You are currently browsing the archives for the Gardening category.

Archives

From Field to Plate...

Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Monday, April 2, 2012 @ 05:04 AM
posted by admin

OUT OF THE EARTH

CIVILIZATION AND THE LIFE OF THE SOIL

DANIEL HILLEL

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991

PART 3

 

PART II: THE NATURE OF SOIL AND WATER

Chapter 3: The fertile Substrate

Chapter 4: The Vital Fluid

Chapter 5: The Dynamic Cycle

Chapter 6: The Primary Producers

Chapter 7: The Tenuous Balance

 

PART III: THE LESSONS OF THE PAST

Chapter 8: Human Origins

History does not merely resurrect a dead past. In the words of Thucydides: “Knowledge of the past is an aid to interpretation of the future.” If we can truly learn from past experience, we may be better able to improve our current use of the environment. If we focus our attention exclusively upon the predicaments of the moment, however, we may find ourselves repeatedly surprised by a host of bewildering problems seeming to come out of nowhere, without a past and hence without direction. How did these problems arise? Chances are, the seeds of the phenomena we witness today were planted some time ago by our predecessors, as indeed we are planting the seeds of the future – perhaps unknowingly – at this very moment.

  • The story of mankind begins more than three million years ago, when a genus of primates evolved to the point where it became recognizably humanoid.
  • Over extended periods of time, biological evolution appears to proceed very slowly by a long series of small, almost imperceptible, changes.
  • Then, periodically, thresholds are reached that trigger seemingly sudden transformations, due to chance occurrences of genetic mutations, or to shifts in environmental conditions, or – more likely – to combinations or sequences of these.
  • Ever since Charles Darwin first elaborated on the possible circumstances of human origin in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, anthropologists have been speculating on the sequence of events that gradually brought about the astonishing metamorphosis of a tree-dwelling, quadripedal, herbivorous ape into a ground-dwelling, bipedal, tool-making, omnivorous hominid.
  • A crucial step appears to have been the shift from four-legged to two-legged locomotion.
  • This was followed by further structural and functional evolution. The eyes were adapted to stereoscopic vision for judging distances.
  • The hands developed a capability for the precision grip used in making and employing tools.
  • The brain grew in size and function as it developed the ability to process more information and to generate complex logical thoughts.

Our species’ birth place was apparently in the continent of Africa, and its original habitat was probably the subtropical savannas which constitute the transitional areas of sparsely wooded grasslands lying between the zone of the humid and dense tropical forests and the zone of the semiarid steppes. We can infer the warm climate of our place of origin from the fact that we are naturally so scantily clad, or furless; and we can infer the open landscape from the way we are conditioned to walk, run, and gaze over long distances.

  • Fossil discoveries in East Africa during recent decades have revealed facts that have added dramatically to our knowledge of human origins.
  • For at least 90% of its career, the human animal existed merely as one member of a community of numerous species who shared the same environment.
  • Humans neither dominated other species nor brought about any fundamental modification of the common environment. They were gatherers, scavengers, and hunters.
  • They diversified their diet to include the flesh of animals as well as nuts, berries, fruits, seeds, succulent leaves, bulbs, tubers, and fleshy roots.

The story of how humans ascended from their humble apelike origins to venture far from their birthplace, and range over a variety of climates and landscapes, is a remarkable saga of audacity, ingenuity, perseverance, and adaptability. In fact humans have proved to be the most adaptable of all terrestrial mammals. Their mode of adaptation was not entirely genetic or physical: there was not enough time for that. Rather, their adaptation was in large part behavioural. Instead of relying on physical prowess, they had to use inventiveness to survive the elements and to compete successfully against stronger animals. In the course of their migration and expansion, our ancient forebears therefore had to develop and mobilize all the cunning and intelligence that eventually made them – and us – so unique a species. The increase of brain size and manual dexterity, as well as the invention of various stratagems, gradually enabled humans to overcome the constraints of their ancestry.

  • By 1 million years ago, hominids had become taller (about 1.5 meters in height), and had acquired a larger brain.
  • Some evidence has been found in Southern and Eastern Africa of repetitive occurrences of brush fires, apparently set by humans nearly a million years ago, signifying the beginning of human manipulation of the earth’s ecosystems.
  • The use of fire became even more important when humans moved out of the tropics into colder climes.
  • By about 250,000 B.P. (Before the Present), humans had evolved into the type that anthropologists call Homo sapiens, and had spread to Europe and Asia.
  • Some time before 50,000 B.P., a race of humans called Neanderthals, who lived during the last Ice Age, were making cutting tools with flaked flint.
  • By about 40,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), evidently indistinguishable from us today in physical features and in intelligence, had gained dominance.
  • Clad in garments made of animal skins, able to make and use a variety of implements, and armed with a growing array of weapons – including spears and bows and arrows – humans were able to range and settle in locations and climes far from their ancestral home.

All the while they continued to evolve biologically through genetic change and natural selection, increasingly aided by cultural and technological development. To survive the harsh winters of colder climates, they had to find or construct shelters, and to huddle in family or tribal groupings for mutual assistance and the rearing of their slow-growing offspring. In their leisure time, they painted animals on cave walls and carved ritual objects. They also had to contrive increasingly sophisticated methods of obtaining and storing foods, including the selective gathering, processing, and preservation of biological products, and eventually the domestication of plants and animals.

  • This series of changes has been termed the Paleolithic (Early Stone Age) Transformation.
  • Gradually, as they continued to elaborate and perfect their tools of wood, bone, and stone, as well as their techniques and social organization, humans assumed an increasingly active and eventually dominant role in shaping their environment.
  • Each modification of the environment entailed additional human responses, which in turn further modified the environment, so that a process of escalating dual metamorphosis was instigated.
  • Human intelligence and culture were both cause and effect in that fateful interplay. The peculiarly dynamic and progressive evolution of human ecology is the true history of our species.
  • In time, the practice of clearing woodlands and shrublands by repeated firings also set the stage for the advent of agriculture.
  • As vegetation is affected by fire-setting hunters, so are soils. Following repeated fires and deforestation, soil erosion and landslides often result in the greatly increased transport of silt by streams, and in the deposit of that silt in river valleys and estuaries.
  • The gradual intensification of land use continued throughout the Paleolithic period, so that by its later stages nearly all the regions of human habitation had experienced some anthropogenic modification of the floral and faunal communities.

Humans recognized nutritional and medicinal plants, observed their life cycles, and learned to encourage and take advantage of their natural propagation patterns. They learned to build rafts and boats of various type and thereby to exploit aquatic resources. As they became more mobile, the rivers and lakes that were once barriers became arteries of travel and transport. They developed implements for grinding and cooking vegetable and animal products, and weapons for hunting larger game animals. Success in these endeavors provided them with the leisure to develop social and cultural activities: music, dances, rituals, ceremonies, storytelling, rites of passage, creative arts, and the crafting of useful and decorative articles. Their success also brought about a growth in population, which in turn induced further geographic expansion and intensification of land use in quest of additional sources of livelihood.

Chapter 9: The Agricultural Transformation

 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 @ 07:03 AM
posted by admin

OUT OF THE EARTH

CIVILIZATION AND THE LIFE OF THE SOIL

DANIEL HILLEL

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991

PART 2

 

Chapter 2: Man’s Role on God’s Earth

We live on a unique planet bathed in the light and warmth of a nearby star we call the sun. Alone among the planets revolving around that star, ours is endowed with the fortuitous – though ever tenuous – combination of conditions capable of generating and sustaining the miracle of life. And what a rich and abounding variety of life our earth has spawned! It includes millions of types of creatures, each unique in form and function, yet all engaged interdependently in an elaborate dynamic performance, like players in an enormous philharmonic orchestra. Altogether, the multitude of plants and animals coexist both competitively and cooperatively in a more or less stable community self-regulated by an intricate set of checks and balances.

Pondering the intrinsic mutuality of life on earth, one cannot but wonder at the discordant anomaly that has so recently intruded upon nature’s pluralistic harmony: How did one species gain such overwhelming dominance over so many others, indeed over the very processes that control all life? And how could the members of this clever species fail so utterly and for so long to realize the dire consequences of their carelessly exercised dominance?

For soil thou art

  • The Hebrew Bible provides a profoundly symbolic account of the act of creation, the beginning of life on earth and the origin and role of humankind.
  • The first two chapters in the Book of Genesis give not one but two accounts of creation.

Latent in one of the main founts of Western Civilization we have two opposite perceptions of man’s destiny. One is anthropocentric: man is not part of nature but set above it. His manifest destiny is to be an omnipotent master over nature, which from the outset was created for his gratification. He is endowed with the power and the right to dominate all other creatures, toward whom he has no obligations.

The other view is more earthly and modest. Man is made of soil and is given a “living soul,” but no mention is made of his being “in the image of God.” Man is not set above nature. Moreover, his power is constrained by duty and responsibility. Man’s appointment is not an ordination but an assignment. The earth is not his property; he is neither its owner nor its master. Rather, man is a custodian, entrusted with the stewardship of God’s garden, and he can enjoy it only on the condition that he discharge his duty faithfully. This view of humanity’s role accords with the modern ecological principle that the life of every species is rooted not in separateness from nature but in integration with it.

  • Over the generations, it has generally been the arrogant and narcissistic view, implied in the first Biblical account, that has prevailed.
  • It has repeatedly been cited and used as a religious justification or rationale for man’s unbridled and relentless exploitation of the environment.
  • The question now is whether we have learned our lesson and are ready at last to accept the long-ignored second view of our proper role in relation to nature.
  • The ancient Hebrew association of man with soil is echoed in the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.
  • This powerful metaphor suggests an early realization of a profound truth that humanity has since disregarded to its own detriment.
  • Other ancient cultures evoke powerful associations similar to those of the Hebrew Bible.
  • In the teachings of Buddha, not only the earth itself but indeed all its life forms (even those that may seem lowliest) are spiritually sacred.

