed to make the box. It would be made of thick plastic, and would be about one meter long and half a meter deep. Inside the box would be a plastic tube to pour the water in, and a plastic screen with many holes in it. Something like peat moss, but not soil, would be placed in the box on top of the screen, which would hold it above the water in the bottom of the box. A thin plastic cover would fit over the top of the box to keep out rain and harmful insects. Blake called it…the EarthBox.

The Story of Container Gardening

Frank DiPaolo is the general manager of the EarthBox Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He says that growing vegetables this way…container gardening some call it…makes it easy for Blake Whisenant and other farmers to quickly solve common growing problems.
“When he saw any sort of disease or problems with the plants in the field, one human being could basically go and grab the box and just pull that problem right out of the field before it spread to the other plants.” 
Frank DiPaolo says normal dirt or soil will not work in this kind of container gardening. Instead, potting mix is used. This is mostly peat moss with a few things added to help air get to the roots of the plants.
“One of its responsibilities is to wick the water up to the plants. When you put a small seedling in, the roots are not deep enough to go into that water reservoir, so we need to bring the water up to the plant.” 
The box holds about 11 liters of water. There is a small hole in the side to drain out extra moisture and keep from drowning the plants. Since the potting mix soaks up the water, you have to pour more water down the tube every day or so. This kind of container gardening uses much less water than is needed when growing plants in the ground. And it is made so you can never give too much or too little water to the plants.
The plants in the box also need two other things…a small amount of fertilizer and dolomite, a powder-like substance made from limestone. The fertilizer feeds the plants and helps them grow. The dolomite helps to reduce acid in the potting mix. Many farmers say dolomite is the secret to growing good tasting tomatoes.
Dolomite is also a low-cost way to supply calcium to young tomato plants. This helps to protect the plants from a disease known as “blossom end rot.”
“That’s where your tomato plant will start setting fruit …and they look beautiful and you come back a couple of days later and they’ve grown to a pretty nice size…and the bottom of the tomato is all black. And they call that blossom end rot.”
Before the plants are put in the EarthBox, there is one more thing that must be done. A thin plastic cover is stretched over the top of the box. If storms should bring large amounts of rain, the cover protects the potting mix, fertilizer, and dolomite inside the box. This cover also keeps weeds and harmful insects out of the box. But there is one other reason that the container must be covered. It is important that the potting mix be kept warm, but not too hot. Frank DiPaolo says you should use either a white or a black cover.
“The covers that we ship with the box are black on one side and white on the other. If you live where we live in northeastern Pennsylvania and you want to drive as much heat as you can into the container, we plant the plants with the black side up. Say, if you were in Florida where Blake lives, in the summer he’ll plant with the white side up. You get about a 15 degree Fahrenheit change in the soil temperature just by using the white side versus the black side.”
There also has been some research done using other colors for the box covers. One study found that a red cover produces better results for vegetables like tomatoes and red peppers.
Frank DiPaolo says that, if you prepare the box correctly, nature will do the rest.

“The plants know what they need from a nutritional and a water sense. So if you put the materials within reach of the plant, the plant will take what it needs when it needs it.”
So after preparing the box, how many tomato plants do you use? The answer is …only two! And why is that?
“The reason is that those plants are going to get so big that if you were to put three or four or six plants in, they are just going to be crowding each other out, and each plant is going to underperform.”

Putting the plants in the box is easy. Blake Whisenant uses a sharp knife to cut a small round hole in the cover. He then uses his hand to take out a small amount of potting mix. He sets the plant into the hole, presses the roots down a bit, and then puts back the handful of potting mix.  
Many people who have used EarthBoxes say it is possible to get over 22 kilograms of tomatoes, from just two plants.

Environmental and Other Effects

Growing crops in containers is good for the environment. In addition to using less water, little fertilizer is needed, and it all stays in the box. There is no way the chemicals can run off into nearby waterways. The same potting mix can be used for five or six years. In countries where potting mix is not available or too costly, growers can use coconut coir instead. This comes from the outside shell of the coconut and it is low in cost.

