Human arrogance has always assumed we are evolutionarily superior to plants, but it appears that modern science may be the antidote to this egocentric view.
Researchers in the UK have discovered an extensive underground network connecting plants by their roots, serving as a complex interplant communication system… a “plant Internet,” if you will.
One organism is responsible for this amazing biochemical highway: a type of fungus called mycorrhizae. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen devised a clever experiment to isolate the effects of these extensive underground networks. They grew sets of broad bean plants, allowing some to develop mycorrhizal nets, but preventing them in others.
They also eliminated the plants’ normal through-the-air communication by covering the plants with bags. Then they infested some of the plants with aphids. The results were remarkable.1
Most people have no idea how important mycorrhizal fungi are for plant growth. They really are one of the keys to successful growth of plants. In my own garden, I just purchased a 15 gallon vortex compost brewer in which I grow these fungi in large quantities for my ornamental and edible landscape.
The aphid-infested plants were able to signal the other plants, connected through mycorrhizae, of an imminent attack—giving them a “heads up” and affording them time to mount their own chemical defenses in order to prevent infestation.
In this case, the alerted bean plants deployed aphid-repelling chemicals and other chemicals that attract wasps, which are aphids’ natural predators. The bean plants that were not connected received no such warning and became easy prey for the pesky insects.
This study is not the first to discover plant communication along mycorrhizal networks. A 2012 article in the Journal of Chemical Ecology describes mycorrhizae-induced resistance as part of plants’ systemic “immune response,” protecting them from pathogens, herbivores, and parasitic plants.2
And in 2010, Song et al published a report about the interplant communication of tomato plants, in which they wrote:3
“CMNs [common mycorrhizal networks] may function as a plant-plant underground communication conduit whereby disease resistance and induced defense signals can be transferred between the healthy and pathogen-infected neighboring plants, suggesting that plants can ‘eavesdrop’ on defense signals from the pathogen-challenged neighbors through CMNs to activate defenses before being attacked themselves.”
Miles of Mycorrhizae in One Thimbleful of Soil
The name mycorrhiza literally means fungus-root.4 These fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, colonizing the roots and sending extremely fine filaments far out into the soil that act as root extensions. Not only do these networks sound the alarm about invaders, but the filaments are more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the plant roots themselves—mycorrhizae increase the nutrient absorption of the plant 100 to 1,000 times.5
In one thimbleful of healthy soil, you can find several MILES of fungal filaments, all releasing powerful enzymes that help dissolve tightly bound soil nutrients, such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron. The networks can be enormous—one was found weaving its way through an entire Canadian forest, with each tree connected to dozens of others over distances of 30 meters.
These fungi have been fundamental to plant growth for 460 million years. Even more interesting, mycorrhizae can even connect plants of different species, perhaps allowing interspecies communication.6
More than 90 percent of plant species have these naturally-occurring symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizae, but in order for these CMNs to exist, the soil must be undisturbed. Erosion, tillage, cultivation, compaction, and other human activities destroy these beneficial fungi, and they are slow to colonize once disrupted. Therefore, intensively farmed plants don’t develop mycorrhizae and are typically less healthy, as a result.
Making Farming More Eco-friendly
The discovery that fungi may be providing plants with an early warning system has profound implications for how we grow our food. We may be able to arrange for “sacrificial plants” specifically designed for pest infestation so that the network can warn, and thereby arm, the rest of the crop.7 In order to feed the world’s increasing population, farmers must return to working WITH nature, instead of against it.
Raising food is really about building soil, and modern agricultural practices are degrading million year-old topsoils, without any attention to rebuilding them. Spreading toxic chemicals, monoculture, using genetically engineered seed, generating toxic runoff and destroying biodiversity are all examples of working against nature. Mycorrhizae not only assist the plants in staying vital and healthy, but they enrich the soil and improve its productivity, add organic matter, protect crops from drought, and increase the overall balance and resilience of the ecosystem.
Many fungi are as beneficial to people as they are to plants. Mushrooms are powerhouses when it comes to nutrition, with high-quality protein, enzymes, antioxidants, and B vitamins.
About 100 species of mushrooms are being studied for their health-promoting benefits, and about a half dozen really stand out for their ability to deliver a tremendous boost to your immune system. Studies have shown that mushrooms can combat infectious disease (including smallpox), inflammation, cancer and even help regenerate nerves. A compound from the Coriolus versicolormushroom was recently found to significantly slow hemangiosarcoma in dogs, a deadly cancer.
Mushrooms are also nature’s recycling system, according to mycologist Paul Stamets. Various mushrooms can break down the toxins in nerve gas and clean up petroleum waste.