Worship of the earth long predated agriculture and continued after its advent. The earth was held sacred as the embodiment of a great spirit, the creative power of the universe, manifest in all phenomena of nature. The earth spirit was believed to give shape to the features of the landscape and to regulate the seasons, the cycles of fertility, and the lives of animals and humans. Rocks, trees, mountains, springs, and caves were recognized as spectacles for this spirit, which the Romans attributed to their earth goddess, Tellus.

The cult of the earth spirit is perhaps the oldest and most universal element in all religions. The Australian aborigines and the African Bushmen, among the last to have maintained the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer mode of life, have always sanctified and revered the earth as the great provider, the source of all inspiration and sustenance. So did the American Indians. In 1852, when the United States Government wished to purchase the land of the Indian tribes in the Northwest, their Chief Seattle sent back this eloquent reply:

How can we buy or sell the sky or the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. To harm the earth is to heap contempt upon its creator.

  • Other cultures and religions did not consider agriculture to be a violation of the earth, but – quite the contrary – a way to make the earth happy and fruitful.
  • The belief that agriculture is necessarily good, however, ultimately became self-defeating. The hillsides of Persia, like those of other uplands in the Near East and around the Mediterranean, were deforested and subjected to erosion, while the irrigated bottomlands, like those of Mesopotamia, suffered silting salinization.
  • As soil is the material substrate of life, water is literally its essence. Our interest in how soil and water function in the biosphere and in how they can be managed or mismanaged, derives as much from necessity as from innate scientific curiosity.
  • Superficial observers of history who ignore the role of environmental factors may ascribe the defeat of an empire to moral decay, cultural enfeeblement, lead poisoning, or lack of military preparedness – when actually the main contest had already been decided by the abuse and degradation of vital resources.

The failure to heed the lessons of the past is reflected in the Koran: “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them? They tilled the soil and populated it in great numbers. There came to them their apostles with clear signs, which they rejected, to their own destruction. It was not Allah who wronged them, but they wronged their own selves.”

Today there is clear and urgent reason for us to be concerned over the adequacy of land and water resources to satisfy the demands of our own profligate civilization. Our concern is not merely for the availability of these resources but for their quality as well. The encroachment of urban, industrial, transportation, and even recreational activities on the landscape, along with the application of “efficient” modern techniques of agriculture, construction, mining, and waste disposal, exert growing pressure on the limited resources of good land and water.

  • Among the many nations abusing their natural endowment, America is not the least offender. This country’s fundamental strength depends on its great soil and water resources, and their wasteful and destructive exploitation is surely sapping the nation’s innate strength and jeopardizing its future.

We can take no comfort at all in the fact that the problem is universal. Absurdly, nations fight wars over every inch of their political boundaries while mindlessly sacrificing whole regions to environmental degradation. Their patriots salute the flag and take up arms to defend their country against external enemies, while neglecting its environment and ignoring the real attacks being waged from within on the land they purport to love. Thousands of years are required for a soil to form in place, yet this amazingly intricate work of nature can be destroyed by man, with remarkable dispatch, in just a few decades. We must understand that, on the timescale of human life, the soil is a non-renewable resource. So is a mature forest, a river, a lake, or an aquifer. They belong not only to those who are the titled owners at this moment, but to future generations as well. In an even more profound sense, both soil and water belong to the biosphere, to the order of nature, and – as one species among many, as one generation among many to come – we have no right to destroy them.

Can a greater awareness of our environment and of our place in it help awaken us from our narcissistic indulgence, and foster a more appropriate sense of humility toward nature? And can this sense bring us any closer to our common physical, biological, and cultural moorings? Can it reconnect us spiritually with our humble origins, from which we have for so long been separated yet never completely severed?

  • Clearly something has gone wrong in our relation with nature, and it behooves us to ponder what it is and how it started.
  • Just as a mature person must learn to consider the circumstances and needs of others, so a mature society must restrain its exploitation of resources and consider both the rights of future generations and the needs of other species.

A glimpse of earth from space should be sufficient to restore the true perspective. It shows the planet whole, without political or tribal boundaries. How beautiful, how colorful, how delicate is this ball of lapping waters, floating continents, and swirling clouds gliding in a thin veil of air. And how small, unique, and solitary is this one and only home of ours. We must listen to its signals of distress, for it is our parent and we are all its dependent children.

PART II: THE NATURE OF SOIL AND WATER

Chapter 3: The fertile Substrate

Saturday, March 24, 2012 @ 04:03 AM
posted by admin

THE BOTANY OF DESIRE

A PLANT’S-EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD

MICHAEL POLLAN

BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING    2001/2003

PART 3

 

Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple (Cont)

  • William Ellery Jones is a fifty-one-year-old fund-raising consultant and amateur historian with a dream: to establish a Johnny Appleseed heritage Center and Outdoor Theater on a hillside outside Mansfield.
  • Chapman combined the flinty toughness of a Daniel Boone with the gentleness of a Hindu. He was a deeply pious man – sometimes insufferably so. I wondered how he squared the two vocations: God’s word and hard drink.
  • In Swedenborg’s philosophy, perhaps the most intellectually demanding religious doctrine of the time, there is no rift between the natural world and the divine.
  • Swdenborg claimed that there was as one-to-one ‘correspondence between natural and spiritual facts, so that close attention and devotion to the former would advance one’s understanding of the latter.
  • Thus an apple tree in bloom was part of a natural process of making fruit at the same time it was a ‘living sermon from God’; likewise, a crow wheeling overhead was a type of the black forces waiting to overtake men’s souls when they wandered off the path.
  • It may have been Chapman’s conviction that this world is a type or rough draft of the next that allowed him to overlook or dissolve the tensions the rest of us perceive between the realms of matter and spirit, as well as nature and civilization.
  • Settlers would welcome Chapman into their homes, offering a meal and a bed to this strange man in rags. I was reminded of how the gods of classical mythology would sometimes appear at people’s doors dressed as beggars.
  • Just to be on the safe side, the Greeks would shower hospitality on even the most dubious stranger, because you never knew when the ragged fellow on your doorstep might turn out to be Athena in disguise.
  • I realized that Chapman was the American Dionysus.
  • The apple was only one of the many Old World plants John Chapman brought with him into the country. Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing European’s success in the New World.
  • The Europeans brought with them to the frontier a kind of portable ecosystem that allowed them to re-create their accustomed way of life – the grasses their livestock needed to thrive, herbs to keep themselves healthy, Old World fruits and flowers to make life comfortable.
  • In the process of changing the land, Chapman also changed the apple – or rather, made it possible for the apple to change itself.
  • The Geneva orchard in New York is, among other things, a museum of the apple’s golden age in America.
  • By planting so many apples from seed, Americans like Chapman had, willy-nilly, conducted a vast evolutionary experiment, allowing the Old World apple to try out literally millions of new genetic combinations, and by doing so to adapt to the new environment in which the tree now found itself. 
  • Whenever a tree growing in the midst of a planting of nameless cider apples somehow distinguished itself – it would promptly be named, publicized, and multiplied.

Through this simultaneous process of natural and cultural selection, the apples took up into themselves the very substance of America – its soil and climate and light, as well as the desires and tastes of its people, and even perhaps a few of the genes of America’s native crab apples. In time all these qualities became part and parcel of what an apple in America is.

In the years after John Chpman began plying his trade through the Midwest, America witnessed what has sometimes been called the Great Apple Rush. People scoured the countryside for the next champion fruit. The discovery of a Jonathan or Baldwin or Grimes Golden could bring an America fortune and even a measure of fame, and every farmer tended his cider orchard with an eye to the main chance: the apple that would hit it big. ‘Every wild apple shrub excites our expectations thus,’ Thoreau wrote, ‘somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.’

The nationwide hunt for pomological genius, the odds of which were commonly held to be eighty thousand to one, brought forth literally hundreds of new varieties. The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since.

  • There is, or was, a single Golden Delicious tree, of which every subsequent tree bearing that name has been a grafted clone. The apples reshuffled their genes in order to reinvent themselves for life in the New World.
  • The Golden Delicious now grows on five continents, but many others thrive only in America and in some cases are adapted to life in but a single region.
  • The golden age of American apples that John Chapman helped to underwrite lives on in the Geneva orchard – yet just about no place else.
  • The reason for its existence is that descendants of Appleseed’s apple seeds have been all but killed off by the dominance of a few commercially important apples – that and a pinched modern idea of what constitutes sweetness.
  • A far more brutal winnowing of the apple’s prodigious variability took place around the turn of the century when the temperance movement drove cider underground and cut down the American cider orchard, that wildness preserve and riotous breeding ground of apple originality.
  • Refrigeration made possible a national market for apples and promoting a small handful of brand-name varieties. Now just two qualities counted: beauty and sweetness. The apple had to compete with every other kind of sugary snack food in the supermarket.
  • Thousands of apple traits, and the genes that code those traits, have become extinct as apple diversity has been winnowed down to the small handful of varieties that can pass through the needle’s eye of our narrow conceptions of sweetness and beauty.

That is why the Geneva orchard is a museum. ‘Today’s commercial apples represent only a small fraction of the Malus gene pool,’ Phil Forsline, its curator, told me as we walked to a far corner of the orchard, where there was something unusual he wanted me to see. Forsline is a gangly horticulturist in his fifties with striking Nordic blue eyes and sandy hair starting to gray. ‘A century ago there were several thousand different varieties of apples in commerce: now most of the apples we grow have the same five or six parents: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Macintosh, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. Breeders keep going back to the same well, and its getting shallower.’

Forsline has devoted a career to preserving and expanding the apple’s genetic diversity. He’s convinced that the modern history of the apple – particularly the practice of growing a dwindling handful of cloned varieties in vast orchards – has rendered it less fit as a plant, which is one reason modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop. Forsline explained why this is so.