Coconut coir is also a renewable resource. Each new coconut that grows will provide some coir. The peat moss that is used in many potting mixes, however, can take thousands of years to grow. Gardeners can use up peat moss much faster than it can be replaced by nature.
Since the EarthBox went on sale in 1994, many people around the world have used them. Other people have made their own vegetable growing boxes. Some use two large plastic containers to make what is known as a “Global Bucket.” One bucket has holes in the bottom and sits inside the other bucket. Potting mix or coir goes into the top bucket, and water goes through a tube into the bottom bucket. A plastic trash bag is then used to cover the top container.
Many kinds of fruits and vegetables can be grown in containers like these. Some people think this kind of gardening will be important for people in poor countries where hunger is a problem. A lot of food can be grown in a small space for a small amount of money.

Using Earthbox to Educate Children

The people who make EarthBoxes are interested in educating young people. They have developed a program aimed at teaching science and agriculture to students from their prekindergarten years through high school. Using an EarthBox in the classroom, the youngest child learns about seeds, the parts of plants, how gravity affects plants, and the uses of sunflowers.
When children first enter elementary school, they learn about water, soil, light, and nutrition. In middle school, they do experiments and collect information. In high school, the students learn how to use mathematics and graphs to better understand what happens when plants grow. The learning program includes written materials for the teachers and students. And it uses an EarthBox in the classroom as a small laboratory for experiments. 
Molly Philbin is the Education and Community Garden director for the EarthBox Company.

“Kids really get engaged in science in the garden where it’s a kind of fun activity where they’re collecting data and seeing how different temperatures will change the amount of water that’s needed by a crop, so the science concepts come easily.”
Ms. Philbin also says that growing food locally in a container helps lower pollution from burning fossil fuels like oil. Often food travels thousands of kilometers from the farm before it reaches the table at home. A lot of fuel is needed just to deliver the food. Farmers who use growing boxes do not have to plow the land before they plant crops. That saves on the cost of fuel and on the pollution from farm machinery.
The man who started it all, Blake Whisenant, still lives near his farm in Florida. Health problems and age…he is over 80…now keep him from working in the fields. But he still goes to the EarthBox store nearly every day and enjoys teaching classes about agriculture to visitors. He says he likes the idea of passing along his knowledge to the next generation. Helping to educate the children, Blake says, has been a blessing.

This Science in the News was written, read and produced by Jim Tedder. Join us again next week for mor news about science on the Voice of America. I’m Christopher Cruise.
Question image

New Ways to Grow Crops

Test your knowledge of the story with this quiz.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Akı from: TURKEY
05/01/2014 11:04 AM
Thank you for your information about new agriculture systems to grow plants.In my country we can not grow plants outside.Because environment has been negative effecting the plants.So farmers must use greenhouse.Plants has been protected by greenhouse from the searing sunray,insects and various disease.

by: Sophea from: Cambodia
04/30/2014 3:11 PM
I also love environmental protections. My country is a third-world country. The economics is totally depends on agricultural sectors. As a result, government is trying hard to enhance rice products to export abroad, including, European unions, the USA and other countries. Many pupils who finished high school are likely to learn agriculture as long as it is an easy way to find a good job in a proper life condition; especially, they want to attend at abroad. Some farmers still use old way to produce rice, however.

by: Oailaxuan from: Vietnam
04/27/2014 5:56 AM
In my country, some farmer have the same gardening container for cultivating some valuable crop like lily equipped with drip irrigation and the result show that it will be increased yield & quality up more than cultivation.



Thank you for writing and letting us know how farmers in Vietnam use certain techniques to increase yield and quality of some crops.

Keep reading, and stay in touch!

Christopher Cruise

by: hussein from: Egypt
04/22/2014 12:00 PM
This is useful for me , different topics and new vocabulary , I feel happy when I listen the News , i can understand and know the words in it . thank you

by: lostgdi from: china
04/21/2014 9:32 AM
Thanks for your article.
I was looking for more about EarthBox informatiom, I am so interesting.

by: Godric from: France
06/19/2013 11:53 AM
Thanks for this news. It's easier to learn english with very interesting contents.

06/09/2013 8:39 PM
This is a very interesting new, I just suggest it should have been completed with some drawings of the earthbox for a better understanding.

by: Conor from: South Korea
06/07/2013 2:06 PM
It is surprising that I haven't known about this invention at all even though it had been invented in 90s. I live in South Korea and my life is a bit far from agriculture. But these days, a growing number of residents of the city has started to grow their own plants in their house. I think this 'EarthBox' also can help the consumers of plants to be the prosumer of these.

by: Poshih Chiu from: Taiwan, R.O.C.
06/07/2013 3:08 AM
Blake Whisenant is one of the greatest inventors in modern days. The Chinese proverb, Man can Conquer Nature, can be perfectly used to describe Mister Whisenant's invention of the EarthBox. He refused to throw in the towel in the presence of the formidable rain that destroyed his tomato crop. Instead, the nature's disaster encountered has given him an incentive to recover from his loss and made him even stronger and his business more prosperous than ever.