Mushrooms and their parent mycelium break down rocks and organic matter, turning them into soil. The mycelia, just like the mycorrhizal network, occupy landscapes in a web-like mat that, in some cases, stretches across thousands of acres. Stamets describes this intricate, branching network as “the Earth’s Internet” because it functions as a complex communication highway. There is also evidence mycelia are “sentient” beings that demonstrate the ability to learn. Speaking of cool and calculating…
Tips for Adding Mycorrhizae to Your Own Garden
Now that the secret’s out, companies are beginning to offer mycorrhizae to home gardeners and commercial farmers alike. If you have an organic garden, adding a sprinkle of mycorrhizae, along with good organic fertilizer, is a great way to ensure your garden will be the envy of your neighborhood.
For tips on how to use this in your garden at home, I recommend watching the “smiling gardener” video above. It’s important to remember that mycorrhizae must be applied to the roots of your plants. If you just sprinkle the granules onto the soil and they don’t make contact with the roots within about 48 hours, they’ll die and your efforts will be wasted. So, you can make a “tea” out of it and apply it as a spray, or you can rub a small amount directly onto the roots of your transplant. But it has to come into direct contact with some part of the root.
The only vegetable garden occupants that will not benefit from mycorrhizae are your brassicas (members of the mustard family, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, etc.), because they don’t allow this colonization.8 But all your other veggies will love you for it. The benefits will be even greater in a year or two, after the mycorrhizae really have a chance to grow and spread.
Also, remember to refrain from tilling and manipulating the soil. This isn’t necessary and is actually counterproductive, as it disrupts helpful organisms and crushes their tunnels.9 Just topdress your garden with a blend of good compost and topsoil each year, and leave the bed alone, which will allow those beneficial organisms to grow and flourish, undisturbed.
When you practice ecofriendly gardening, you greatly lessen your need for fertilizers and herbicides, reduce your need for watering, and reduce runoff and erosion, while giving your garden plants the best nutrition and resistance to disease. And best of all, a healthy veggie garden means more nutrients passed along to you!
DEL AIRE, Calif. — Fruit looms large in the California psyche. Since the 1800s, dewy images of oranges, lemons and other fruits have been a lure for seekers of the state’s postcard essence, symbols of fertile land, felicitous climate and the possibilities of pleasure.
Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times
Nectarines at the public fruit park in Del Aire, Calif.
Virgie Shields, a resident of Del Aire, Calif., for more than six decades, next to a newly planted persimmon tree at her home.
Now a cheeky trio of artists have turned fruit trees into cultural symbols as well. The group, known as Fallen Fruit, recently planted what is being billed as the state’s first public fruit park in an unincorporated community with neatly clipped lawns outside Los Angeles.
The park is part of a growing “fruit activist” movement, a variation on a theme of urban agriculture. The Los Angeles County Arts Commissioninitiated the project to “fulfill a civic purpose,” said Laura Zucker, the commission’s executive director, addressing the public-health advantage for communities that are so-called food deserts, with few stores and healthy restaurants.
“They give endlessly and don’t ask for anything in return,” Austin Young, one of Fallen Fruit’s members, said of the fruit trees that make up the group’s latest “art piece” — a fledgling orchard of Tropic Snow white peaches, Mariposa plums and other trees installed alongside swing sets and basketball hoops here in Del Aire Park.
Fallen Fruit, which also comprises Matias Viegener and David Allen Burns, has become well known among art and culinary cognoscenti here and across social media. One of the group’s first activities was mapping publicly accessible fruit trees in Silver Lake and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, including private trees with succulent fruit tantalizingly draped over public rights of way.
To kick off the opening of the fruit park here, which consists of 27 trees planted on the site and 60 more distributed to residents, the group held one of their ritual public “fruit jams,” in which participants gather around a portable stove to make never-before-seen concoctions from whatever surplus fruit is available.
Del Aire, population 10,000 and one of about 140 unincorporated communities scattered throughout Los Angeles County, is a somewhat isolated area bordered on the north and east by the 405 and 105 freeways that feels light-years away from the Frank Gehry world of contemporary Los Angeles art. With its modest postwar ranch houses built for aerospace workers, “Del Aire is not to be confused with Bel Air,” said John Koppelman, a heavy-truck operator and the president of the neighborhood association.
The decision to go with “edible art” as part of a larger park renovation, rather than a standard mural, was seen as a way to foster residents’ participation, said Karly Katona, a deputy to Mark Ridley-Thomas, the local county supervisor. Traditionally, public works officials have opposed fruit trees because of maintenance concerns, she said, like sidewalks stained or made slippery by fallen rotted fruit.
“There is an understanding that the community will be involved in upkeep” of the park, she said. “It’s an experiment,” she added. “It might not work.”
The heady philosophical question of whether fruit trees are art does not seem to preoccupy residents like Virgie Shields, 89, who recalled that the neighborhood was “a mud puddle with polliwogs” before 1950, the year she moved onto the choice corner lot that now boasts a persimmon tree.