In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor. But coevolution ceases to exists in an orchard of grafted trees, since they are genetically identical from generation to generation. The problem very simply put is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples have once possessed. Suddenly total victory is in the pest’s sight – unless, that is, people come to the tree’s rescue, wielding the tools of modern chemistry.

Put another way, the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Reduced to a handful of genetically identical clones that suit our taste and agricultural practice, the apple has lost the crucial variability – the wilderness – that sexual reproduction confers.

  • The solution is for us to help the apple evolve artificially by introducing fresh genes through breeding.
  • Another genetic reshuffling may be necessary, which is why it is so important to preserve as many different apple genes as possible. It’s a question of biodiversity.
  • Every time an old apple variety drops out of cultivation, a set of genes vanishes from the earth.
  • In the case of the apple, the center of diversity lies in Kazakhstan. Forsline has made several trips to the area, bringing back thousands of seeds and cuttings that he has planted in the back of the Geneva orchard.
  • It was Nikolai Vavilov, the great Russian botanist who fell victim to Stalin’s repudiation of genetics, and died in a Leningrad prison in 1943, who first identified the wild apple’s Eden in the forests around Alma-Ata, in Kazakhstan, in 1929.
  • One of his last surviving students, Aimak Djangaliev, invited a group of American plant scientists to see the wild apples he had been studying, needing help to save the wild stands of Malus sieversii from real estate development.
  • Forsline and his colleagues were astonished to find entire forests of three-hundred-year-old trees, some of them bearing apples as large and red as modern cultivated varieties.
  • He determined to save as much of this germ plasma as possible, feeling certain that somewhere among the wild apples of Kazakhstan could be found genes for disease and pest resistance, as well as apple qualities beyond our imagining.
  • He collected hundreds of thousands of seeds, planted as many as he had space for in Geneva, and offered the rest to researchers and breeders around the world. The wild apples have found their Johnny Appleseed.
  • When people rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses its ability to get along on its own, outdoors. Something like that happened to the potato in Ireland in the 1840s, and it may be happening to the apple right now.
  • What saved the potato from that particular blight was genes for resistance that scientists found in wild potato’s growing in the Andes, the potato’s own center of diversity.
  • What happens when the wild potatoes and wild apples are gone? The best technology can’t create a new gene or re-create one that’s been lost. How lucky for us that wilderness survives in a seed and can be cultivated.

‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.,’ Thoreau once wrote; a century later, when many of the wild places are no more, Wendell Berry has proposed this necessary corollary: ‘In human culture is the preservation of wildness.’

Chapter 2: Desire: Beauty /Plant: The Tulip

Chapter 3: Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana

Chapter 4: Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato

Epilogue

Sources

Index

Monday, March 19, 2012 @ 03:03 AM
posted by admin

THE BOTANY OF DESIRE

A PLANT’S-EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD

MICHAEL POLLAN

BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING    2001/2003

PART 2

 

Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple

If you were on the banks of the Ohio River in 1806 – somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say – you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed he scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already known by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomac that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but its safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth – a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that ‘it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,’ and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. ‘Exotics,’ we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.

  • More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plant’s point of view – pomocentrically,’ you might say.
  • He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him.
  • Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
  • The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America, in which Chapman played such a pivotal role.
  • Chapman preferred to get out ahead of the settlers moving west, planting a nursery on a tract of wilderness he judged ripe for settlement and then waiting. By the time the settlers arrived, he’d have apple trees ready to sell them.
  • By the 1830s John Chapman was operating a chain of nurseries that reached all the way from western Pennsylvania through central Ohio and into Indiana.
  • It was in Fort Wayne that Chapman died in 1845 – wearing the infamous coffee sack, some say, yet leaving an estate that included some 1,200 acres of prime real estate. The barefoot crank died a wealthy man.
  • Apples don’t ‘come true’ from seeds – that is, an apple tree grown from a seed wild be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parents.
  • Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible.
  • Most judged them good for little but hard cider. Apples were something that people drank. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.

Two facts about these seeds are worth noting. First they contain a small quantity of cyanide, probably a defense the apple evolved to discourage animals from biting into them; they’re almost indescribably bitter.

The second, more important fact about those seeds concerns their genetic contents, which are likewise full of surprises. Every seed in that apple, not to mention every seed riding down the Ohio olongside John Chapman, contains the genetic instruction for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting – the ancient technique of cloning trees – every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety, and it would be impossible to keep a good one going beyond the life span of that particular tree.

  • More than any other single trait, it is the apple’s genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as New England and New Zealand, Kazakhstan and California.
  • Wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations – at least five per apple, several thousand per tree – that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.
  • True domestication had to await the invention of grafting by the Chinese who discovered that a slip of wood cut from a desirable tree could be notched into the trunk of another tree.
  • Once this graft ‘took,’ the fruit produced on new wood growing out from the juncture would share the characteristics of its more desirable parent, allowing the Greeks and Romans to select and propagate the choicest specimens.
  • According to Pliny, the Romans cultivated twenty-three different varieties of apples, some of which they took to England.
  • The earliest immigrants to America had brought grafted Old World apple trees with them, but in general these trees fared poorly in their new home.
  • But the colonists also planted seeds, often saved from apples eaten during their Atlantic passage, and these seedling trees, called ‘pippins,’ eventually prospered (especially after the colonists imported honeybees to improve pollination).
  • In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American –as Newtown Pippins and Baldwins, Golden Russets and Jonathans.
  • By reverting to wild ways – to sexual reproduction and going to seed – the apple was able to reach down into its vast store of genes, accumulated over the course of its travels through Asia and Europe, and discover the precise combination of traits required to survive in the New World.
  • The apple probably also found what it needed by hybridising with the wild American crabs, which are the only native American apple trees.
  • Thanks to the species’ inherent prodigality, coupled with the work of individuals like John Chapman, in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves.
  • Chapman was selling cheaply something that everybody wanted – something everybody in Ohio needed by law, because a land grant required a settler to ‘set out at least fifty apple or pear trees’ as a condition of his deed.
  • The sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple.
  • Anthropologists have found that cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavours, but a taste for sweetness appears to be universal.
  • Sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. By encasing their seeds in sugary and nutritious flesh, fruiting plants such as apple hit on an ingenious way of exploiting the mammalian sweet tooth: in exchange for fructose, the animals provide the seeds with transportation, allowing the plant to expand its range.
  • As parties to this grand coevolutionary bargain, animals with the strongest predilection for sweetness and plants offering the biggest, sweetest fruits prospered together and multiplied, evolving into the species we see, and are, today.
  • Alcohol is of course, the other great beneficence of sugar: it is made by encouraging certain yeasts to dine on the sugars manufactured in plants. The sweetest fruit makes the strongest drink, and in the north, where grapes didn’t do well, that was usually the apple.
  • Up until prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.
  • Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples John Chapman had for sale would have been its intoxicating harvest of drink, available to anyone with a press and a barrel.
  • Eventually Prohibitionists would launch their campaign to chop down apple trees.
  • It wasn’t until this century that the apple acquired its reputation for wholesomeness – ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was a marketing slogan dreamed up by growers concerned that temperance would cut into sales.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 @ 08:03 AM
posted by admin

THE BOTANY OF DESIRE

A PLANT’S-EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD

MICHAEL POLLAN

BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING    2001/2003

PART 1

Back cover

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald’s can enjoy a long golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them?

In blending history, memoir and superb science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species – the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. All four plants are integral to our everyday lives and Pollan demonstrates how each has thrived by satisfying one of humankind’s most basic desires.

Introduction: The Human Bumblebee

The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden – while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighborhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And what I found myself thinking about was this: What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a fingerling potato instead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who ‘selected,’ ‘developed,’ or ‘bred’ the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.

  • The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.
  • The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classical example of what is know as ‘coevolution’.
  • In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different; we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago.
  • The size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations – by Incas and Irishmen, even people like me ordering French fries at McDonald’s.
  • The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in the arrangement.
  • All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Did I choose to plant the potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalogue.
  • Evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalogue on a particular January evening counts as one of them.
  • That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.
  • All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
  • And that’s when I had the idea: What would happen if we looked at the world beyond the garden this way, regarded our place in nature from the same upside-down perspective?
  • This book attempts to do just that, by telling the story of four familiar plants – the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato – and the human desires that link their destinies to our own.
  • Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world, which I approach from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plant’s point of view.
  • The four plants whose stories this book tells are called domesticated species, leaving the erroneous impression that we’re in charge.
  • The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories.
  • There are fifty million dogs in America today, only ten thousand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t?
  • The big thing the dog has mastered is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes as part of a sophisticated strategy for survival.
  • We don’t ordinarily give plants as much credit as animals, but the same would be true of the genetic books of the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
  • Every Russet Burbank potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain – and our taste for long, perfectly golden French fries. That’s because we have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species through artificial selection.
  • What is much less obvious, at least to us, is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the business of remaking us.
  • I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves.
  • My premise is that these human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar.
  • The four desires I explore are sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. These four plants have something important to teach us about these four desires – that is, about what makes us tick.
  • Plant’s are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry.
  • Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, a group of angiosperms refined their put-the-animals-to-work strategy to take advantage of one particular animal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth, but to think and trade complicated thoughts.
  • These plants hit on a remarkably clever strategy: getting us to move and think for them. Edible grasses incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them; plants so compelling, and useful and tasty they would inspire human being to seed, transport, extol, and even write books about them. This is one of those books.
  • For a great many species today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force. Artificial selection has moved into a world once ruled exclusively by natural selection.
  • Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s. This is the world in which we, along with Earth’s other creatures, now must make our uncharted way.
  • Each of the chapters that follows takes the form of a journey that either starts out, stops by, or ends up in my garden but along the way ventures far afield, both in space and historical time.
  • I look at these four species through a variety of lenses: social and natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, and memoir.

