Saturday, November 26, 2011


Little Golden Books' "God is great..."

  Learned in Sunday School:
“God is great, God is good.
Let us thank him for out food.
By his hand we all are fed,
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.”

A round sung at Girl Scout camp:
“For health and friends and daily bread
We praise thy name, oh Lord.”

The blessing I grew up with:
“For what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.”

For the irreverent:
“Good bread, good meat,
Let’s eat!”

Aunt Bethany in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America;
And to the Republic for which it stands,
One nation, under God, indivisible,
With liberty and justice for all.
Play ball!”


Let the battle begin!
            I don’t get it.

The hype for the annual Black Friday consumer orgy started early in the week here, whipping bargain-hunters into a salivating, rabid frenzy before the advent of wee-hours door-busting trophies, sleep deprivation, and atrocious behavior. Today, on Black-and-Blue Sunday, they retire to lick their wounds and behold with glittering, avaricious eyes the loot wrested from the fray before dressing for church.

            It’s like a session of Congress played out on a national scale, a grab-fest with every Beanie Baby and i-Phone for himself.

            And would somebody please enlighten me as to what treasure there could possibly be at Wal-Mart to provoke gunplay?
            In my mind’s eye, I picture the woman on the afternoon before she pepper-sprayed rivals for first whack at the super-cheap towels, sitting at her laden dining-room table, surrounded by family and friends, piously giving thanks and counting her blessings. Do you think she didn’t really mean it? Or was she just not paying attention?

Not a pretty picture of America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. More like the Land of the Me and Home of the Depraved. What’s the matter with us?

Days like this, it’s comforting to go outside and tend the garden, where I’m the only fool and reasons for gratitude abound.

 Nursery, holding area, infirmary, 
laboratory, spirit restorer
Last weekend, for example, I spent a few hours rearranging, culling and neatening on the south side of our house, which serves as nursery, holding area, infirmary and laboratory. When Hurricane Irene threatened in September, Tim relegated the baskets of cucumber plants hanging on our front porch there: we never got around to putting them back up. As I picked up one basket to dump it, I stepped on what I thought was a pine cone. When I stooped to toss the ankle-turner into the woods, however, I discovered a pine-cone-sized cucumber, unmarred by pickleworms, nestled in the ivy. Too bad I’d flattened it. Looking closer at the basket, I uncovered another fruit, and then another. What a nice November surprise! Added to my dinner salad, they tasted a little bitter. After weeks of unaccompanied lettuces, though, I enjoyed the change.

Four varieties of lettuce
(Why only lettuce? Because I try really hard to eat only what’s in season. Despite temptations at the supermarket, cukes, tomatoes and green peppers shall remain terra incognita until next summer. Fortunately the lettuce plants given me by my friend, Christine, are doing very well.)

Again, last Monday, while mucking around in the raised beds, pulling out past plants and fluffing up the soil for the clover cover-crop, I found… wait for it… potatoes, including the largest individual dug this year. The seed eyes went in the ground back in February; the main harvest took place in early May. Here we are in November—a mere nine months after planting—with another five ounces of spuds. I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants.

2011's last potatoes?
Apparently, in addition to my talent for growing miniature veggies, I also have a gift for very late maturing ones.

 Gardens provide inspiration for gratitude wherever you look. Out in our yard, the aromatic ‘Copper Canyon’ marigolds (Tagetes lemmonii) that quickly dominated any space given them are blooming their cheery golden hearts out as we round the corner into December. Seventeen or so of the 80 ‘Granax Hybrid’ onions sown on the sixth of November have pushed up hair-like sprouts. I figure if I leave them alone until next fall, I might get a few bulbs bigger around than my thumb. The ‘Fragola d’Bos’ and ‘Mignonette’ alpine strawberries transplanted around Halloween shrugged off the two light frosts we’ve had so far: ‘Fragola’ is even flowering, silly thing.

'Copper Canyon' marigolds 
(Tagetes lemmonii)
brighten late November
Besides flowers and fruit, the fall garden offers sweet-smelling, slightly damp soil; a quiet place to hear birds’ comings and goings, and breezes lifting leaves; surprising tiny intricacies and beautiful color schemes sported by insects encountered there; sun warming bent backs, the ground cooling hands and knees; and—perhaps most important of all—the peaceful, literal grounding that comes with a sense of oneness with the earth, and the sure knowledge that some things are bigger and more permanent than petty human madnesses.