“There’s a sense of shared anticipation,” said Dee Williams, an adjunct photography professor at Chapman University, who can admire her new Beauty plum tree from her kitchen window. “It speaks to the future, because everyone wants to see the trees do well.”
For the members of Fallen Fruit, who once videotaped lingonberries, salmonberries and blueberries in the Norwegian Arctic for a project titled “The Loneliest Fruit in the World,” the process of planting and harvesting fruit is a community bonding experience — an act of “social art” in which public space is reimagined. The fruit from Del Aire’s trees is to be divvied up among “host families,” as the artists call the residents, with a fruit map posted on the Web. “Fruit is nonpolarizing,” Mr. Burns said. “When you walk through a place that has fruit trees, it’s typically a place that feels optimistic and abundant, rather than desperate or ignored.”
Though Fallen Fruit is rooted in Los Angeles, the group is also part of a growing fruit-activist movement, midwifed by pioneers like TreePeople in Los Angeles, which has given away some 200,000 trees, including thousands of fruit trees, since 1983. Newer arrivals include “urban space hackers” like the Guerrilla Grafters in San Francisco, who surreptitiously graft fruit tree branches onto purely ornamental trees. Another is the San Francisco Garden Registry, which tracks urban farmers online and, like a fruit dating service, helps them meet and share their surplus harvests.
Margaret Crawford, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, said that Fallen Fruit and other activists were tapping into urban agriculture as a growing force in which creative noncommercial possibilities for public spaces are being explored beyond community gardening.
“There is a new political philosophy emerging in which literally anybody can be an agent of transformation,” she said. “It’s bringing attention to the cumbersome and always-expanding regulatory apparatus of the city.”
New orchards are springing up in other cities, too, including Chicago, where the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project seeks to preserve forgotten fruit like the pawpaw, and Seattle, where Seattle City Fruit volunteers are liberating orchards long concealed by vines. Another Seattle project is the Beacon Food Forest, growing things like figs, quinces and hazelnuts on public land.
Back in Del Aire, the arrival of fruit trees in a California public park resurrects a bit of history, said Douglas Cazaux Sackman, a professor at the University of Puget Sound and the author of “Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden” (University of California Press, 2005). The citrus groves that once defined Los Angeles and environs largely disappeared in a welter of real estate development.
Though minuscule by agribusiness standards, the new fruit park is a cause for celebration, he said. “It brings that golden wonder of California back for people to enjoy and be nourished by.”
WITH all due respect to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and all the other vegetables we’ve enjoyed for the last few months, the champions of the moment are beets, turnips and radishes. For gardeners and farmers in all but the coldest climates, they’re still going strong, which means that for careful shoppers, the highest-quality stuff is still easy to find.
But, aah, you say, the same is true of our semi-hardy greens, like kale, collards and chard. And certainly that’s true. But if you have turnips and radishes, you almost don’t need kale and collards (they’re all in the same family). And if you have beets, you almost don’t need chard (beets are chard are grown primarily for their roots; chard is beets grown for its greens).
Incredibly — though not surprisingly, since there are no surprises here — the beets, turnips and radishes give you greens to use in salads or for cooking, as well as roots you can eat raw or cooked. (There are other vegetables, notably kohlrabi, that meet this description too, but only gardeners are going to find them with their greens.)
It is probably this very utility, as well as their ability to withstand cold (radishes are the first roots you can plant and enjoy in the spring, and turnips are among the latest you can harvest) that has caused these vegetables to be underrated. They’ve been fed to cattle and pigs as much as to humans, and they’re often despised, or at least decried, as poor people’s food.
Right: because until the last century, almost all poor people farmed or gardened, and poor people had to live through the winter on these and other long-keeping foods. Few of us can imagine living through the winter on a diet consisting exclusively of root vegetables.
Fortunately, few people reading these words need to do more than imagine such a circumstance, but we can celebrate the utility of these vegetables for at least the next few weeks, and without much effort.
This last weekend, I baked (maybe I “broasted,” whatever) beets in their jackets, which I then slipped off; I don’t know of a better method. I included these in two salads, seared them as an accompaniment to fish and added them at the last minute to a braise of turnips and radishes. (The recipe can be used for pretty much any root vegetable.) I made a raw beet salad. I boiled mixed greens, chopped and sautéed them with oil and garlic, and served them for lunch with good bread. I tucked those same greens under roasted chicken at night. There were raw radishes every night, and one night some paper-thin slices of raw turnips as well; I made a salad of the radish and turnip greens. Nor are we done: there will be turnip purée shortly.
Even though beets and turnips keep nearly forever (radishes for a while, but less so), to be at their most enjoyable, these things should really be quite fresh. (I remember when vacuum-packed cooked beets showed up at Fairway, and how exciting that was until I ate them and realized they were effectively canned beets in a different guise.) This is especially true, of course, if you’re going to eat the greens. Assuming that you can find them that way, however, you’re in business.