 

Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple

 

Thursday, March 8, 2012 @ 04:03 AM
posted by admin

STONE MULCHING IN THE GARDEN

J. I. RODALE

RODALE PRESS                 1949

PART IV

 

Chapter 6: The Stone Vegetable Garden

In an earlier section of this book I mentioned an observation of Joseph A. Cocannouer, in his valuable Tramping Out the Vintage, about how the Bavarians spread stones over the ground between the rows of growing crops for the purpose of preserving soil moisture. I thought of thee Bavarians and their stones often.

Our countryside is full of stones to be had free for the hauling. One day in thinking how I could experiment with Faulkner’s plowless method of gardening, the thought occurred, why not combine both ideas – rocks and plowless gardening.

We had made an essay into Faulkner’s theory a few years before, but in merely discing the land the weeds had sprung up stronger than the crop seeds. Plowing permits your seeds to sprout ahead of the weeds. This experiment had been a disastrous failure, but others with different soil conditions have had success with plowless farming. There is no question that keeping your best surface top-soil always near the surface has numerous advantages. In a few days we were hauling stones and laying them down in neat rows, the stone sections being about two feet wide and the soil section being about eight to ten inches. These were not going to be used in the Bavarian manner but were to stay there permanently, thus canceling forever the need for plowing. The only cultivation would be in the rows, which would get a vigorous stirring before each planting.

  • Before putting down the stones we applied a generous dressing of compost and built up the level of soil in the rows with soil and compost.
  • We made one serious mistake. We should have given the land one farewell plowing.
  • Stones should be dug into the ground a bit so that the flat surfaces show up to be neat and flat, affording a pleasure in looking at it.

I am not suggesting this stone method for farmers or truck gardeners, but believe it has splendid possibilities for those who have the room for it and a copious supply of stones. The labor in handling and laying the rocks is not small, but since the advantages and labor reduction that will accrue in the years to come will be so considerable, it will pay an eventual handsome reward. One can work it on a five-year basis, putting in a section each year. Stones can be gathered in the fall, when the gardening season is at a low ebb, as well as in early spring before the gardening springs into action. With one of these gardens you become independent of the plowman, and do not have to worry about a wet spring which retards plowing. Nor do you have to sit and wait while the plowman seems to plow everybody else’s garden but your own. You are way ahead of the neighbors.

  • This stone vegetable garden is ideal for Mr. Lazyman, for weeding is pared down to a minimum.

One of the principal advantages is the conservation of moisture under the rocks, and for this reason such a garden should be ideal for arid country. Moving air over ordinary garden soil tends to dry it out easily. In a rain more of the water is caught, due to the presence of the stones. Less of it washes away. The stones also precipitate more dew, as well as prevent the hot sun from reaching the roots.

The stones create a temperature underneath of at least 10° higher than the outside surface, which is an extremely important factor in early spring and late fall, thus adding to the growing season. It encourages the microbes to multiply. The stones themselves retain heat, and in the spring I noticed tomato seedlings bent over toward one side, apparently hugging the stone to garner a bit of warmth. One of our readers, Cora Barnett of New York City writes, “In Japan I noticed in so many little vegetable gardens, a sizeable stone somewhere near the middle. I asked the purpose of the stone and was told it was for heat, as it absorbs during the day and gives off at night.”

As an erosion preventative it is ideal. It stops ordinary as well as sheet or wind erosion. In fact such erosion is non-existent. It is ideal for use on steep or inclined land, where ordinarily one would fear to grow a vegetable garden because a heavy rain would wash soil down by the bucket-full. The stone-garden plan on an incline is a natural method of terracing, as the dirt rows between the stones become pretty level. Some of our garden is on mildly inclined land which was out of use for that very reason.

  • The aeration under a stone is better than that of the open ground or sod. The conditions under a stone, its darkness and warmth, stimulate biologic life.
  • The bacteria multiply prolifically. The earthworms, beetles and other insects thrive. The sum total of all their activities shows up in a nice granular surface of the soil.
  • The miracle of it is that the biologic life under the stones will improve from year to year and eventually create a condition of fertility that will be as near perfect as it is possible to attain.

The earthworm, or earthworker as we should by right call him, is the principal actor in this little underworld drama. There is an affinity between an earthworm and a rock. Pick up a sizeable rock in a field and your chances of seeing an earthworm or two right on the soil surface is very good.

  • The earthworm likes the darkness, moisture and warmth under the rock, but in addition, he actually chews on it.
  • These very conditions – darkness, moisture and warmth – make the hardest rocks break down and crumble underneath, ever so slightly to be sure, but sufficient to furnish food for the earthworm.

This little soil digger, thus through his castings, distributes some of the mineral matter of the stones through the ssoil. It is known that the earthworm has a triturating mechanism in his digestive system which can completely break down small stone particles. As the years go on, the action of the elements will make the stones weather underneath, thus furnishing the soil a valuable mineral amendment. A wide array of kinds of stones would thus be much more effective than a dressing of ground limestone which comes from one quarry and is thus more limited in the number of mineral elements. In our stone garden there are a dozen kinds of rock including limestone, granite, sandstone, gneiss, etc. There is a sufficiency in them of practically every kind of mineral needed by the soil.

  • Just as the earthworm likes a stone, so do roots. The roots of plants may place themselves alongside of pieces of rock, and by their action derive some nourishment from them.
  • These roots contain organic acids which act with much vigor upon mineral substances. Humus in the soil in its processes of decay gives off numerous organic acids.
  • In this stone garden you can more easily control succession planting. You also can more easily regulate the amount you need for your family. There is something about the stone rows that makes a better yard-stick.
  • In this garden, you not only get in weeks before your neighbor but you do away with the weary chore of spring spading.
  • Every row and section is numbered so that you can rotate crops year to year.
  • The asparagus bed will find a secure home in the rock rows and stay put.
  • We started 14 rows of strawberries last fall. Harvesting is marvelously simple. You can control the acidity or alkalinity of each row. When we made our strawberry bed we brought in acid soil from the woods and there will never be an application of lime there. We will dig in from time to time thoroughly decayed acid leaf mould.
  • Turnips, parsley and watermelons prefer an acid soil. Our Vegetable Pocket Guide tabulates plants with the lime preferences.
  • We had steady rain of three days duration and when it stopped I went into the garden immediately and began weeding. In neighboring gardens they didn’t dare enter for three or four days.
  • This method is a great time-saver. You limit your self to working in only eight or nine inches of row.
  • It is in the row that you put most of your compost so that as the years pass, it will become extremely rich. The ground there should become a marvelous seedbed for starting plants.

Sir Albert Howard in his Agricultural Testament explains how he witnessed a condition of infestation of aphids in plants, which seemed to be spotty. The aphids were present in some rows and not in others. When he investigated he discovered that where they were present the soil underneath was extremely hard but where they were absent, the soil was softer.

  • The general beauty seems to be enhanced if one confines oneself to low-growing vegetables.
  • When the head of a big system of parks saw the amazing one-year growth of asparagus in the stones, he went home and immediately put out a new bed of asparagus in a rock setting.

 

PART TWO

 

Introduction

  • In Part Two will be reproduced a few articles that have appeared in Organic Magazine, written by persons who have applied rock mulches of various kinds.

 

Chapter 7: The Vegetable Rock Garden by Raymond Green

Chapter 8: My Rock Orchard by Robert E. Baum

Chapter 9: Pot-Holers and Rock-Pilers

Chapter 10: Rock Mulch by John C. Gifford

Chapter 11: Increase of Earthworm Activity through Rock Mulching by Herbert Clarence White

  • During the past eight months since that article appeared, some very interesting, if not startling results have been observed by this writer, especially with regard to the tremendous increase in the earthworm population and activity under the fruit trees and grape vines where the rock mulches were applied over the heavy leaf mulches.
  • My three-inch leaf mulches were disappearing as if by magic. Whereas in the Boysenberry patch it took nine to ten months for the earthworm population to devour the three-inch mulch, under the rock mulches the same amount of leaves vanished completely in only sixty days.
  • The conditions created by the presence of these cobblestones, stimulated earthworm activity by at least 500%.
  • On average it takes about 15 minutes to remove the rocks, apply the leaf mulch and restore the rocks to their former position on top of the leaf mulch.
  • The extra time employed in gathering the raw materials and applying these leaf-and-rock mulches is largely, if not wholly compensated for in saving both the time and effort in the after-care of the orchard.
  • First in importance to the California gardener is the saving in irrigation. The problem of weeding is automatically solved; no weeds will grow through the heavy leaf-and-rock mulch.
  • The problem of fertilizing the orchard is largely solved, for the earthworms convert the mineral-rich leaf mulches into water soluble plant food and distribute it where the feeder roots can take it up most readily.
  • The large earthworm population also cultivates and aerates the soil without the danger of disturbing the tender feeder roots near the surface.
  • Last but not least, is the large degree of immunity conferred upon the trees and vines thus treated, with the consequent saving in time and materials for poisonous sprays, as well as expensive spraying equipment, which in many orchards has reached an all-time high.
  • The soil thus enriched seems to impart a keeping quality and extra flavor to the fruit, not found in fruit that has been grown in soils that have been poisoned by artificial fertilizers and lethal sprays.
  • Sound cell structure in tree and fruit also results in a remarkable ‘resistance’ to virus and fungous diseases, and most remarkable of all – a large degree of freedom from insect pests of every description.
  • The crowning achievement in this little experiment came when I discovered up to three inches of pure, black, velvety earthworm castings under my trees that had been rock-mulched. Three inches of castings in only four months!
  • I am still a bit breathless over this latest discovery. Twice the results in one-third of the time! That is a 600% gain over the results obtained in my Boysenberry patch, as reported in the June issue.
  • As I write these lines I am getting a bit dizzy, for if the statisticians are correct, a single one-inch layer of topsoil over an acre of land will weigh approximately 428,571 pounds. Three inches of earthworm castings over an  equal area will weigh 1,285,713 pounds – nearly 643 tons of topsoil – rich neutral colloidal humus, the finest plant food known to agriculture in only four months!
  • The remarkable thing about all this is that these results were obtained without ‘planting’ one domesticated red manure worm, or a single wild grey worm in the soil. They just ‘moved in’ when I provided simple living conditions and good food in the form of elm and oak leaves.
  • According to statistics from the Government Experiment Stations, and confirmed by leading scientists, the soil which passes through the bodies of these little animals is somehow miraculously changed in both texture and quality. Minerals ‘hidden’ in the soil, which are unavailable for plant nutrition are suddenly released and made available.
  • It has been demonstrated that earthworm castings contain 300% more magnesium, 500% more nitrogen, 700% more available phosphates, and 1100% more potassium than the soil from which they came.
  • Worms constitute a perpetual fertilizer factory; and once a large earthworm population is established in the soil, little else need be done to keep the land fertile and in top physical condition.
  • As Mr. Oliver reports in his famous earthworm classic: “Most soils are deficient in elements necessary for plant life not because the elements are not present, but because they are unavailable to the plant roots. All the elements are in the soil, but which are hidden and unavailable to the plant roots, are broken down by the earthworm and made available. Man has yet to invent, devise or manufacture any machine, any solid or liquid fertilizer as efficient as the earthworm. In this invertebrate animal, Nature has a perpetual soil builder, a four-in-one creature that acts upon the soil as chemist, triturator, cultivator and distributor of plant food. Few creatures equal the burrowing earthworm as a necessity to better health and greater growth to plant and vegetable life, and therefore, indirectly it is of the utmost importance to man.”
  • What a pity that modern (so-called ‘improved’) agricultural methods, through the free use of lethal sprays and poisonous chemical fertilizers result in the wholesale destruction and ruthless slaughter of these beneficient little helpers and friends of mankind.
  • It would seem that in following popular agricultural procedures the American farmer and gardener is actually ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg.’ Henceforth our motto should be, ‘LET THEM LIVE!’
  • Should not a ‘Soil Building Program’ in place of an ‘Insect Extermination Program’ be the order of the day in America’s new agriculture?
Saturday, March 3, 2012 @ 04:03 AM
posted by admin

STONE MULCHING IN THE GARDEN

J. I. RODALE

RODALE PRESS                 1949

PART III

Chapter 3: The Reasons

  • A rock mulch does not permit grass or weeds to spring up in its domain, thus competing with your plant or tree for sustenance.
  • It does away with the need of either plowing or discing, leaving the bacteria, the earthworms, and other valuable organisms undisturbed.
  • It conserves water, an extremely vital point in setting out trees in dry, irrigated regions. The protective stones act as a buffer against the withering effect of the wind. The flowing rains are easily captured by the rocks.
  • Softer stones act as a sponge, absorbing dew and moisture, giving it back to the soil slowly.
  • A stone mulch causes the earth under it to be well aerated, providing conditions that are ideal for bacteria, earthworms, and burrowing insects.
  • Stones furnish a temperature regulating mechanism which is beneficial in the spring and in the fall.
  • In hurricane regions the stone mulch should be built much higher in the sections nearest to the trunk to serve as a wind-break.
  • Many types of stones disintegrate at the bottom, thus enriching the soil with valuable minerals in a form that is soluble.
  • Many rocks are very slightly radioactive and/or possess fluorescent qualities and/or produce halos that may exert a beneficial influence on a growing plant.
  • A stone-mulch improves the mycorrhizal association. The mycorrhizae are a fungous growth on the roots of plants and live in a symbiotic or partnership arrangement with their host, the roots.
  • When chemical fertilizers are used the mycorrhiza is either absent or, if present, is defective. There is sufficient evidence to prove that the mycorrhizal mechanism is the bridge between the soil and human health, the state of which is obviously contingent on the quality of man’s food which itself stems from the soil.

 

Chapter 4: Letters

·         After my article on stone-mulching in Organic Gardening Magazine, it was hailed by an avalanche of letters. This chapter will comprise a selection of the most noteworthy and informative letters.

·         “The fissured limestone on this mountain top on the island of Majorca leaves almost no earth visible. But wild olives grow in the crannies, send their roots far down into the fissures, look healthy, are grafted to good varieties, and yield well.”

·         “Many efforts to transplant local cedars even a few miles failed, until rocks were placed around the foot, when they grow and flourish amazingly.”

·         “Some of the best peach orchards in the country are on exceedingly stony land; the stones hold heat well and are troublesome only in working the ground.”

  • “I have seen sickly groves of limes and other fruits revived when rocks were piled high around the trunk to keep the bark from scorching and the roots from becoming dry and hot.”
  • “I covered my pansy bed with two inches of gravel. The unusual rains rotted most of them out but 3 plants lived through a second winter. One of them is enormous with as many as 15 blooms, some as large as 4 inches.”
  • “A friend of mine growing roses, digs down two feet and places crushed stone at the bottom to insure good drainage.”
  • “I’m sure the reason why your earthworms multiply so well under your rock mulch is because they are protected from birds.”
  • “It seems to me that the two worst enemies of successful gardens are evaporation and weeds. Dry gardens and weedy gardens are seldom, if ever, profitable. Rock mulch will deal with these two arch enemies sternly and efficaciously.”
  • “I make mulching rocks from furnace ash using cake pans eight inches square and one and one quarter inches deep, coated with machine oil or lined with paper, with one part cement to three parts of ashes.” (I strongly advise against the use of coal ashes as it contains soluble sulphates known to kill worms.)
  • “I can report surprisingly good results from rock-mulching some young fruit trees. All in all, I can only highly recommend this sound, natural way of treating our starving soil.”

 

Chapter 5: Farming With Stones

  • His father had one field that was littered thick with small stones. He could always reap a bumper crop of rye there, because that particular grain craves a damp soil.
  • Open Virgil’s book on Agriculture and you will find a discussion of stone mulching in the vineyard. Columella, palladius, Pliny, and Theophrastus are equally reliable witnesses to the practice of stone mulching.
  • Modern scientific farming has much to learn by perusing the literature of the past, and by applying some of the venerable old-time practices in both fertilizer usage and crop growing.
  • We have much to learn from China. Yet in the face of this, the United States has sent agricultural missions there in the last few years to teach her how to farm in the Western manner – we who have ruined 51% of our soils in only one century.
  • Dr. Lowdermilk, who taught China American methods of fighting erosion says: “About Lanchow we were introduced to pebble mulching as a means of conserving moisture in farmlands. This practice is old. It consists of the heavy task of digging out river gravels and spreading them over fields to a depth of three to four inches. The layer of pebbles causes all the rain to soak into the soil and reduces evaporation loss, thus increasing effectiveness of a scanty rainfall of about 12 inches. The favorite crops for pebble mulch are melons, watermelons, cantaloupes, and cotton.”
  • I don’t recommend the broad or indiscriminate application of rock mulches to the farm. This book deals with rock-mulching in the garden and small fruit orchard, but several letters have been received from people who have applied it to a large acreage.
  • Seumas Ridge writes: “I often saw an Aran man planting potato slits on the naked rock, and covering them with weed and dabs of clay. Yet, the finest crops in Eire grow there, when the year comes favorable.”

 

Chapter 6: The Stone Vegetable Garden

  • I experimented with a combination of Faulkner’s plowless method of gardening and rock mulching.
  • There is no question that keeping your best surface top-soil always near the surface has numerous advantages.
  • We laid stones in neat rows, the stone sections being about two feet wide and the soil section being eight to ten inches. The only cultivation would be in the rows, which would get a vigorous stirring before each planting.
  • Before putting down the stones we applied a generous dressing of compost and built up the level of soil in the rows with soil and compost. We made one serious mistake. We should have given the land one farewell plowing.
  • This stone vegetable garden is ideal for Mr. Lazyman, for weeding is pared down to a minimum. One of the principal advantages is the conservation of moisture under the rocks, and for this reason such a garden should be ideal for arid country.
  • The stones also precipitate more dew, as well as prevent the hot sun from reaching the roots.
  • As an erosion preventative it is ideal. It stops ordinary as well as sheet or wind erosion. In fact such erosion is non-existent. It is ideal for use on steep or inclined land.
  • There is an affinity between an earthworm and a rock. Pick up a sizeable rock in a field and your chances of seeing an earthworm or two right on the soil surface is very good.
  • The earthworm likes the darkness, moisture and warmth under the rock, but in addition, he actually chews on it.
  • In our stone garden there are a dozen kinds of rock. There is a sufficiency in them of practically every kind of mineral needed by the soil.
  • Every row and section is numbered so that you can rotate crops year to year.
  • The asparagus bed will find a secure home in the rock rows and stay put.
  • We started 14 rows of strawberries last fall. Harvesting is marvelously simple. You can control the acidity or alkalinity of each row. When we made our strawberry bed we brought in acid soil from the woods and there will never be an application of lime there. We will dig in from time to time thoroughly decayed acid leaf mould.
  • Turnips, parsley and watermelons prefer an acid soil. Our Vegetable Pocket Guide tabulates plants with the lime preferences.
  • We had steady rain of three days duration and when it stopped I went into the garden immediately and began weeding. In neighboring gardens they didn’t dare enter for three or four days.
  • This method is a great time-saver. You limit your self to working in only eight or nine inches of row.
  • It is in the row that you put most of your compost so that as the years pass, it will become extremely rich. The ground there should become a marvelous seedbed for starting plants.
  • Sir Albert Howard in his Agricultural Testament explains how he witnessed a condition of infestation of aphids. They were present where the soil was extremely hard but absent where the soil was softer.
  • The general beauty seems to be enhanced if one confines oneself to low-growing vegetables.
  • When the head of a big system of parks saw the amazing one-year growth of asparagus in the stones, he went home and immediately put out a new bed of asparagus in a rock setting.

 

PART TWO

 

Introduction

  • In Part Two will be reproduced a few articles that have appeared in Organic Magazine, written by persons who have applied rock mulches of various kinds.

 

Chapter 7: The Vegetable Rock Garden by Raymond Green

Chapter 8: My Rock Orchard by Robert E. Baum

Chapter 9: Pot-Holers and Rock-Pilers

Chapter 10: Rock Mulch by John C. Gifford

Chapter 11: Increase of Earthworm Activity through Rock Mulching by Herbert Clarence White

  • During the past eight months since that article appeared, some very interesting, if not startling results have been observed by this writer, especially with regard to the tremendous increase in the earthworm population and activity under the fruit trees and grape vines where the rock mulches were applied over the heavy leaf mulches.
  • My three-inch leaf mulches were disappearing as if by magic. Whereas in the Boysenberry patch it took nine to ten months for the earthworm population to devour the three-inch mulch, under the rock mulches the same amount of leaves vanished completely in only sixty days.
  • The conditions created by the presence of these cobblestones, stimulated earthworm activity by at least 500%.
  • On average it takes about 15 minutes to remove the rocks, apply the leaf mulch and restore the rocks to their former position on top of the leaf mulch.
  • The extra time employed in gathering the raw materials and applying these leaf-and-rock mulches is largely, if not wholly compensated for in saving both the time and effort in the after-care of the orchard.
  • First in importance to the California gardener is the saving in irrigation. The problem of weeding is automatically solved; no weeds will grow through the heavy leaf-and-rock mulch.
  • The problem of fertilizing the orchard is largely solved, for the earthworms convert the mineral-rich leaf mulches into water soluble plant food and distribute it where the feeder roots can take it up most readily.
  • The large earthworm population also cultivates and aerates the soil without the danger of disturbing the tender feeder roots near the surface.
  • Last but not least, is the large degree of immunity conferred upon the trees and vines thus treated, with the consequent saving in time and materials for poisonous sprays, as well as expensive spraying equipment, which in many orchards has reached an all-time high.
  • The soil thus enriched seems to impart a keeping quality and extra flavor to the fruit, not found in fruit that has been grown in soils that have been poisoned by artificial fertilizers and lethal sprays.
  • Sound cell structure in tree and fruit also results in a remarkable ‘resistance’ to virus and fungous diseases, and most remarkable of all – a large degree of freedom from insect pests of every description.
  • The crowning achievement in this little experiment came when I discovered up to three inches of pure, black, velvety earthworm castings under my trees that had been rock-mulched. Three inches of castings in only four months!
  • I am still a bit breathless over this latest discovery. Twice the results in one-third of the time! That is a 600% gain over the results obtained in my Boysenberry patch, as reported in the June issue.
  • As I write these lines I am getting a bit dizzy, for if the statisticians are correct, a single one-inch layer of topsoil over an acre of land will weigh approximately 428,571 pounds. Three inches of earthworm castings over an  equal area will weigh 1,285,713 pounds – nearly 643 tons of topsoil – rich neutral colloidal humus, the finest plant food known to agriculture in only four months!
  • The remarkable thing about all this is that these results were obtained without ‘planting’ one domesticated red manure worm, or a single wild grey worm in the soil. They just ‘moved in’ when I provided simple living conditions and good food in the form of elm and oak leaves.
  • According to statistics from the Government Experiment Stations, and confirmed by leading scientists, the soil which passes through the bodies of these little animals is somehow miraculously changed in both texture and quality. Minerals ‘hidden’ in the soil, which are unavailable for plant nutrition are suddenly released and made available.
  • It has been demonstrated that earthworm castings contain 300% more magnesium, 500% more nitrogen, 700% more available phosphates, and 1100% more potassium than the soil from which they came.
  • Worms constitute a perpetual fertilizer factory; and once a large earthworm population is established in the soil, little else need be done to keep the land fertile and in top physical condition.
  • As Mr. Oliver reports in his famous earthworm classic: “Most soils are deficient in elements necessary for plant life not because the elements are not present, but because they are unavailable to the plant roots. All the elements are in the soil, but which are hidden and unavailable to the plant roots, are broken down by the earthworm and made available. Man has yet to invent, devise or manufacture any machine, any solid or liquid fertilizer as efficient as the earthworm. In this invertebrate animal, Nature has a perpetual soil builder, a four-in-one creature that acts upon the soil as chemist, triturator, cultivator and distributor of plant food. Few creatures equal the burrowing earthworm as a necessity to better health and greater growth to plant and vegetable life, and therefore, indirectly it is of the utmost importance to man.”
  • What a pity that modern (so-called ‘improved’) agricultural methods, through the free use of lethal sprays and poisonous chemical fertilizers result in the wholesale destruction and ruthless slaughter of these beneficient little helpers and friends of mankind.
  • It would seem that in following popular agricultural procedures the American farmer and gardener is actually ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg.’ Henceforth our motto should be, ‘LET THEM LIVE!’
  • Should not a ‘Soil Building Program’ in place of an ‘Insect Extermination Program’ be the order of the day in America’s new agriculture?
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 @ 05:02 AM
posted by admin

STONE MULCHING IN THE GARDEN

J. I. RODALE

RODALE PRESS                 1949

PART II

Chapter 2: Rocks – Parents of the Soil

 

“And this our life exempt from public haunt

finds tongues in trees, books in brooks,

sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Shakespeare, As You Like It

In Biblical times stones were employed contemptuously as a means of warfare against goliaths, or of punishment, as in the case of pious but unfortunate Stephen. Today we have turned them to a better end, directing our knowledge of their value and ingredients to treatment and use of them in our gardens. Since this book is to deal exclusively with rocks it should be helpful to the reader to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of the relationship between rocks and the soil, a little bit of elementary geology, so to speak. Then he will see that there really are “sermons in stones.”

As you learn more and more about the origin and makeup of rocks the subject under discussion will take on more significance and interest.

  • Beneath the earth’s surface lies a hard covering, a layer of rock known as bed rock.
  • This is covered by loose and unintegrated materials called mantle rock, that sustains the growth of plants. It is, of course, the soil.
  • This mantle rock is classifiable into three divisions: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.
  • We classify rocks as either acidic (those with a high percentage of silica) or basic (those containing large amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium or sodium).
  • Basic rocks condition soil better than siliceous, acidic ones.

Igneous rocks constitute the principle source of phosphorus, potash, lime and soda. The best-known rock of this type is granite, which sometimes contains excessive quantities of potash.

Sedimentary rocks are produced by the debris of other rocks and so are called fragmentary, or clastic. From the viewpoint of soils they compromise the great soil-creating formations, and contain a very high percentage of silica, 58.38%.

The process of metamorphism which transforms rocks originally of other types to that which we have called metamorphic sometimes strengthens rather than weakens them; for example, marble is much harder than the more friable limestone from which it was derived. Gneiss, schists, slates, quartzite and marble are the common types of metamorphic rocks.

For millions of years the earth’s crust has been “weathering” – its rock structure decomposing through the action of heat and cold, winds, rains, fogs, glacier movement, climatic change, and the life and death cycles of plants and animals. From the activity of the lowly lichen – a peculiar association of microscopic plant, the alga, and a fungus, acting in a partnership – the “weathering” of rock begins. From the digging of tiny roots into the rock and their existence on air-borne particles of dust a process of evolution in plant life gradually takes place, until we have the teeming life of a tropical jungle, with its dense growths, quick decay, and vast census of animal and plant life and organisms. Soil is constantly being created by the factors of climate, rock and soil structure, and plant and animal life.

  • The well-being of cattle and human beings is closely related to the kind of soil which grows their food, and this, in turn, is influenced by the kind of rock out of which the soil is formed.
  • The better soils are on limestone, basalt, dolerite, diorite, and gabbro formations.
  • In 1931 in Florida a “salt sick” disease, an anemic condition of cattle, was found to occur in practically all parts of that state, but only on light, sandy soils. No such sickness occurred on clay soils.
  • In New Zealand in 1932 it was found that bush sickness was found mostly over granitic formations.
  • A bone disease of livestock was discovered in Australia in 1895 in cattle fed largely from granite soils, where there was a deficiency of lime.
  • In 1920 there was a deficiency disease called “creeping sickness” in southern Alabama along the Coastal Plains; it was found only among people who lived on sandy soils low in lime content.
  • In 1924 in South Texas there was noticed a fatal disease in cattle called “loin disease” or “down-in-the-back,” in a section where the soil was notably lime-deficient.
  • A nutritional anemia in Florida was discovered in 1934 in the flatwoods country, affecting 96% of the children in that section. The soil is known as Leon, and it is thin, sandy, and low in lime content.
  • Six miles away where the soil overlays hard rock phosphate, only 3% of the children have this amemic condition.
  • Deaf Smith County, Texas, became known as “the county without a toothache.” The soil derives from rocks that are rich in lime and phosphorus and contain some fluorine which is important in the making of bone and teeth.
  • Even when strangers come to Deaf Smith County, the cavities in their teeth glaze over and progress no further.
  • The farmers bring in spindly cattle from Mexico and in a short time make fine, big-boned animals out of them.
  • What kind of rock structure you have under your soil is important. It is a large factor in determining the nature of good soil.
  • In northwest India there is a race called the Hunzas, who are about the healthiest people in the world. Across the river from them live the Nagyrs, who are of the same race, but whose health is entirely different.
  • The main reason for the differences between them seems to lie in the organic matter in which the Hunzas produce their food. The Hunzas have a much more desirable geologic formation under the soils on their side of the river.
  • Rakaposhi, the glacier-topped mountain that is more than 20,000 feet high and which dominates the Hunza, is of limestone formation.
  • Sir Robert McCarrison who spent eight years as physician and medical investigator among the Hunzas (1904 to 1911) continually mentions the fertile Hunza soils in his published works.
  • Roger Babson, in his column for the New York Times of February 4, 1944, said: ‘Europe will always have trouble with those Prussians. There is something in the soil of Prussia which grows people with that fighting instinct. European peace is unalterably linked up with the minerals of the soil.’
  • Germany is noted for its tremendous potash deposits. Germany, according to the 1928 figures, uses seventeen times the amount of chemical fertilizers we use here in the United States, a practice which may, and very likely does, aggravate the difficulty.
  • The Germans may behave the way they do because of the mineral content of their soil, overrich in some elements and doubtless deficient in many others.
  • In Japan you have a somewhat analogous situation. The Japanese islands consist mainly of a volcanic ash soil, destitute of lime and considered very low in the scale of soil values.
  • It may be that Japanese soils need tremendously heavy dressings of limestone, of phosphatic rocks, dolomites, etc., the materials for which would have to be imported.
  • Perhaps the new world organization to maintain peace ought to study this subject as it may have a great deal to offer in explaining national behavior.
  • Dr. Greene in The Cancer Problem says that cancer is least frequent in districts that lie on a limestone geologic formation.
  • A group of French physicians and chemists in1932 suggested a direct relationship between the incidence of cancer and the rock formation from which the soil derives.
  • Certain rocks of a dolomitic character (a form of limestone rich in magnesium) produce a soil which seems to be low in cancer incidence, whereas rock formations such as granites which are rich in potash have the reverse effect.
  • Potash is slightly radio-active and seems to be suspect as a cause of cancer. If magnesium goes down then potash goes up. In many orchards because of increasing potassium – magnesium deficiency diseases occur.

These French scientists carefully plotted maps which indicated the extent of magnesium in the geologic formations of various parts of the world, and then they placed on top of it the cancer mortality figures for those regions. The agreement is startling. Egypt, a country rich in magnesium, shows an extremely low cancer rate. Certain parts of France also show a similar situation. There are doubtless other factors known and unknown, in the cancer equation, the sulphur theory of Dr. Greene, for instance, but in this connection one must point out that sulphur is found more often in granites and the other rock formations listed as producers of inferior soils than in limestone.

  • If a farm is located on one of the unfavorable soil formations, use liberal amounts of the lime, phosphate rock and dolomite and none of the strong chemical fertilizers. Try to get oyster-shell lime and other organic amendments. Make and apply as much compost as possible. I believe you can gradually build up a perfectly safe soil, the organic way.

 

Chapter 3: The Reasons

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 @ 11:02 AM
posted by admin

STONE MULCHING IN THE GARDEN

J. I. RODALE

RODALE PRESS                 1949

PART I

 

Chapter 1: Stone Mulches Under Trees

My dictionary defines a mulch as a layer of dried leaves, straw, etc., used to protect the roots of trees and plants. Actually, a much more comprehensive group of materials is intended when one thinks of mulches. Roll paper is made specifically as a mulch material. Even cinders have been used, but recently there came to my attention the use of stones, and the results were so amazing that this may seriously be considered for use in the small home orchard and garden.

In the July, 1944, issue of The Flower Grower there appeared an article by Walter J. Muilenberg describing an unusual experience with the Canada Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis). In northeastern Michigan this tree is never found in pure stands. It is mixed in with hardwoods that protect it from the wind and sun. It seems impossible to transplant this species and make it grow under ordinary conditions.

  • Muilenberg was clearing land and pulling out stumps when he came upon three hemlocks that he let grow. By accident stones were piled under one of them. That is the one that lived and became a wonderful specimen, vastly superior to the twisted and scraggly hemlocks usually seen in the forest.

Muilenberg says, “It is my guess that the third hemlock survived because of the rock, a weight of several tons, which had been piled around it. It had grown up in heavy woods, which consequently helped to make it more shallow-rooted, and in heavy shade, which helped to keep the soil cool and moist. Later, when the rest of the trees were removed, rock gave the tree a good grip on the soil and made for a cool, moist root-run, as rock always does. It would seem that the top of the tree will get along in good shape so long as the roots have protection.”

  • Dr. I. K. Tuttle who had astonishing results with peach trees raised in the organic manner wrote: “I also have a lot of rocks lying under my prize trees. They hold the moisture in the ground and keep the hot sun from reaching the roots.
  • Joseph A. Cocannouer wrote: “It was in Bavaria where I learned for the first time that stones spread over the ground between the rows of growing crops formed an excellent mulch for preserving the soil moisture.”

There must, therefore, be sufficient value in using stones as a mulch to make it worthwhile to experiment further. We have done this under two rather old apple trees recently. In connection with the planting of a new fruit orchard, we have stone mulched every other tree. The intervening trees were mulched with green matter. In a few years unpredictable advantages may show up in this orchard.

Thus far I have seen two advantages: First, a stone-mulch lasts much longer than a straw mulch. The latter is absorbed into the ground in a few years; then, through pressure of other work or carelessness, no mulch is applied and the weeds begin to flourish. One of the prime purposes of a mulch is to prevent the grass and weeds from growing under the tree, because this grass competes with the roots of the tree for nourishment. When an ordinary mulch is applied it does not take long before it has settled and the weeds begin to shoot through, thus defeating its original purpose.

Secondly, there are special situations in which this kind of mulch is irreplaceable. For example, we have tried to start young trees in a kitchen yard, but the poultry have always scratched under them and exposed the roots. Now we apply a stone mulch and the chickens cannot interfere.

  • The most important benefit of a stone mulch lies in its moisture-conserving propensities. In addition the gradual disintegration of the surface of the stones adds fertilizer to the soil.
  • Stones keep the air above them warmer, since they absorb heat and give it off slowly, lengthening the warm day considerably.

The lime rocks, especially, it seems, have the effect of warming up the soil. Experiments have shown that the difference between lime-loving plants and others is often nothing more than that the lime-lovers need more warmth. A difference of 27°F in April and 20°F in September near the ground as compared with the general air temperature has a great effect on the growing time of a plant that needs warmth. There may be still other reasons for the adopting of stone-mulches which will be discovered later.

  • In preparing a seed bed for his garden a doctor sieved out stones, however tiny. An old man warned him to leave the small stones otherwise he would have poor and inadequate gardening results. He proved to be right and the doctor admitted it later.
  • There are many plants that thrive in rock-gardens, benefiting from the dissolved rock which saturates the soil. Rock garden plants are rarely afflicted with disease.
  • It is possible to apply compost without disturbing the rocks. If there is one class of tree to which you must apply the best and the most completely finished compost, it is to the fruit-bearers.
  • Never use raw manure or partly finished compost under fruit trees. Direct the compost between the stones and hose it in if you can.

 

Chapter 2: Rocks – Parents of the Soil

Friday, February 17, 2012 @ 08:02 AM
posted by admin

THE MULCH BOOK

A COMPLETE GUIDE FOR GARDENERS

STU CAMPBELL

STOREY COMMUNICATIONS               1991

 

Preface, Charlotte, Vermont Fall, 1973

Mulching first began to appeal to me when I realized that it might save me and my family some work. The nicest thing about mulching is that your children may not have to do so much monotonous work in the garden.

  • The first point of The Mulch Book is that we cannot allow our children to be turned off by gardening.
  • The second point is: After months of studying the intricacies of mulching, the temptation is to think of mulch as a panacea for all gardening ills. It is not. Mulching is just one arrow in the gardener’s quiver.
  • The Mulch Book is only one brief chapter in the tremendous body of scientific information, practical experience, literature, and folklore that would compromise the “Complete Gardening Book” which because of its vast nature can never be fully written.
  • Mulching is like a double-headed axe. It is a useful tool but it can be a dangerous one if not used carefully.
  • In most cases, mulching should be used like an insurance policy, as a way of hedging your bet on the success of your garden. Ideally we should have large enough gardens, all of us, so that we could mulch part of each crop – guarding it against drought, weeds, and heat – and leave the other part without mulch. By not going the whole hog, either way, in any given year, we would all at least come up with something to eat.

 

Chapter 1: Introduction

The Mulch Book was originally written in the early 1970s, when the interest in vegetable gardening was peaking. At that time, the most celebrated benefit of mulching was that it reduced or eliminated time spent weeding the vegetable garden. While that advantage still holds, mulching has become an even greater factor in the area of water conservation.

Our water supply is finite and often unevenly distributed. Some gardeners may be suffering from water shortages and brush fires, while others may be building levees and raised beds. Although mulches may not do much to control excess moisture, they are essential in the battle against water loss.

They are so important, in fact, that in 1989 a bill was introduced in California that, among other things, required the use of mulches. This bill has often been referred to as the Xeriscape Act of 1989. Before you think I am using dirty words, let me explain. Xeriscaping is a relatively new garden design principle whose aim is to reduce the amount of water used on landscapes. While the idea of conserving water in the garden has been around for some time, the xeriscape concept was refined by the Denver Water Department in 1981, after a particularly dry summer. They developed what have become the seven basic principles of xeriscaping: proper planning and design; limited use of turf areas; use of efficient irrigation systems; soil improvement; mulching; use of plants that demand less water, and appropriate maintenance (weeding, fertilizing, etc.). This concept quickly spread to Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California, where droughts are a fact of life. The National Xeriscaping Council, inc. has also been established in Austin, Texas to coordinate and promote the xeriscaping movement. After all that, who would need to be convinced to use mulches?

It seems though, that mulching does deserve more justification. For one thing, mulch doesn’t even sound very nice, which may be one strike against it to begin with. In its earliest Middle English sense the word ‘mulsh’ was an adjective that meant, according to Mr. Webster, ‘softer or yielding.’ That’s not so bad. But by the time our language had evolved into what is now called Early Modern English centuries later, the ‘s’ in mulsh had become a ‘c,’ the adjective had become a noun, the word itself had come to mean ‘rotten hay,’ and something pleasant was lost in the evolution.

Now this is not to suggest that ‘rotten hay’ is necessarily undesirable nor that rotted hay is the only kind of mulch there is. There are many, many kinds of materials that can be used for mulching, as we shall see. In fact, if you use your imagination a bit you probably can dream up some things to use for mulch that are not mentioned in The Mulch Book. The point is that to the layman the thought of hoarding, handling, and spreading around heaps of old, dark, moldy hay at best is strange, not to say repulsive. To the knowledgeable gardener, on the other hand, mulch can be the most beautiful stuff in the world.

But mulching needs justification among serious and experienced gardeners, too. It is awfully hard to imagine at first glance that a subject like mulching could be very controversial. I mean, either you like to mulch your garden or you don’t, right? Not so. Highly regarded gardening authorities like Ruth Stout, known to many gardeners as the ‘complete mulcher,’ and Leonard Wickenden, a prominent biochemist and thoroughly experienced organic gardener, have carried on a mulching debate in gardening literature for years. Some people don’t know with whom to side, so they don’t bother to mulch. We’ll have a look at each of their points of view a little later on.

Some object to mulching for purely aesthetic reasons. Lots of gardeners prefer the traditional look of arrow-straight rows and bare, immaculately cultivated earth. There are still plenty of these ‘model’ gardens around, and that sort of thing is fine if you have lots time and patience, plenty of water, and maybe a few slave laborers around your house who can help you maintain this kind of elegance. Most of us do not. Let’s face it: except for the very affluent, the days of the full-time hired gardener are gone forever. Besides, mulch does not have to be unattractive, as we shall also see.

Because my garden is here in a northern sector of the country, I know that what works well specifically for me may not necessarily work well for you in your garden. You also should remember that there is no one ‘right’ way and no one ‘wrong’ way to mulch. There are good ways and there are not-so-good ways. This book offers suggestions about some ways to mulch your gardens to make them happier, healthier, and more rewarding. I will also try to make you aware of certain dangers and pitfalls, but I will never say, ‘This is the way.’ That is for you to decide.

Chapter 2: Here’s Why: The Benefits of Mulching

Mulching has many benefits, not the least of which, as far as I’m concerned, is that you can walk around in your garden on rainy days and not have three inches of sticky mud on the soles of your shoes when you come back inside.

  • According to Dr. Rakov, the three major benefits of mulch are: the reduction of water losses from the soil, the suppression of weed growth, and the protection from soil temperature extremes.

 

Soil moisture retention

  • Moisture evaporation from soil covered with mulch is reduced anywhere from 10% to 50%.

 

Weed suppression

  • One study has found weeding time to be reduced by almost two-thirds through the use of mulches, but the mulch must be weed-free; be deep enough to prevent existing weeds from germinating; and mulches won’t smother all weeds.

 

Soil temperature

  • The effect of mulching on soil temperature is probably one of the most often overlooked benefits. Mulch is insulation. It keeps the soil around your plant’s roots cooler during hot days and warmer during cooler nights.
  • It’s those rapid changes in temperature that not only threaten aboveground growth, but may send tender plant roots into shock.
  • Winter mulches are usually applied in the fall, after the plants are dormant, and are removed the following spring.
  • Mulches used to control soil temperature in the summer – ‘growing’ or ‘cultural’ mulches – are applied in the spring and stay in place for the majority of the growing season.
  • The purpose may be to raise the soil temperature – black plastic around tomatoes and peppers. In others, mulch may be applied to keep the soil temperatures down.
  • Extremely high soil temperatures can inhibit root growth and may actually damage some shallow-rooted plants. A mulch can reduce soil temperature by as much as 10 degrees F.

 

Stabilizes and improves the soil

  • Mulching prevents soil compaction and crusting of the soil surface by absorbing the impact of falling raindrops. Water penetrates through loose, granulated soil but runs off hard, compacted earth. Mulch will control wind and water erosion by slowing water runoff and will help to hold soil in place, even on steep slopes.
  • Mulch can be considered a soil conditioner. Many of the organic mulches, like shredded leaves or bark chips, will add organic matter to your soils as they decompose.
  • Mulching will also encourage earthworms, which further aerate the soil and release nutrients in the form of ‘castings.’ Mulching keeps your soil friable without your having to work at it.
  • Mulch stimulates increased microbial activity in the soil. Certain bacteria are every bit as important as worms. This means, as Ruth Stout suggests, that your garden is operating very much like a compost heap.

 

Helps you grow healthier plants

  • Mulched plants, especially vegetables, are less diseased and more uniform than those without mulch.
  • Mulching protects ripening vegetables, like tomatoes, melons, pumpkins, and squash, from coming in direct contact with the soil, which means fewer ‘bad’ spots, rotten places, and mold.
  • Mulching helps to reduce plant stress. Healthy, strong plants tend to be bothered less by insects and other pests.

 

Nutrient availability

  • Organic mulch can contribute to the potassium availability of the soil and can also contribute nitrogen, phosphorus, and several trace elements to the soil chemistry.
  • Dr. Rakow suggests supplementing mulched areas with some other fertilizer source, since the mulch alone may not be enough.

 

Environmentally sound

  • Using mulches for weed control helps cut down our use and dependence on chemical herbicides and is an excellent way to reduce and recycle yard waste.

 

Appearance

  • Many folks mulch just because they like the way it looks.

 

Chapter 3: To Give the Devils Their Due: Some Drawbacks to Mulching

  • I thought I’d introduce you to a few of the controversies associated with mulching.
  • Ruth Stout, who had a very green thumb and a way with words, wrote three famous gardening books – How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, Gardening without Work, The No-Work Garden Book.

 

The Stout system

  • “Make your garden your compost pile. My way is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my garden and flower garden all year round. A compost heap is too much trouble. Just spread the mulch where you would have spread the compost anyway. In time it will rot and become rich dirt. For the past twenty-six years I have used no fertilizer of any kind on any part of my garden except rotting mulch and cottonseed meal. I broadcast the latter in the winter at the rate of five pounds to every one hundred square feet of my plot. I’m not really convinced that my soil needs the meal, but I have been told it does for nitrogen. However, if drivers weren’t driving in here quite often to inspect my system, I think I would skip the cottonseed meal for a season and see if it made any difference. But as long as I am exhibiting the excellent results which I get from my method, with so little work, I can’t afford to have a failure.”

 

The attack

  • Along came Leonard Wickenden, the ‘gardeners organic gardener,’ who didn’t buy Ruth Stout’s act.

 

The rebuttal

  • Ruth Stout’s rebuttal is characteristically unscientific.

 

Sorting it out

  • If you are not entirely convinced by Ruth Stout’s rebuttal, let me put in my two cent’s worth.

 

Problems and solutions

  • By far, the vast majority of my own experiences directly contradict the claims of Mr. Wickenden. I believe that with every problem comes a solution. Let’s look at these one by one.

 

Can’t do it all

  • It’s true mulches can’t smother every weed.

 

Creates nitrogen deficiencies

  • Any fresh, light-colored, unweathered organic mulch will steal nitrogen from your plants during the earliest stages of decomposition. Eventually, though, these will add nutrients to the soil as they decompose.

 

Inhibits water penetration

  • If you decide to use plastics, be sure the ground is moistened first. Make slits or holes in the vicinity of your plants to allow for watering.

 

Fire hazard

  • Some mulches, like sawdust, are particularly susceptible to spontaneous combustion.

 

Creates a breeding ground for insects, slugs, and snails

  • The decaying, rich-smelling organic mulches are alive with all sorts of creepy-crawling insect things, most of which aren’t doing any harm. I just leave them to their creeping and crawling.
  • You will find an increase in the slug and snail populations, particularly in years with a wet spring. Pull back the mulch and sprinkle salt or one of the chemical slug controls.
  • A light dusting of wood ashes or diatomaceous earth on the ground at the base of my plants works well.

 

Blocks air exchange

  • If organic mulches are applied too deeply or repeatedly, they can restrict air movement. Sometimes we add another 4 inches of mulch when we only need 1 inch to freshen the appearance.

 

Rodents live in mulch

  • Never apply an organic mulch all the way up to the base of your trees or shrubs. Leave a space between the mulch and the plant.

 

Ugly, unpleasant, and difficult to handle

  • I agree with Mr. Wickenden. Mulching is a matter personal judgment. If you select the wrong mulch for your situation it can be a big head ache. If your mulching repertoire is such that you can choose the right mulch at the right time, you can enhance the attractiveness and productivity of your garden while expending a minimum of effort, time, and money.

 

Chapter 4: A Few Definitions

Chapter 5: Types of Mulch

  • Here is a rundown on the different types of mulches and how you can benefit from them.

 

Chapter 6: Tips for Making the Most of Mulch

  • I’ll make specific recommendations for mulching vegetables, fruits, and ornamental plants a little later, but for now let’s start with some general tips for getting the most out of your mulch.

 

Chapter 7: Here’s How with vegetables

Chapter 8: Here’s How with Fruits

Chapter 9: Here’s How with Ornamentals

Epilogue

  • The most comforting thing about gardening is that no one has all the answers. Any gardener who claims to know it all should be drummed out of the gardening corps – not because he is a know-it-all, but because somewhere along the line he has lost that sense of mystery, that feeling of humble uncertainty that all gardeners should have.
  • The botanical scientists and horticultural experimenters must keep on with their good work. They must continue to give us direction and reduce as much as possible the chances of us failing with our gardens.
  • If this generation, or even the next, has trouble distinguishing between scientific fact and old wives’ remedies that seem to work in the garden, no one should worry about it too much.

 

Quick-Reference Chart