A Scientist’s Story

Thinking across scales

A scientist needs a laboratory. A lot of equipment is required to make the painstaking measurements to pursue an idea through its various stages of development.

It’s one thing to have a laboratory and the means to progress and test an idea. But where do new ideas come from in the first place?

A scientist needs a place to explore and to play - unstructured activity where you have time to think. For me, that place has been my backyard fruit and vegetable garden. I have filled notebooks with measurements and observations, turning old ways of doing things round and round in my head until I can see them in a different way.

The Wetting Front Detector (WFD) started its life in my garden. I was trying to make an instrument that works the way a farmer thinks – how deep did the water go? There is no point in irrigating the top 5 cm of soil because it will evaporate the next day. Equally there is no point in pushing water beyond the root zone.

For a long time, I knew that the WFD was only part of the solution. We still needed something to tell us when to start irrigation, but it needed to be simpler than what was currently available. The Chameleon idea came quite quickly, but it took a long time to work out how to build them by the thousand and with consistent accuracy.

These days we use the Chameleon for monitoring how much water is available to plants and the WFD for measuring what’s in the water. Monitoring water, salt and nitrate together, gives insights that you would never get measuring any one of them in isolation.

Since writing ‘Out of the Scientist’s Garden — a story of water and food’ a decade ago, I’ve been working with colleagues building the Virtual Irrigation Academy. The book describes my own learning journey as a scientist and as a producer of food. That learning journey is now being replicated in (literally) thousands of places around the world through the VIA community.

A review of 'Out of the Scientist’s Garden' by Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR

There are few more fundamental issues facing humanity than how best to feed ourselves in an increasingly crowded world, and — in Australia especially — what that means for scarce water resources. Richard Stirzaker has written a fascinating exploration of the realities of turning water, sunlight and nutrients into food. This elegant, lucid book starts in the Stirzaker family garden in suburban Canberra. It works from that very local scale through large-scale industrial agriculture to national and global food security issues and back again, always grounded in a profound understanding of the challenges facing food producers at all levels.

In our quest for meaningful and more sustainable options, the Stirzaker garden should stimulate the Australian consciousness as Thoreau’s Walden Pond did for Americans — an evocative lens through which to examine and better understand big issues of our time.

In his day job, Dr Richard Stirzaker is a Principal Research Scientist with the CSIRO. He has an outstanding track record in science and innovation. First and foremost, Richard Stirzaker is a gardener with a lifelong passion for growing food. This book unites the scientist and the gardener beautifully, blending the rigour of the scientific method with the sensuality of planting in rich soil and tasting perfectly ripe fruit and fresh vegetables.

Out of the Scientist’s Garden is a pleasure to read — free of jargon and spare in its use of statistics — without in any way dumbing down very complex issues. It connects food and water in a manner that is all too rare. It makes clever use of the author’s double life in Australia and Africa, juxtaposing the problems and possibilities of industrial agriculture with those of small subsistence farmers, home gardeners and water authorities, in responding to the need for more food from less water, less reliable water and poorer quality water. It offers no easy solutions or glib prescriptions, just careful analysis grounded in meticulous empirical observation and measurement.

Stirzaker draws upon deep, hard-won knowledge of his own garden and his family’s experiences in that garden — as laboratory, workshop, study, pantry, playground and place for reflection.

This is probably the most scientifically instrumented and studied home garden in Australia, visited by many thousands of people through the Open Garden Scheme. What most visitors miss, and this book provides eloquently, is an articulation of the science and philosophy underpinning this bountiful garden.

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