Sarah Bergmann does not see herself as a political artist. Promoting social causes, raising awareness — that stuff doesn’t appeal to her. But she likes asking questions. Doing so, she says, “allows me to learn about the world and respond to it, and do something physical based on what I learn.”
Several years ago, Bergmann, a painter by training, started asking questions about the fate of the world’s pollinators. And while she’s not an environmentalist per se, Bergmann’s art and graphic design work never stray far from the environmental sphere. To her, the complex and shifting relationships between pollinators and plants have always begged further investigation. Bergmann’s response to what she learned is a work-in-progress called the Pollinator Pathway, a mile-long corridor of pollinator-friendly, mostly native plants stretching between two green spaces in the heart of Seattle.
Bergmann chose the pathway’s two endpoints — the Seattle University campus and a lot-sized forest called Nora’s Woods — for their diverse plant life and lack of pesticides. Since building the first test garden in 2008 with the help of a small city grant, she and hundreds of volunteers have installed 16 more gardens in parking strips along the way. “It’s not just a random line of plants; it’s meant to find two existing green spaces within the city and draw a line between them,” she says.
A garden on the Pollinator Pathway.
Gardens are built with the cooperation and enthusiasm of homeowners on the corridor, who have also agreed to maintain them. They must be drought-tolerant, pesticide free, and, ideally, contain at least 70 percent native plants — though Bergmann says the project hasn’t quite hit that target yet. And of course, the plants must be appealing to bees and other pollinators. These requirements, combined with city height restrictions for parking-strip vegetation, led to a list of about 50 plants that can be part of the pathway.
Parking strips are technically city property, but homeowners take responsibility for maintaining them. For most people, that means little more than picking up trash, pulling weeds now and then, and maybe planting a few decorative bulbs. Now Bergmann’s project reinvents these spaces as both functional and beautiful — which benefits not just birds and insects, but neighborhood residents, too.
“It’s not about flipping the land and turning it into a park,” Bergmann says. “It’s about finding what’s here and working with it. How can we work human systems and natural systems together in a really coherent way?”
Photo by the Pollinator Pathway.
As Bergmann points out, the fact that some 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas represents “a real shift in the planet’s composition,” which in turn requires a shift in the way we approach landscape. Call it another aspect of the Anthropocene — we’re learning that wilderness and humanity can coexist in surprising ways. Projects like the Pollinator Pathway reimagine this relationship by showing how nature can thrive in the nooks and crannies of the city. That’s why, Bergmann explains, the pathway “doesn’t use more space than is already existing; it respects that the reason a city is sustainable is its compactness, and inserts something that makes sense into that pattern.” She likes to describe it as a “renegade park.”
Despite their critical role in keeping ecosystems functioning, pollinators in urban areas have not been the subject of much research beyond studies of small, specific areas, like individual gardens. To begin to fill the gap, the U.K.’s University of Bristol is running a three-year study investigating how city landscapes can support pollinators. Bergmann hopes the Pollinator Pathway can contribute to this small-but-growing body of knowledge: Before the gardens were planted, local high school and college students surveyed the number of pollinators already present in the neighborhood, and found virtually none. Now an entomologist from the Woodland Park Zoo monitors the gardens every week, tracking the range of pollinators that visit and which plants they prefer.
A template for a pollinator-friendly garden. Click to embiggen.
Bergmann and her network of volunteers plan to install several more gardens along the corridor this fall, but the project is far from finished. Eventually, she wants the Pollinator Pathway to be a model for other neighborhoods and cities. In the meantime, Bergmann emphasizes that you don’t have to live on the pathway to advance the larger goal of helping pollinators thrive. Anyone can follow the templates on the pathway’s website to make their own garden pollinator-friendly (although they are designed for the Pacific Northwest).
Ten Pollinator Pathways in each city in the U.S. won’t guarantee the salvation of our birds and bees and the labyrinth of life that depends on them. But it’s an approach to an ecological crisis that works with, rather than against, the human landscape — and that makes Bergmann cautiously hopeful. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I don’t really have a lot of patience for anything else.”
Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist.
Plants in the Pollinator Pathway
Here are some of the plants you’ll find in the Pollinator Pathway. We’ve chosen a higher percentage of native plants, since they are best suited to native pollinators, but have also included non-native garden plants that many pollinators like to visit. We’ve also listed, where found, the pollinators that like them. All of these plants are well suited to planting strips and fit within Department of Transportation guidelines. (If you are planting in a strip, please take a look at their requirements before you begin).
Native Plants for a Full Sun Garden
Attracts: birds, butterflies; is a host plant for Western Branded Skipper, Clouded Sulphur, and possibly the Sonora Skipper
Attracts: Hummingbirds, butterflies
One of several kinds of native NW lupine. They attract birds, bees and butterflies– such as larva of Silvery Blue and Persius Duskywing butterflie
Hands down, the cutest plant on the Pollinator Pathway. Attracts hummingbirds, bees, moths and butterflies
Attracts: birds (including the Rufous hummingbird), bees, butterflies (specifically, the Pale Swallowtail butterfly)
Attracts: Birds, bees and butterflies (is a known host plant for the Painted Lady butterfly)
This plant is a little more sensitive than most plants we’ve listed, but a beauty once established. Attracts: bees, butterflies
Organic gardening is nothing new. It is the way people grew crops for thousands of years—until the 1940s when organochlorine pesticides and artificial N-P-K fertilizers were introduced. Don’t believe the propaganda of the petrochemical companies. No pesticides are necessary. Since World War II, we have been adding poisons to our plants, and what have we accomplished? “Losses to pests ran at 6% of crops when we began to use [pesticides]. Today, pests eat 13% of our crops.” With their short life spans and fast rate of reproduction, insects rapidly become immune to pesticides. (Udo Erasmus, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, p. 391.)
A fine way to have organic vegetables is to put in your own garden and grow vegetables without chemicals, organically, and without animal-based fertilizers, veganically. In most parts of the country you can be eating out of your garden year-round. It was mid-January of 1996 when I first wrote these words, and there was parsley, kale, bok choi, fava beans, fennel, mustard greens, and collard greens growing in my garden. Leeks, onions, chives, and yellow fin potatoes will also grow right through Seattle winters—which occasionally get as cold as 20°F. Plants in the cabbage family survive even Russian winters, although there they must be cut back to the ground when the soil freezes rock solid. As soon as the temperature rises in the early spring, they jump out of the ground.
Those who have no place to grow a garden or who live in the far north where growing is impractical half the year should get into sprouting. See the Sprouting section of this book, p. 359.
Some flowers are edible—borage, nasturtiums, dandelions, pumpkin flowers, squash flowers, and evening primrose, for example—, and flowers attract the bugs that eat the bugs that otherwise would eat your vegetables.
Fresh greens from the garden can be one of life’s great experiences. After jogging in the morning, and after drinking water or juice or tea, I spoon up a bowl of wheat, barley, or rye (sprouted and cooked, or just sprouted) pour on a little flax oil, add some pumpkin seeds and/or walnuts, a dash of soy sauce, pepper, and some nutritional yeast. I take it out to the garden where I browse like a herbivore, eating leaves right off the plants without even washing them—a good way to get your vitamin B-12.
I graze on whatever is growing: lettuce, kale, collards, mustard, parsley, broccoli leaves and flowers, cauliflower leaves and flowers, nasturtium, mint, oregano, and chickweed, and eat them with my sprouted grain. I break off tasty little squashes and squash flowers and eat them raw. This illustrates an important point: miniature vegetables and tender sprouts—the stem cells of the plant world—are only available out of a garden. Grocery stores only sell fully grown veggies. You can also graze on plants that grow wild, including the dandelion flowers that grow along your jogging route. (See “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not-So-Wild Places and his Shoots and Greens of Early Spring.)
I sit on a stool or on the ground among the plants and look on in amazement at the plants and critters growing there. Birds visit to eat the worms and bugs. Squirrels come and climb the sunflower plants to filch the sunflower seeds. I indulge my sense of oneness with nature. The collard leaves sometimes have holes in them–the work of little slugs, but the taste is not affected at all. This is not artificially perfect produce from some commercial farm. It is my very own veganic food.
This morning (Tuesday, February 29, 2000) I left home in a hurry. I took the newspaper out of its plastic bag and filled the bag with leaves of Russian red kale, mint, and fennel. I took the bag to the office, dumped it out on the desk, and ate the contents as I worked on a legal brief.
In 2005 I grew flax for the first time. I bought a few ounces of flax seed and broadcast it. It grows around 18 inches tall and at the top it makes little blue flowers which turn into seed pods. The pods are filled with ten or twelve little flax seeds. The seeds are soft and white at first and later turn dark brown. The pods make a nice addition to your salad or stir fry. Flax oil pills are very expensive. Flax oil in a black bottle is somewhat expensive. Flax seeds are cheap. Flax grown in your yard and around your neighborhood is free once you get it started.
Food is medicine. Greens are a great source of vitamins, minerals, calcium, and roughage. They contain cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Eat as much as you can of your vegetables and greens raw. Cooking kills some vitamins and enzymes, although certainly not all, and cooking makes some nutrients such as beta-carotene more available. There are raw foods vegetarians who eat only fruit, nuts, and green vegetables. They eat their grains and lentils by sprouting them; no cooking is necessary.
Mustard greens are the hottest of all and my favorite. You can eat them raw if you chew them along with sprouted or cooked grain. Saliva neutralizes the heat. Steam, boil, or steam-stir fry the hotter greens such as mustard and the tougher greens such as collard. Cook them the minimum amount to soften and sweeten them. In the winter most greens become sweeter.
