We’ve probably all heard of NASA’s efforts to grow vegetables in space. But some industrious gardeners are exploring an unusual solution closer to home: undersea gardening. Nemo’s Garden, an innovative project based in Noli, Italy, has grown about 600 crops from around the globe. They’ve found a way to raise everything from tobacco to mandarins.

How to grow plants underwater

You can probably guess, it’s a complicated setup. It’s not like you stick a lemon seed in the sand and suddenly you have an underwater orchard. Instead, Nemo’s Garden is composed of a varying number of clear plastic pods, anchored with chains and screws to the sea bottom. Each acrylic pod is full of about 2,000 liters of air. The project had nine going during summer, but scaled back to six for the winter. The pods, or biospheres, range between 15 and 36 feet below the ocean’s surface.

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The half-ton, 12-feet-tall Tree of Life structure stands at the center of the underwater garden. It conceals cables that run to each biosphere and lets controllers monitor the area from above. They can look inside the biospheres with a live camera feed, and control the light levels. It’s pretty darn dark under the sea, especially in winter.

Diver/gardeners tend to the plants. They swim up from below, only their torsos entering the pods, legs dangling in the water. Inside the pods, water condenses on the walls, then drips back down. This keeps the plants nicely watered. When it’s harvest time, divers place the crops in reusable containers or bags, seal them and bring them to the surface. A control tower on the shoreline is equipped with an ultrasonic surface communication system, which lets divers communicate from inside the biospheres.

Five glass orbs containing underwater gardens

Nemo’s Garden history

This odd undersea garden is the brainchild of Sergio Gamberini, who loves both scuba diving and gardening. In 2012, he set up his first tiny biosphere and anchored it to the bottom of the ocean. The structure wasn’t big enough for an “agrinaut” to enter, but he grew a good crop of basil.

The following summer, Gamberini expanded, building two 800-liter biospheres. The underwater basil tasted just as good as that grown on land, and the leaves contained even more essential oils. In summer 2014, the project added a 2,000-liter biosphere and began growing salad.

As the project grew, more people became interested and got involved. In 2015, Nemo’s Garden expanded enough to add more than 30 new crops. The garden got more press and international interest after participating in the Milan EXPO2015.

The Tree of Life was built in 2016. The garden got techier and techier, with more researchers studying diverse areas like underwater hydroponic cultivation techniques and growing plants for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes. The biospheres morphed into pressurized underwater observatories and started to attract tourists. Underwater gardeners started to keep the project running year-round, instead of closing down for summer. Every year brings new innovations, such as combining vertical with horizontal hydroponic systems and increasing the number of solar panels used to power the habitat. Nemo’s Garden also partners with the University of Engineering in Genova, both to conduct studies with experts and to support student internships.

Strawberries being harvested underwater in a glass container

The underwater crops

There’s a lot of trial and error in undersea gardening. Basil and salad greens grow well. By now, gardeners have tried their luck with at least 600 fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Here are just a few of the crops that have grown underneath the sea: basil, mint, aloe vera, mushrooms, licorice, black cumin, lavender, stevia and passion flowers. As the website notes, not all crops were successful. Sometimes humidity was too high. Chemical tests revealed a consistently high concentration of essential oils.

Storms affect crops, even when they’re grown underwater. A huge storm in the Mediterranean Sea with 10-meter waves ruined crops one year. While the biosphere structures survived, the sea water level rose inside the pods, destroying plants, cables and technology. The Nemo’s Garden facilities on land were also damaged.

A man in a glass orb underwater garden

Visiting Nemo’s Garden

While some visitors have discovered the underwater garden, it’s still lightly touristed. There’s only one photo of it on Tripadvisor. Of course, you’re not going to see much unless you’re a certified diver. The surrounding region of Liguria is one of Italy’s main scuba diving locations. You can contact local company Dive Enjoy to ask about a guided diving tour of Nemo’s Garden.

For now, it’s not cost-effective or viable for Nemo’s Garden to grow crops on a big scale. But Nemo’s is looking to scale up. The company was selected to participation in an accelerator program in Neom, Saudi Arabia. Luca Gamberini, Sergio’s son, hopes that next year the Neom project will include the world’s first real underwater farm. If that’s successful, Gamberini hopes to continue expanding the crops and hiring more workers in underwater biospheres around the world. Maybe one day divers will be able to visit many Nemo Garden’s franchises.

+ Nemo’s Garden

Images via Nemo’s Garden