"For what we are about to receive,
make us truly thankful."
I’m going outside to soak up some of that inspiration now, and suggest, if you’re able, you do the same. We’ll come back into our houses and lives more thankful than when we ventured out to play in the garden.

Thanks for dropping by.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


            Not all of us can claim whiz-kid status in the fast-moving world of cyberspace. I count myself fortunate to live with a whiz, even when the concept he’s earnestly explaining to me might as well be in Klingon. As a lyric in a Tom Rush song goes, “The words are nice the way they sound, / It doesn’t matter what they mean.”

            Nonetheless. I recently learned that a not inconsiderable number of readers receive GFTGU in an email format, which means they miss out on the bells and whistles of the actual website. These include subscribing options, lists of acronyms, good reads and pertinent websites, a handy search function, an archive, a constantly updating site meter, and a poll application (remember the lightning bug question back in June?).  No ads will pop up, because I refuse to flog anything.

         Tim gave our friend Chuck extensive instructions in an email. Apparently, Chuck doesn’t speak Klingon either. So for all of us hapless old farts, here’s the drill in pictures. (At last! A use for those early-childhood education classes I took 400 years ago!)

             How does one get to the blog website?

           Type—all one word, no spaces—in your browser’s search bar. Click “Search.” We use Google, so it looks like this on my computer:

           The computer will then display a page of clickable “Gardening from the Ground Up” options, like this:

            Click on one that looks promising. My sophisticated method is to start at the top. Anything that says “Blog archive” or lists a specific title in the text will get you here:

                 Ooooh! you purr.

            The left side of the site is the post. If you click on the pictures, they enlarge. If you click on highlighted text, it will take you to the website I’ve been talking about. On the right side are the bells and whistles mentioned above.

Directly below the title picture is the site meter, steadily counting hits. Under that is the SUBSCRIBE NOW: FEED ICON in black print, followed by an orange icon and Subscribe in a Reader in green print, just above a “Blotanical” tag. (Blotanical is a gardening-blog clearinghouse site I signed up for at Tim’s behest. I don’t really know why.) Ignore all that stuff.

Under Blotanical, however, are the magic words SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL in black, followed by Subscribe to Gardening From the Ground Up by Email. You’ll want to click on the green words, which will take you to this page:

Type in your email address and decode the magic symbol, then click on “Complete Subscription Request.” Bob’s your uncle, you’re in!

Ahhhh! you murmur.

The very next time I enter a post, you’ll get an email that will look something like this:

Here's what I get from the blog Gardening Gone Wild. I just click on the grey title, and the site pops up. Easy peasy, right?

If you continue scrolling down the right side of the GFTGU site, you’ll pass ACRONYMS EXPLAINED, GOOD READS, and LINKS TO SOURCES AND SITES before getting to the next batch of interesting stuff, which looks like this:

SEARCH THIS BLOG is for finding specific topics by using keywords. For instance, if you want to find the post that shows how to plant bulbs without digging, type “bulbs” in the box and click “Search.” Go back up to the top of the left side of the site, where every reference to bulbs will be listed in a clickable format. Pretty neat, huh?

Under SEARCH THIS BLOG is FOLLOWERS. If you’d like to become a follower, click on Join This Site in the blue box. This is what comes up:

Click on wherever you have your email account: mine is Google. A new screen’ll pop up:

Sign in and follow instructions.

Below the followers is the BLOG ARCHIVE, a list of all posts to date, which might be of use someday.

One last explication, about making comments. At the very bottom of the post, after I thank you for dropping by, you’ll see this:

Click on 0 Comments, and this is what comes up:

Type in your comment, and I promise to respond.

Oho! you say.

So that’s all there is to it. Let me know if the pictorial approach helped (Chuck). And thanks for dropping by.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


Yesterday it was my birthday,
I hung one more year on the line;
I should be depressed, my yard’s a mess,
But I’m havin’ a good time.
I’m digging and weeding and planting,
I’m exhausted from gard’ning so well;
I should go to bed but a voice in my head
Says, “Oh, what the hell.”
                               with apologies to Paul Simon

            I have conducted a life-long love affair with Paul Simon’s music. His lyrics have spoken to me since the 1960s, when I knew all the words to all the songs from “Bookends,” “The Sounds of Silence,” “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” (Still do.) I convinced my teenaged self that I was the Kathy on the bus from Pittsburgh in “America,” sans cigarettes. A term paper entitled “Themes of Alienation and Loss in the Songs of Simon and Garfunkel” turned in when I was a junior in high school brought me my first important accolades as a writer: so impressed was the English teacher that she made it required reading for her senior classes.

