Gardening and the environment

This blog is mostly about the intersection between what we do in our gardens and what happens in the wider environment. Therefore, here’s a sampling of some recent environmental news that clearly shows this relationship.

The big news this past week is that the highest-ever atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been recorded. Since this detailed record began, about 60 years ago, the level has risen by over 25%. Global warming is real, and I see evidence of it all around me. In the course of my lifetime, many plants have begun to bloom two to four weeks earlier in spring. Crape myrtle, once common only in the South, now grows here in Northern New Jersey, and magnolias no longer drop their leaves in fall. And, of course, our weather is becoming more extreme all the time. Many of us are still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.

In horticulture school, one of my teachers became extremely angry if anyone referred to soil as dirt. To a horticulturist, soil is everything, because the soil’s structure, moisture level, and nutrient level, as well as its physical condition, especially whether it has been compacted, determine what you can grow. And it turns out that two semesters of soil science weren’t nearly enough to teach us all there is to know, because scientists are discovering more about soil and what happens in the soil all the time. This week, I read a fascinating article,  The Hidden World of Soil Under Our Feet about soil biodiversity and how little we know about it.

Another article about soil and what happens in it detailed some fascinating recent discoveries about how plants communicate. It turns out that mycorhizzhal fungi, organisms that share a mutual-aid relationship with the roots of almost all green plants, actually help plants send signals to each other through the soil. A plant that is being attacked by aphids will tell nearby plants about the danger so they can prepare defenses. There’s a lot going on down there. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to zap the aphids with water or pesticides. Plants can usually take care of themselves.

Because of the great complexity of the natural world, it stands to reason that when humans manipulate it, there will be unintended consequences. New methods of farming, such as clearing all land around a field and eliminating all wildlife, necessary because of food safety concerns, are wreaking havoc on biodiversity. And these radical methods are not even effective in preventing food-borne illnesses.

To end on a lighter note and show that some human interventions can be beneficial, consider this description of a tiny urban farm that provides enough fruit, vegetables, and eggs to feed two families–and uses organic methods (scroll about halfway down to the article about Paradise Lot). With intelligence and determination, we can live in harmony with the natural world.


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