Posts Tagged ‘gardens’

Turtle Love

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

If you love box turtles,  take a look at the current issue of National Wildlife magazine. In it, I tell the story of how I accidentally destroyed a box turtle habitat — a tiny bog I’d created behind my house — and have been trying to make amends with the peaceful little reptiles ever since.

I’ve made it my business to find out what box turtles like to eat, where they like to siesta on a hot summer day and how these creatures — among the longest-lived vertebrates — make it through the winter. I’ve done my penance in the library, reading scientific tomes on box turtle fecal contents and other engrossing subjects. I’ve learned not only that gardeners can help ease the plight of box turtles, which are gradually disappearing from landscapes across North America, but that they have a lot to offer us in return, beyond the usual bromides about the virtues of patience and perseverance — like getting rid of slugs and other garden pests.

The article is illustrated with some amazing box turtle photos, too.

Plants: Dumb Blondes of the Biosphere?

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

If they think of them at all, most people see plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair. Gardeners and other plant lovers tend to see plants as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure. Until very recently, even most scientists assumed that plants are essentially passive—rooted in place, taking whatever moisture, nutrients, and sunlight chance brings their way. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that the word “vegetable” is used to describe people with brain damage so severe they have no discernable awareness.

A trove of new research, however, is demonstrating that plants are far from botanical automatons. To be sure, researchers have found no signs of Socratic logic or Shakespearean poetry in the plant kingdom. But there is so much new data on plant intelligence—including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning, remembering, and recognizing kin—that the investigation of plant intelligence is suddenly a serious scientific endeavor.

The latest case in point: You know the perennial debate over the role of nature vs. nurture—heredity or the environment—in the development of a human being? Studies have shown that, depending on their distinct personal experiences, identical human twins can have a different chance of getting a disease. Well, it turns out that in this respect plants may not be so different from people.

In a new study, University of Toronto biologists found that genetically identical poplar trees—clones—responded to drought differently, depending on the nursery the plants were obtained from. They took cuttings of the poplar clones from nurseries in two different regions of Canada and regrew them under identical climate-controlled conditions. Half of the trees were then subjected to drought. Since the trees were regrown under identical conditions, the researchers predicted all the specimens would respond to drought in the same manner, regardless of where they had come from. But low and behold, the genetically identical specimens responded differently to the drought treatment, depending on their place of origin.

Malcolm Campbell, one of the study’s authors, called the finding “quite stunning.” “A tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment,” he said. In other words, the trees “remember” where they came from.

Discoveries such as this have the potential to transform the public’s view of plants. In fact, they’re helping to transform our understanding of the nature of intelligence itself.

They also have practical implications for gardeners, landscape designers, and foresters: The “memory” of previous experience discovered in this study could help determine how plants from a particular nursery will respond to conditions in a particular landscape. It may also help predict how certain plants will respond to climate change or other environmental stresses.

Greenest of the Green

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Kudos to the Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Orange, Texas, whose new interpretive center has been chosen as one of the American Institute of Architects’ Top Ten Green Projects of 2009. The Orientation Center contains an exhibit hall, theater, interactive children’s garden, classroom and exhibition greenhouses, and a water demonstration garden that shows how plants filter pollution from water, as well as a café, garden store, volunteer center, and administrative spaces. There are also several “outbuildings,” including a Nature Discovery Lab and pavilion, outdoor classrooms, a bird blind, and a boat house, deep in a cypress swamp. You can find lots of information on the LEED Platinum facility, including photos, on the AIA website.

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.

Alice Waters to the Rescue

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Recommended reading: the op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Alice Waters and colleague Katrina Heron. They describe how the USDA’s $9 billion-a-year school lunch program has become a way to distribute unhealthy high-fat commodity food—some of the same ingredients found in fast food—to our schools, and how the resulting meals routinely fail to meet basic nutritional standards. They recommend scrapping the program and starting from scratch, pointing out that advocacy groups like Better School Food have managed to work with local farmers to provide kids with healthy, fresh food.

Last night on the news, I watched Michelle Obama, continuing to make the rounds to various federal agencies, arrive at the USDA bearing a gift—a magnolia seedling propagated from a tree planted on the White House grounds by Andrew Jackson. She said she wanted it to grow in one of the new community gardens that will be created at every USDA facility worldwide. It was a nice gesture, but a missed opportunity. Imagine if MIchelle had brought a tomato or apple seedling instead and used the occasion to promote healthy, organically grown fruits and vegetables for the nation’s children—she is, after all, a former hospital administrator. Another good thing she could do is create a model organic garden at the White House to advance the movement for healthy food and healthy kids. 

Great White House Garden Makeover Contest!

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Calling all plant lovers this election week! Now that a desire for fundamental change seems to be sweeping the country, we should be pushing for a radical makeover of the White House landscape. Coddled with water, fertilizers, and pesticides and designed according to fussy, outdated, and ecologically destructive notions of beauty, this garden is a national disgrace. Enter the Great White House Garden Makeover Contest and make horticultural history!

Brooklyn Botanic Garden traces the history of the site: “When George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant mapped out the ‘President’s Park,’ in 1791, Washington sketched reflecting pools and terraced gardens buttressing an executive residence to rival Versailles.” This hoity-toity approach to horticulture has continued to this day, with a brief interlude when Andrew Jackson actually got his hands dirty weeding the garden after naked morning dips in the Potomac.

So, what should be done with these 18.2 acres of hallowed ground today? The Rodale Institute exhorted the Clinton administration to ban synthetic pesticides in the Rose Garden and build a compost bin. Restaurateur Alice Waters offered to create an organic garden for the White House chefs. The White House Organic Farm Project has an online petition calling on the 44th President to oversee the planting of an organic farm on the grounds of the nation’s First Home.

What would you do if you had your druthers? Send me your ideas by December 1, 2008. I’ll post the best ones online. Here’s how to reach me.