Fortunately, I had no social life at the time anyway so repercussions were insignificant.

What angst-filled adolescent didn’t thrum in harmony with “And a rock feels no pain / and an island never cries”? Or “You read your Emily Dickinson / and I my Robert Frost, / and we note our place with bookmarkers / that measure what we’ve lost.”  And “The Boxer”!

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade,
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
‘I am leaving, I am leaving’
But the fighter still remains.

Only the Beatles (with “Hey, Jude’s” nah-nah-nah-nah nahnahnah-nah), could command three minutes of radio airtime with nonsense syllables the way Simon did in “The Boxer”—lie-la-lie, lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie lie-lie-lie-lie-lie, over and over as the orchestra swelled in the background. Tears still prick my eyes when I hear it.

Mincers Pipe Shop on the Corner,
Charlottesville, Virginia
Never attended a concert given by the boys, but I did once see Art Garfunkel. He drove into town from his home near Charlottesville, Virginia, every Sunday morning to pick up his copy of the New York Times from Mincers Pipe Shop on The Corner, hard by the University’s Rotunda. Mincers was just up the street from the U Diner, where “grills-with”—fried-ice-cream-with-glazed-donut-heated-on-the-grill—could be had for a dollar or so all day. On my way home from a post-Saturday-night sugar fix, I spotted Art (may I call you “Art”?) getting into his car, a hefty hunk of newsprint under his arm.

In later years, I wondered by what Machiavellian contortions he managed to get the New York version of the Sunday New York Times delivered on Sunday. Mere mortals had to wait until Wednesday.

In one of those simple twists of fate (old, pre-Christian Dylan’s a favorite, too), I recently rediscovered knitting. I grew up in a crafty family, and don’t remember not knowing how to knit, crochet, embroider, crewel, cross-stitch, needlepoint, petit-point, macramé and sew. Never cottoned to machine sewing, because it requires, well, a machine; but I’m still pretty adept with any sort of hand-held needle. This has come in useful over the years, especially for keeping beloved jeans and overalls in service.  I’m one of probably six people left in the world who actually knows how to darn socks.

Blue penguins wearing their protective jumpers
A few weeks ago, Tim, who trolls Google News most mornings, sent me an Attention All Knitters appeal for tiny sweaters for oil-coated blue penguins, victims of the latest disaster to befall New Zealand. The coverings keep the birds from ingesting the crude oil clogging their feathers until rescue workers can dip them in Dawn. Tim thought I’d like the picture of the jumper-clad birds: to his amazement, I leapt out of my chair to rummage around in the old blanket chest where I keep memories and things I might use again. Someday.

Piglet modeling my best effort
Ah, vindication! I emerged with 30-year-old knitting needles, single-pointed, double-pointed and circular, insisting we drop everything to go to our nearest JoAnn’s Fabrics—in Wilmington—to buy 100% wool yarn. (You see, the last time I knitted anything was around the same time double-knit polyester was all the rage, so the billions of skeins of yarn I kept are all acrylic or some even-more-sinister synthetic fiber.)

After a few false starts (like about 20), the stitches came back to me, as did casting on and binding off. Had lots of practice in picking up dropped stitches, and in un-knitting to correct mistakes. Must be like riding a bike, kinetic knowledge stored in one’s cells. The tiny penguin jumpers took shape. More or less.

Checked in with the lady at Skeinz, The Natural Yarn Store in Napier, NZ—a town I remember with great fondness for superlative fish-and-chips—who said the response from all over the knitting world had been tremendous, and every oil-coated penguin had an extensive wardrobe at his/her disposal. Oh, dear. No, no, she said, send your creations on: we’re dressing stuffed-toy penguins to sell, with a hundred percent of the profits going to the Penguin Rescue Fund. (I've already ordered two, at $25US a pop, for Christmas gifts. Click on "Take Flip Home" under Featured Products on the website linked above.)

Another penguin day, another penguin dollar
on the Otago Peninsula (photo by John Burke)
Why did I care? I’ll never forget the late afternoon I stood on a windy escarpment of the Otago Peninsula, watching yellow-eyed penguins coming home from another day of making a living in the Pacific. They resembled nothing so much as city workers disgorging from trains as they trudged out of the wave-break and trundled up the shore. All that was missing were the rolled-up newspapers and the briefcases.

Will I use some of my precious time to help them in their time of need? You betcha.