For the last word on organic gardening, read John Jeavons’ book, How to Grow More Vegetables and Bill Mollison’s Permaculture. Jeavons calls his method bio-intensive gardening: Never apply petrochemical fertilizers or pesticides. Grow plants close together to cool the soil and shade out weeds. In cooler climates with a relatively short growing season, start long-season and hot weather plants indoors under lights—tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and basil.
Nitrogen gets washed out and used up quickly. New plants need nitrogen. You can add cottonseed or alfalfa meal for nitrogen. Or you can make your own nitrogen and add new humus by growing nitrogen crops such as fava beans, red clover, buckwheat, vetch, beans, lentils, and peas. They “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere. Plant them in the fall and dig them under in the Spring, right before planting. I have sandy, rocky soil. I keep right on growing nitrogen crops in various sections of my garden all through the year.
If you want to avoid all use of manure, this is what you have to do. Grow a nitrogen crop right before planting. Green manure will grow very fast in the summer. I have around 1,400 square feet of garden, so I have the room to spare. The difference is that during the summer I focus on the nitrogen crops I can eat—peas, beans, and favas. The leaves of peas and favas are edible. Notice the little white nitrogen-fixing nodules growing on the roots of beans and peas. These crops add nitrogen and humus to the soil and none of the chemical residues found in manure.
Buy loads of wood chips from local urban lumber jacks. They will let you have them for free to avoid a long drive to some disposal site. Chips from deciduous trees break down faster. Mix some into your garden, especially if your soil is sandy. Pile lots of wood chips under fruit trees and grapes. Over the years the wood chips will gradually decompose. You can grow plants in woodchips by starting them in regular soil and then transplanting them, surrounded by a shovelfull of dirt, right into the woodchips. You can hasten the breakdown of woodchips by adding saltpeter, potassium nitrate. Buy it for $6 per pound at your local garden center or for $.50 per pound out in a rural area from a fertilizer supply business.
Make a compost pile. Put leaves, grass clippings, left over, uncooked greens from the kitchen, and everything you rip out of your garden into the pile. In the early summer when the neighbor’s yard waste bins are full of grass clippings, it is part of my morning jogging routine on trash pickup day to roll my neighbor’s bins over to my compost pile. I ask permission in advance. I look at their lawns; if they have perfectly manicured grass with no weeds, it means they use Weed & Feed, containing atrazine and other nasty and unnecessary herbicides. I take a pass on such non-organic clippings. It’s amazing what suckers most home owners are.
Water your compost piles in dry weather; it is populated with worms, bugs, and bacteria that get thirsty just like you do. It is best to locate your compost pile in a shady area so it will not dry out, unless you intend to water it frequently. Scatter some dirt on top of the pile to colonize the compost with bacteria. In summer you can make compost in a month—especially if you water it and turn it over regularly. Never put anything you could have eaten into an open compost pile, because if you could have eaten it, rats can too. To eliminate rats from your neighborhood, leave them nothing to eat.
Sometimes I skip the composting process and simply yanking out excess vegetation and lay it down in the rows between plants or around certain plants I am trying to feed. Plants that have dead vegetation around them grow bigger and faster.
Compost can be mixed into the soil when you are planting, or you can use it to “top feed,” meaning you can spread it around plants already growing.
Make a worm bin: Use it to compost the food you cannot put in the compost pile. Build or buy a heavy wooden box. As a temporary worm bin, use an old suitcase or trunk; punch a few holes in the sides and bottom for air and drainage. Or buy a Rubbermaid bin and punch it full of holes so it will breath and drain. Add dry leaves, newspaper (call your newspaper to make sure the ink is soy and not petroleum based), and kitchen scraps, and then colonize it with red composting worms. Garden stores have the right worm species. A worm bin must have a lock, a heavy lid, or a brick on it to keep varmints out.
Plants must have minerals to be healthy and produce vegetation that is healthy for you to eat, so add ground up rocks to your garden. Add rock phosphate or colloidal phosphate for phosphorus. Add green sand, which is a seabed mineral, for potassium, potash, and trace minerals. Add granite dust for potassium. Add kelp for potash and trace minerals. Add sunflower hull ash for potash. Oyster shell is a good source of calcium, but using it subsidizes oyster farming. Instead, add limestone flour and dolomite lime for calcium. Lime is alkaline and sweetens acid soils. Add gypsum to put calcium into soils that are not acid. Make sure your minerals are organic; scam artists have been selling industrial waste and incinerator ash as minerals.
If you live anywhere near the seashore, use seaweed as a fertilizer. We go down to Puget Sound following a winter storm when quantities of seaweed are swept ashore. We load the trunk and back seat with garbage bags full of seaweed. Look for dried seaweed swept up near the high tide line; it weighs a lot less. Seaweed is rich in minerals. I recommend that you spread out the seaweed on your lawn and either rinse it well with the hose or let it get rained on. Most of the salt in seaweed is on the surface. Some seaweed supporters say forget about the salt and just pile the seaweed on your garden. To harvest seaweed in Washington you must by a clam digging license.
Various plants reseed themselves and grow up spontaneously in my garden: borage, parsley, kale, collards, bok-choi, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, and cabbage. If you let some of them go to seed, you will have “volunteers” sprouting up in the spring. You can space-out or relocate volunteers into neat rows if that is what you like. All make seed pods that you can collect in paper bags for replanting when and where you want.
Parsley is a favorite. It’s a fair source of calcium and it will grow right through the winter in most parts of the United States. Wander through your garden and chomp away on parsley. You can make a great soup just out of parsley, onions, olive oil, and water.
Parsley will volunteer in odd places. It is invasive, but that’s not bad, because it is easy to jerk out when you want to plant something else in its place. Parsley will get tall and make seeds. Cut off the mature seed tops, dry them in a paper bag, and scatter them hither and yon around your yard and around the neighborhood.
The Romans saved parsley to the end of the meal and ate it last as a breath freshener, the classical version of tooth brushing. Gradually people stopped eating it, and it became merely a decorative garnish. Ask others at your dinner table, May I have your parsley? Let no sprig go uneaten.
Buy open-pollinated seeds, which are the product of one strain bred with itself. These seeds will produce seeds which will grow the same plant next year. Hybrids are generally a reproductive dead end, sold so you will have to buy new seeds every year. Become a “seed keeper.”
Support the smaller seed companies which specialize in open-pollinated seeds such as Abundant Life Seeds (www.AbundantLifeSeed.com); Territorial Seed Company (www.Territorial-Seed.com); and Bountiful Gardens (connected with Ecology Action, which was created by John Jeavons, www.BountifulGardens.org).
Mint is very aggressive, so take a shovel to it regularly, chopping most of it out, including the roots. If you don’t, it will just keep spreading. Tarragon spreads out in a perennial mat. Rosemary grows into a bonzai tree.
Squash and pumpkin flowers make tasty eating right up until the first heavy frost. The more flowers you pick, the more flowers the plants produce.
Borage dies in the winter, but it reseeds itself and comes back spontaneously in the Spring. The blue flowers attract beneficial insects. Borage is prolific and invasive, although not in a bad way because you can yank it out easily. I use the plants as compost. I might wrap one around some plant I am trying to give nitrogen to. I pile them under my grapes to keep down the weeds.
Borage flowers are good in soups and salads or eaten raw right off the plant. There is some debate about whether it is safe to eat borage leaves, but some sources say it is alright to eat them occasionally and in moderation. Nasturtium flowers and stems have an interesting, spicy taste.
Grow onions, leeks, garlic, and shallots. All live through the winter in the Northwest. Step on the onion stalk to bend it, or cut it down to a few inches tall; this promotes growth of the onion underground. It does no harm to onions to dig them up and spread them out if they are too crowded. Start onions with little onion starts. Leeks and onions make big seed pods; cut them off, and dry them in a paper bag for later planting. Grow garlic and shallots from garlic and shallot cloves. To make leeks grow thick at the base, dig a trench six to nine inches deep, and plant leeks in the bottom of the trench. As the leeks grow, gradually fill in the trench around the base of the leeks.
Plant peas early and often from early Spring to late Fall. When they stop producing seed pods, rip out the vines and compost them. Then plant another crop. They add humus to the soil and fix nitrogen. The small, tender, newly-emerging leaf clusters on the top are as good to eat as the pea ponds and peas.
I buy mustard seeds in bulk and broadcast them at random everywhere. They grow well in the rich mulch around my fruit trees. Kale grows well in the leaves piled under my grapes.
I have a front yard and a back yard garden. During the Winter, there is chaos, with kale, collards, mustard, leeks, onions, dill, and parsley growing wherever they have taken hold.
In Spring I practice what I call relocation gardening. There are hundreds of healthy volunteer plants growing in chaos on their own. Some are too crowded, and sometimes they are infested with weeds. So I start at one end of the garden and dig out healthy plants, including a big clod of dirt around the roots. After I have cleared some space, I relocate the healthy plants, giving them the right amount of room. I work from one end of the garden to the other this way until there is a plant every six to 12 inches. In the space left over I might plant new seeds in neat rows or plant a nitrogen-fixing crop.
I am most successful at growing grapes. After their first year most grapes need no watering except during severe drought. I have ten different varieties growing. Seedless grapes are fine, but I prefer buffalo, concord, and pinot gris. It is too much trouble to spit out the seeds; I just swallow them. They come out the other end. Grapes are great eaten fresh, and you can freeze them in bags for making smoothies. Even seeded grapes are good for freezing. The blender breaks up the seeds so they can be partially digested. People pay a lot of money for pycnogenol, which is made from grape seed.