06/04/2013 5:20 PM
Great! From where can we get more information about the earth box. I think the magical box will create an agricultural revolution. Also, the earth box is a wonderful invention and its introduction in the school will bring about radical changes in the thinking of the new generation. Such experiments will make American agriculturists' hopes bloom. Thank you.

Comments page of 2

Learn with The News

  • FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, walks past Chinese President Xi Jinping as they arrive to the Monument to the People's Heroes during a ceremony marking Martyr’s Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Sept. 30, 2014.

    Audio China’s Constitution Receives New Attention

    The constitution took effect in the early 1980s, when the Communist Party was opening up the country economically. Now China is at a new crossroads. Observers say it is reaching for a new economic growth model. Chinese officials will promise to defend its rules when they take office. | In The News More

  • Video More US Hispanic Women Convert to Islam

    Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. The Pew Research Center says about six percent of American Muslims are Latino. And women make up a little more than half of the new converts -- the people who have changed their religion to Islam. More

  • This image released by USCIS shows a sample of the front of the redesigned green card carried by foreign-born residents living permanently in the U.S. The Homeland Security Department is issuing the redesigned "green card" that is stacked with safety feat

    Audio US 'Green Card Lottery' Ending November 3

    State Department’s Diversity Visa program closes November 3rd. Millions of people have entered the program, hoping to win a visa. But only 50,000 are chosen. 5,000 more are available under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act. The green card lottery closes on Monday. | As It Is More

  • A convoy of peshmerga vehicles is escorted by Turkish Kurds on their way to the Turkish-Syrian border, in Kiziltepe near the southeastern city of Mardin October 29, 2014

    Audio Iraqi Kurdish Fighters Enter Kobani

    Also in the news, Burkina Faso ends efforts to extend its presidential term limit after protests in the capital. Ukraine says the EU will be guarantor in any gas deal with Russia. Myanmar holds a major meeting Friday. And claims of cheating delay SAT results for South Korean and Chinese students. More

  • Video Singapore Film Ban Raises Free Speech Issue

    The documentary film, “To Singapore, with Love” tells about political dissidents from Singapore. The film has been shown at public events in Britain, India and Malaysia, among other countries. But one place the movie cannot be seen is Singapore. That is because the government there has banned it. More

Featured Stories

  • Obama Halloween

    Audio Halloween Is Big with Kids and Business

    The National Retail Federation says sales of Halloween goods will total about $7.4 billion this year. It says the average American will spend about $77. The group expects 162 million people to celebrate. The NRF predicts 54 million of them will hold Halloween parties. | American Mosaic More

  • A print shows the Second Battle of Bull Run, also called Second Manassas.

    Audio South Defeats North Again at Manassas

    Lincoln named George Pope to lead the Army of Virginia. He wanted to join Pope’s forces with the Army of the Potomac and break through Confederate defenses around Richmond. But General Robert E. Lee decided to hit Pope first. More

  • Star House

    Video Home of Last Comanche Chief Close to Ruins

    One of the most interesting people in U.S. history is Quanah Parker, the last chief of the country’s Comanche Indian tribe. Quanah Parker was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Quanah Parker was a fierce fighter. More

  • FILE - A veterinarian at the nonprofit Bali Animal Welfare Association gives a rabies shot to a puppy in Kebon Kaja village, Bangli Regency in Bali, Indonesia.

    Audio Mass Vaccination of Dogs Can Eliminate Rabies

    About 70,000 people worldwide die every year of rabies. Rabies is a viral infection that people get mainly through dog bites. Scientists say vaccinating dogs can effectively get rid of rabies outbreaks in dog populations. And this will have a domino effect, fewer humans with rabies. More

  • Methane oxidizing

    Photogallery Small Organisms in Deep Sea Rocks Eat Methane

    The gas methane has been linked to rising temperatures on Earth. But methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as another “greenhouse gas” -- carbon dioxide. Scientists say both gases trap heat from the sun. They prevent heat from escaping into outer space. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs