Archive for March, 2009

Can Somebody Please Give this Guy a Grant

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Dickson Despommier, the Columbia professor and proponent of vertical farming in cities, has become a celebrity of sorts. He’s appeared in just about every major magazine. He was even interviewed on the Colbert Report. Now all he needs is some money to build one of his agricultural highrises.

In an interview in Next American City, Despommier says that several cities and countries have expressed interest, including New York, Shanghai, Masdar City (the zero-carbon solar city under construction in Abu Dhabi), and the nation of Jordan. But so far nobody has come up with the bucks.

Memo to Mayor Bloomberg: Is vertical farming really such a radical idea? Eli Zabar is already growing veggies in the rooftop greenhouse of the Vinegar Factory. Why not make it possible for Despommier to ramp up the technology and develop a prototype in Gotham?

Great Idea Department

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Coming to a skyscraper, box store, or barn near you: Wildlife artist Thierry Bisch, mural painter Daniel Boulogne, and the IUCN, which compiles and publishes the Red List of imperiled plants and animals, are teaming up to create enormous portraits of endangered species (read animals) on building facades around the world. Imagine the adorable mug of a mountain gorilla (Red List: Critically Endangered) peering out from the walls of your local Home Depot.

Great idea. But (okay, so I’m beginning to sound like a broken record) what about the plants? There are plenty of botanical artists who can do an awesome titan arum, vampire orchid, or venus flytrap.

Public Garden Trend Alert—Virtual Flower Fixes

Friday, March 13th, 2009

As spring sweeps across the country, some public gardens are capturing the spectacle of blooms online. Anyone in need of a bluebonnet fix can check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Bluebonnet Cam, updated hourly. It’s too early to tell whether anyone will top Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s 2008 tour de force, a time-lapse video of 3,000 photos of its famous cherry tree collection—from the early buds to peak bloom—complete with original music.

Another Reason to Buy Organic Strawberries, or Grow Your Own

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

A few years ago, I was sitting next to old-time soil geek Garn Wallace at a meeting of the Great Park Design Studio in Irvine, California. I was about to sample one of the strawberries on a fruit tray in front of us, and I must have made some lame comment about the berries being fresh picked from the strawberry fields outside the studio, which seemed to stretch toward the horizon. With a kind of nerdy, deadpan, pre-Valley-Girl Southern California twang, Garn noted that there wasn’t one living creature in the soil in those fields. No Sir Ree. That soil is blasted with fumigants like methyl bromide, then covered with acres of plastic. In which thousands of unblemished strawberries were glistening in the Southern California sun, waiting to be shipped to a supermarket near you.

Methyl bromide is a nasty chemical that is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer. But according to scientists at MIT, sulfuryl fluoride, the fumigant being used as a replacement, is just as bad, or worse. According to Ron Prinn, director of MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, it is “4,800 times more potent a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide,” a potential climate change disaster.

Seeing as everyone is planting a vegetable patch this year, why not throw in some strawberry plants? First-time berry growers can find step-by-step instructions here.

Beyond the Obama Biceps

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Finally, the coverage of Michelle Obama is moving beyond her pair of sculpted shoulders and shapely biceps. As noted in today’s New York Times, the importance of eating healthy, fresh, local foods is emerging as one of her signature issues. Last week she even rhapsodized about the steamed broccoli she was serving to homeless men and women at Miriam’s kitchen, which serves only fresh food, nothing canned or processed, to the poor.

Some of the tasty tidbits in the article: The White House gets fresh fruits and vegetables from farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and even served organic wine to the nation’s governors at the first big post-inaugural White House bash last month. The First Lady is taking a higher profile on the importance of healthy eating than Laura Bush, who insisted that fresh, organic foods be served at the White House but didn’t broadcast the fact—you know how some Republicans feel about arugula-eating elitists.  

Help the Hemlocks

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

I first saw the hemlock wooly adelgid in action about 15 years ago. Its telltale wooly white egg masses appeared on a few branches of three hemlock trees in my next-door neighbor’s yard in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Within three years the trees were dead. Since then the insect, which arrived in North America from Asia in the 1920s, has become a major scourge of eastern forests from Maine to Georgia. It is spreading rapidly into the oldest and largest hemlock stands in the Southern Appalachians, where some of the trees are 800 years old and more than 175 feet tall.

In fact, new research suggests the hemlock woolly adelgid is killing hemlock trees even faster than expected in the Southern Appalachians and most of the region’s hemlocks could be dead within the next decade. The hemlock plays a fundamental role in the ecology and hydrology of mountain habitats. Its thick, evergreen canopies help cool mountain streams that are home to trout. Many birds find shelter and places to nest in the hemlock’s evergreen boughs. In one study, 96 percent of all wood thrush nests found by surveyors were in hemlocks. Some warblers only nest in hemlocks.

Few of the growing number of U.S. native trees beset by pestilence have a federal task force devoted to their survival. The hemlock does. Among other things, the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Action Team coordinates control efforts and runs a public education and outreach campaign. While homeowners can treat individual trees with horticultural oils or chemical pesticides, this isn’t practical for entire forests of afflicted trees. The most promising backwoods treatments found so far are two tiny nonnative beetles that dine voraciously on adelgids (and, scientists say, only adelgids). Tests in Connecticut and Virginia show that these beetles can reduce hemlock wooly adelgid populations by 47 to 87 percent in five months. The beetles have been released in selected areas throughout the Southern Appalachians.

Still, the scale of the hemlock wooly adelgid epidemic is so huge that scientists and public land managers won’t be able to contain it without the public’s help. Details on how you can monitor and treat trees on your own property and get involved in efforts to protect hemlocks in the wild are on the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Action Team’s website.

Moth Brains

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Just when you think you can’t bear wading through one more impenetrable paper in a research journal, you stumble across an experiment that makes you fall in love with science all over again. Who could possibly resist the image of researchers wiring up moth brains to study how they perceive flower odors wafting through the air?

The sacred datura, an impressive (and hallucinogenic and poisonous) U.S. native perennial that produces huge, white, trumpet-shaped, and irresistibly fragrant blooms, is the favorite nectar source of the tobacco hornworm moth. To find the food, the moths must recognize the faintest whiff of datura and then track the scent upwind to the flower. In return for the meal, the moths pollinate the plant. To learn how the moth pollinator reacts to the 60 different chemicals that comprise the plant’s irresistible perfume, biology geeks at The University of Arizona in Tucson engulfed 20 flowers with Reynolds® Oven Bags and sucked the air out of the bags into a charcoal filter to capture all the chemicals. Back in the lab, they created a solution of the chemicals and injected it into a gas chromatograph. The chromatograph separated the chemicals and spewed them out one by one into a branched tube—one branch led to a wired-up moth and the other to a machine that identified and recorded the individual chemicals as they breezed by. Speakers attached to this gizmo emitted a rapid pop-pop-pop-pop sound if the moth was turned on by a chemical. Turns out the moth brains “popped” to only nine chemicals from sacred datura’s complex bouquet.

The scientists proceeded to study how 420 moths behaved toward the chemicals by putting a moth at one end of a wind tunnel and an artificial flower made of white filter paper doused with datura odors at the other. The insects were not impressed by the chemicals if they were presented one at a time. But when all nine chemicals that had made the moth brains “pop” were put on a paper flower, they stuck out their tongues to imbibe nectar, just as they would when faced with a real sacred datura flower.

Lead researcher Jeffrey A. Riffell’s first-hand account of the experiment is in today’s Science Daily. The paper, “Characterizing and Coding of Behaviorally Significant Odor Mixtures,” is in the current issue of the journal Current Biology. The title alone makes a persuasive case for the value of science journalism.

Let There Be (Solar) Light

Friday, March 6th, 2009

More good stuff for the garden in today’s Inhabitat—coming soon to your local Ikea, an entire line of solar-powered LED outdoor lights, including little table lights, pathway globes, and strings of paper lanterns in all kinds of cool shapes and colors. 

Sexy Cisterns

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Collecting rainwater to use in your garden is a time-honored and easy way to do something good for yourself (lower water bills! a lusher, more productive landscape!) and the environment (less stress on public drinking water supplies! less storm water runoff!). Of late, designers have gotten us way beyond the typical 50-gallon plastic barrel covered with a film of mold, and Inhabitat has been doing a good job of acknowledging their efforts. A few of the more imaginative examples:

CISTA, a rainwater harvesting system designed for urban environments, consists of a tall, slender, 100-gallon tank surrounded by a planting frame. No-nonsense types can simply use it as a trellis for a flowering vine. More adventurous gardeners can turn it into a signature topiary.

The prototype Rainpod looks like a miniature municipal water tank topped with a Statue of Liberty-like crown that captures the precipitation. Propped up on three legs made of local timber, it stands a bit taller than a person so the water can be delivered gratis by gravity. The effect is funky cute, like a little UFO that’s landed in your yard.

If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional but still slick, take a look at the RainwaterHOG, a system of modular plastic tanks with a sleek profile.

Power Peas and Dinosaur Broccoli Trees

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Scientists have long appreciated the importance of consistent scientific names for plants. Now they’re beginning to appreciate the power of common names, too — at least over vegetable-averse preschoolers.

Anyone who’s tried to get a preschooler (or any kid, or adult for that matter) to down the recommended five fresh fruits and vegetables a day by resorting to playing airplane, reciting “this little piggy went to market,” bribery, and other choice tactics will certainly appreciate a new Cornell study that was presented on Monday at the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association in Washington,  DC. The researchers found that veggies with snazzy names had the little ones begging for more. When 186 four-year-olds were given carrots called “X-ray Vision Carrots,” for example, they ate nearly twice as much as they did on the days when they were offered plain old “carrots.” And the magic spell persisted—the kids continued to eat about 50 percent more even on the days when the carrots were no longer labeled.

Memo to plant breeders and parents: Remember Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Name them so fresh vegetables will not seem so atrocious….