I built a 20’ x 25’ arbor above my back deck. Bolt 4” x 4” posts to steel rods, available at Home Depot. Then sink the rods into concrete; with no earth-wood contact the posts will not rot at the base for decades. Use untreated cedar posts instead of treated posts that are heavy, brittle, and treated with copper and arsenic. Home Depot has ready made hardware that is perfect for attaching steel rods and cross members to the 4” x 4” posts.
I also grow grapes in rows. I tried using 4” x 4” cedar posts, but I discovered a better support system, the Unistrut post, made of galvanized steel, available at the local electronics supply house, and typically used to support banks of computer servers. (www.unistrut.com.) Buy the full size 1.5” x 1.5” 10 foot long strut. Rent a post hole driver, and drive the 10 foot long struts four feet into the ground. The struts have slots every six inches or so. Pass berry wire through these slots. Unistrut is not as pretty as a 4” x 4” cedar post, but it is cheap, stout, rust resistant, and will last a century.
I have had success growing kiwis, particularly the smaller, hardy variety, actinidia arguta. A kiwi plant will eventually produce hundreds of pounds of fruit. Kiwi plants are not self-fertile, so you need a non-producing males to fertilize the producing female. You must give a kiwi proper support for it to produce heavily. .
Instead of ornamental trees, I have planted apple, pear, peach, plum, fig, mulberry, and Asian pear. In Spring, when the tent caterpillars arrive, I pull them off and throw them into the garbage can. The big problem with growing apples organically is the apple maggot, which drills a hole into the core. I could use bT, which is a natural insecticide, however, we have so many apples that I just let the maggots have their share. I toss the wormy apples into the compost pile.
For those just getting started with gardening, I should say a few words about how to convert a lawn into a garden. I did it the wrong ways: In one area I used a rototiller. In another I cut out the sod in blocks, and stacked them up until the grass died in the hot summer.
A much easier method is to put down cardboard and newspaper, leaves, grass clippings, and some wood chips over your new garden area. The cardboard, newspaper, leaves, grass clippings, and wood chips will shade out the grass underneath. If it is growing season, use a shovel or stake to punch holes through the cardboard. Dig some dirt up through the holes and plant your plants.
Certain plants need a lot of summer heat to prosper: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, and okra, for example. If you live in a relatively cool climate such as we have in the Northwest, grow such plants against the south facing wall of your house.
Tomatoes need to be staked up well. Plant each plant deep; the lower branches will turn into additional roots. Put a metal tomato cage around the plant when it is small, and drive plastic or bamboo stakes on either side of it. Run cord between the stakes on several levels, and later run cord around the growing plant. This supports the plant and keeps the cage from falling over when the plant is big. As the plant grows, trim off the limbs near the ground. You will have a five-foot tall tomato tree. Asians build a cage around a pair of tomato plants made of bamboo poles tied together with twine.
VEGANIC GARDENING—VEGAN AND ORGANIC
You already know what organic gardening is. Veganic gardening is organic gardening done without adding animal manure.
Even commercially grown organic vegetables are grown with manure, bone meal, and blood meal. Federal organic regulations did not change this. Manure contains nitrogen, and bone meal contains calcium, however, there are other sources of these minerals. A broader spectrum of trace minerals can be found in kelp and ground up rock. Manure, bone, and blood add unnecessary salt to your soil, and they contain petrochemicals and residual drugs.
Furthermore, animal fertilizers bear a heavy baggage of animal suffering; the animals that produced this poop, blood, and bones did not lead happy lives. There are reports that gardeners can contract spongiform brain disease by inhaling bone meal, and that they should wear a mask when they apply it. (See the section of this book entitled Spongiform Brain Disease, p. 280.)
Plants need added nitrogen. Instead of adding manure, add compost around the base of plants after they have come up. If you have no compost ready, grow green manure and turn it under. If your green manure is not ready, add leaves or, grass clippings. Nitrogen is lost very quickly, so you don’t need to spread your compost or leaves or grass clippings or hay everywhere. You are just wasting it. Add it around the base of your plants after they come up. Such sources will provide all the nitrogen your plants will need, and they will be organic and veganic.
How much green manure should you add? It depends on how poor your soil is. My garden was mostly sand when I started. I devoted over half my garden for several years to growing green manure. I still have extremely poor soil. I will be growing green manure and adding wood chips for a long time.
“Well,” some say, “I use animal fertilizer because it will just go to waste otherwise.” No, if you stop buying it, then the production of animal products generally becomes just a little less profitable. I say boycott the entire animal-based food and materials stream.
My great regret regarding gardening in Washington is that the drinking water is fluoridated. That means I must water my greens and vegetables with fluoridated water. The short term solution is to buy a rain barrel. Long term we must get the fluoride out of our water. (See http://FluorideClassAction.WordPress.com.)