Marvelous Allium schubertii
            Anyway, yesterday was my 58th birthday, and I spent a chunk of it outside in the garden, personalizing lyrics to Paul Simon songs, such as the one in the epigraph. I’m trying ornamental alliums again, despite years of one-season ponies (Simon, sort of, again), excepting the chive twins, garlic and onion. A sucker for any species of onion, I ordered Allium flavum, a 1759 heirloom, yellow-flowered, mid-summer bloomer; A. carinatum pulchellum, A. flavum’s younger (1810), red-violet-flowered cousin; and the Brent and Becky’s web-exclusive A. hyacinthoides, which was a no-brainer choice for me because it’s supposed to have blue blooms. Well, duh. Splurged on another five A. schubertii, an 1896 introduction with the most bizarre of all of Allium's bizarre flowers that, despite its cold-hardiness Zone 7-9 reputation, refuses to perennialize chez Fitz. Also treated myself to five more Scilla peruviana bulbs, a scilla with a secret yen to be an allium.

Happy birthday to me!


            Since recovering (to a large extent) from the hormone-induced miseries of adolescence and the self-induced dramas of adulthood, my love for Paul Simon’s way with words endures. Unsurprisingly, his solo opus “Still Crazy After All These Years” provides the soundtrack to my maturation.

            So I sit by the window and watch the cars,
I fear I'll do some damage one fine day;
But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers,
Still crazy after all these years,
Still crazy, still cra-aaa-zy,
Still crazy after all these years.

You better believe it. Thanks for dropping by.


Monday, November 14, 2011


            It’s really stupid—my head knows clock time is an artificial construct—but the return to standard time always lifts my spirits. These days when the light streaming through our east-facing bedroom window wakes me up, the morning isn’t half over.

            I said it was stupid.

            “Falling back” easily segues into looking back, coming as it does in the waning of the year. Doesn’t take much to send me down memory lane…

            I wasn’t always the gardening maven you see before you—figuratively speaking—today. In fact, aside from a predilection to play in the dirt, the seeds of my future vocation had a pretty rough row to hoe (to mix metaphors). Everyone’s read gardening/lifestyle magazine articles that begin: “When we added the 700-square-foot conservatory to our 18th-century farmhouse…” or “This morning I walked down the hill to our 14–acre woodland to check on the trilliums…” or “I come from a long line of fanatic gardeners. I planted my first pansy at age two, with Great-Grandma Edna gently guiding my hand…”

Well, none of those writers is me.

Here's that pathetic American holly 
in our front yard in 1998. 
If you look closely on the right, 
you can spot two of the three
sad spindly live oaks,
toward the back of the house.
My roots (ha-ha) go back to a “Leave It to Beaver”-era suburb. I never truly settled down until moving to North Carolina, at the ripe old age of 44. Today I live in a 1000-square-foot single-story bungalow built in 1997 on a concrete slab, plopped dead-center on a 55’ x 120’ lot. The native vegetation left after the septic system went in consisted of three sad-looking live oaks, three even-sadder turkey oaks, a scruffy American holly and a healthy colony of sand spurs. Getting rid of the ugly turkey oaks was an early project. Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 tilted the holly to 60°: it fell over completely when 1999’s Floyd blew through. One of the live oaks started to threaten the screened porch, so Tim took her down. A stand of centipede grass eventually put the sand spurs in abeyance, until the town dug up a ten-foot-wide swath of the yard to install an obscenely over-budget sewer system that rendered water so expensive we could no longer afford to use any on the lawn. Long story short, the sand-spur seeds patiently lurking in the soil resprouted and bore fruit.

Here's the third live oak, also in 1998.

And yes, it's true that both my dad and his dad gardened all their lives. I was just never particularly interested in hanging out with them as they sowed seeds, transplanted, weeded, watered and harvested. In fact, Dad actively discouraged me from joining in after the spring that, in an well-meant but ill-conceived attempt at “helping,” I dug up his entire three-year-old asparagus patch just before the first harvest was due. I thought they were weeds.

Daddy died before I got into the gardening game, which is really just as well: the shock probably would have killed him anyway. 

 This is cabbage, also a Brassica,
left to bolt: pretty impressive, huh?
Garden Journal for the picture)
        My first solo garden was a desultory attempt at raising vegetables in the tiny back yard of my apartment in Hudson Falls, NY, during the late 1970s. That was back in my Mother Earth News phase, which consisted of diving in with great enthusiasm February through early May only to lose all interest by late July because I no longer had any idea what I’d planted where when, or when what was supposed to be coming in.  I did have success of a sort with the broccoli and Brussels sprouts: the stature of the plants so impressed me that I let them bolt (i.e., flower and set seed) just to see how tall they’d get. They towered to over seven feet before frost cut them down. Alas, bolted Brassicas are unfit for human consumption. 

The book that jump-started a career.
          After a 14-year hiatus and three moves, the gardening itch struck again, triggered by an impulse-purchase of Cheryl Merser’s intriguingly titled A Starter Garden: The Guide for the Horticulturally Hapless (see Good Reads at right). Merser gardens on Long Island, NY, only 250 miles and two hardiness zones south of Glens Falls: her relative geographic proximity and upbeat style eased most of my worries. She convinced me to give flower gardening a go.

The house where the book
jump-started the career.
(Just ignore Google Maps'
pink arrow.)
My back yard in Glens Falls was terraced. An L-shaped dry-laid New England stone wall broken by three shallow steps separated the upper level from the lower. I dug a little bed along the top of the wall and planted it with poppies and forget-me-nots. Encouraged when they didn’t die—and actually garnered a few compliments on their kindergarten colors—I dug another, larger flowerbed along the bottom of the wall, and filled it with plants chosen by the pretty-picture-on-the-tag method from Meads, a nearby garden center. I put in spiked loosestrife (Lythrum virgatum, which is not the evil, waterway-choking purple loosestrife), tall rue (Thalictrum polygamum), spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) and other beauties that don’t grow well south of the Mason-Dixon Line, knitting them together with ‘Gold Acre’ sedum and more forget-me-nots. (Try not to have more forget-me-nots if they like where you put them. Ha.) I also installed a couple of yellow sundrops (Oenothera fructicosa) to brighten a shady corner, which introduced me to the reality of vegetative thugs. The current owner of the house on Garrison Road may still be contending with them.

            Wow! I thought. This is so cool!

My love affair with bulbs started then too, as I learned you can never have too many. Even in Glens Falls—nicknamed “The Refrigerator”—where chilling hours abound, hybrid tulips didn’t put on much of a show after the first or second year. There’s some pecuniary method in that particular breeding madness, I think.

Then Tim happened, and, after a year's wild roller-coaster ride, we ended up in NC, where a clean slate, a salubrious climate, and easy digging made gardening for a living look doable.

And so it has been.


Brian Greene and some strings
Because I believe in the illusory nature of life, I also believe in infinite parallel universes, where the paths we don’t choose on this plane spin alternative selves off into worlds of their own. Theoretical physicists are beginning to think there might be something to this on-the-surface-of-it-wacko idea. In fact, PBS’ “Nova” is running a series on this very topic right now, hosted by string-theorist Brian Greene. Now, I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of string theory or dark matter or the elasticity of time—any more than I understood Stephen Hawking’s point in A Brief History of Time for more than 56 seconds after I closed the book—but I am infinitely grateful that in at least one of my universes, I get paid for doing what I love. I get paid for playing in the dirt.

How neat is that?

Thanks for dropping by.


Monday, November 7, 2011


            Ted Danson’s written a book. This surprises me because I’ve watched “celebrities” compete on Jeopardy! The average IQ equivalent of those contestants—minus a few outstanding exceptions—seems to hover somewhere between “chicken” and “toadstool.” What they don’t know about history, geography, science, spelling, math, current events, puns and making connections beggars belief.

            Be that as it may. Ted is hitting the book-tour circuit with Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. Along with co-writer Michael D’Orso, Danson aims to raise public consciousness about the deteriorating condition of the world’s oceans and to illuminate both international policy changes and actions individuals can take to reverse the damage. About time someone high-profile raised the hue and cry, I’d say, given the chilling statistics enumerated in Organic Gardening's review (in the August-September 2011 issue). Here’s a sampling:

1.      Shark populations have decreased by 90% since 1950;
2.      Commercial catches are decreasing by 500,000 tons per year;
3.      Data suggest widespread coral-reef death by the end of this century;
4.      The ultimate effects of massive crude oil spills are unknown, and only beginning to be felt;
5.      Increased atmospheric CO2, due to escalating use of fossil fuels, have raised the oceans’ acidity levels by 30% since the Industrial Revolution.

I knew the Luddites were on to something.

The situation is dire. Calcium atoms can’t bind together at high acid concentrations, threatening the existence of the bottom of the food chain—corals, krill, sea snails and pteropods. At the top end, pollution and commercial overfishing have brought many species of fish and crustaceans to near-collapse. And then there are those huge rafts of garbage (thrown out any plastic bags today?) floating around in every ocean.

