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.