Like the contretemps over causes of global warming, the looming catastrophe has its naysayers. Smoke without fire remains the exception, not the rule, however. An international colloquium of marine scientists meeting in Oxford, England, in June released a report stating the pace and magnitude of degradation and its negative impacts far exceed earlier predictions. According to The Independent, the group warned that the wheels of a “globally significant extinction may have already begun” to turn.

In a comparison with five previous mass-extinction events, the fatal combination of factors—a period of global warming associated with rising acidity and falling oxygen levels in seawater—matches those present today, leading the panel to conclude “…that a new extinction event [is] inevitable if the current trajectory of damage continues.”  

Think it doesn’t matter? Think it’s all hot air and hyperbole? Then consider this: more than a billion people worldwide depend on fish for animal protein. That’s one in seven of us. Hundreds of millions take their livings from the sea in a $100-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Those in the coastal tourism business might want to sit up and take notice, too. Who wants to vacation at a beach befouled by tarballs and dead sealife?

Oceana leavens its tsunami of grim statistics with solutions, suggesting things all of us can do to halt—maybe even reverse—the destruction. Check out the chart for ten actions you can take today for healthier seas tomorrow. (If you can’t read the fine print, go to and click on Trash-Free Seas.)

Every one of us relies on the oceans, for food, for clean air, for climate regulation. If it takes Ted Danson to get your attention, so be it.


Let’s bring this difficult-to-digest imminent global disaster down to the level of our back yards. A major source of ocean pollution is the nutrient-laden chemical runoff from agricultural lands. Yes, that includes all the stuff you spray and sprinkle around your own little garden.

There’s some good news to report on this front, and it bolsters my adamant support of soil building. (See the “Food for Thought” posts of 20 and 24 February.) After finally figuring out that not all that’s interesting about plants happens above ground and with the help of advanced technology, horticulturists have started studying roots and their relation to their environment, i.e., dirt. Because “dirtology” lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, they call this “new” area of endeavor “rhizosphere science.”

Regardless of what it’s named, the dirtologists have given a scientific imprimatur to what organic gardeners intuited all along: not only is routine supplemental fertilization unnecessary, it actually impedes the quotidian miracles occurring underground. Left to their own devices, plants roots do a lot more than support superstructures and absorb water and nutrients. By producing an array of chemicals called exudates, roots assemble and direct microbial combinations one researcher says are as individual as fingerprints. In addition to marshaling forces to optimize nutrient gathering and pathogen control, root exudates alter the chemistry of the soil and play a managerial role in plant-to-plant interactions.

Harsh Bais
This last bit fascinates me. In her article in April 2011’s GardenDesign, Michele Owens explains how some roots aggressively wrest resources from competitors by manufacturing chemicals that weaken or kill their neighbors in a process called allelopathy (a really neat word to speak aloud: al-ee-LOP-uh-thee). In other, less hostile exchanges, certain plants, when under attack from pests, exude compounds that encourage other plants to come to the rescue. Rhizosphere biologist Harsh Bais of the University of Delaware studied a species of mustard that recognizes members of its family through its exudates. It then limits its own root growth so that the whole clan can comfortably share a garden plot, a behavior Bais finds “bizarre.” Bizarre, maybe. Cool, definitely.

(Bais’ research also solves the long-standing mystery of the Oakleaf Hydrangea Phenomenon—on two separate occasions, every other one of a line of oakleaf hydrangeas Tim and I planted died, despite identical installation, and light, water and fertilization conditions. “You can walk into Home Depot,” he told Michele Owens, “pick out two similar plants, same genus and species, but coming from different maternal lines. Plant them together; one will outcompete the other. You’ll assume you have one weird plant and blame the nursery.” Eureka!)

The bottom line (ha-ha) of the complex machinations of the rhizosphere comes down to that old organic/sustainable gardening dictum: feed the soil, not the plants. All gardeners need do to encourage healthy and diverse microbiota in their soil is to routinely add organic matter—either compost, or carbon-based mulch, or compost teas, or cover crops—instead of chemical granules or solutions. And put your tiller in storage. Tilling destroys soil communities and tears up the fungal networks necessary to plant nutrition and health. It’s safer, it’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s a boon to the oceans and the environment as a whole. It’s a no-brainer.


Don’t buy into that ridiculous ploy by the plastics industry in defense of its most indefensible product, that reusable bags aren’t as “sanitary” as their noxious one-use product. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t remember the last time I licked or ate off the inside of a grocery bag.

Thanks for dropping by.