If you are interested in how life in the garden works—how plants live, grow, and interact, along with all the other living things—this is a wonderful time to follow natural science research. Soil, fungi, microbes, plant, and root ‘communication’, evolution, and invasive species are all hot topics these days.
Have a look at some recent headlines that caught my eye.
Science and Gardening
When you start out as a gardener, it can be quite overwhelming to take in so much information. Thankfully, a few years in, through trial and error, much of it becomes (a good) routine, and things are manageable. Some pest infestations or other imbalances may come along, but overall, we know how to care for our gardens.
It’s at this point that some of us get hungry for a better understanding of how it all works: how plants grow, the role of soil, insects, birds, bees, and other living things, inter-dependence, and how it all relates. For me, the more I learn, the more interesting it becomes, and, the added knowledge makes it easier to make informed gardening decisions.
One simple example is fungi. Fungi research is uncovering all sorts of intriguing discoveries these days including the critical role it plays in the hidden world of roots, soil, nutrition, and plant communication. It’s intriguing stuff that makes you think twice about what you put in your garden. I’ve always been an organic (nothing but compost) gardener, but, after hearing the recent fungi research, I would really never consider adding a fungicide to a plant, knowing it could decimate the beneficial fungi as well, cutting off life in the soil. The whole “good” and “bad” labeling is just too simplistic in nature: the circle of life depends on a diverse range of plants and animals, and there will always be highs and lows along the way.
Here’s my caveat. I am simply an interested layperson. I’m not particularly adept at relaying this information despite my interest in it. And, headlines can be dangerous as you know: we boil down masses of information into a quick blurb and send them out into the world. Like any soundbite, they may be clear and accurate, or, most commonly, ambiguous and/or misleading. I hope, if you’re interested, that you’ll go beyond the headlines and explore more.
And be a good skeptic. Read. Listen. Learn. Consider sources. Consider the source of sources. Question. Think. Debate. Explore more.
Natural Science Headlines for Gardeners
1 Invasive earthworms threaten growth of new North American trees
We think of worms as good guys in the garden, but earthworms are an invasive species in North America and cause considerable problems in forests. A seemingly innocent action like dumping leftover earthworms after a day of fishing, can introduce them to an area where they will gradually wreak havoc.
The worms can cause dramatic changes to ecosystems by altering soils, reducing leaf litter and disrupting microbial interactions, which reduces biodiversity. Now it seems they are also eating plant seeds in the wild, potentially altering the make-up of forest communities.
2 Incredible dandelions could hold the key to growing plants on the oil sands
It cannot be understated how important fungi are. If you follow recent research in soil science, you know this realm is bursting with new discoveries. This dandelion fungus is just one example.
Years ago, a keen-eyed scientist spotted something unusual – dandelions growing on coarse tailings from the oil sands. Since coarse tailings aren’t exactly where you’d expect to see plant life thriving, he knew exactly who to bring the plants to. Dr. Susan Kaminskyj, a professor of biology at the University of Saskatchewan, studies plants that live in extreme environments. She discovered a fungus living in the dandelions that gave it the ability to grow in coarse tailings, which were stripped of all plant nutrients and still retain a residue of petrochemicals. And not only that, but the plants can also clean up the coarse tailings it grows in.
3 Bees are in decline but backyard hives won’t save them
It is very hard to get important information about the environment and eco-systems to the mainstream. And, nearly impossible to ensure the information is communicated thoroughly and accurately. In recent years, bees have made a lot of headlines. With massive die-offs of some bee populations, we’ve worked to identify causes and take action. As a side effect, this ‘news’ has propelled honey bees into celebrity status, perhaps at the peril of the thousands of other bee species that also require protection.
Some experts say the trend of backyard beekeeping could at best do little to save bees, and at worst leave certain species worse off
There are over 800 different bee species in Canada, each with sometimes similar, but ultimately unique habitats, needs and threats. As Sheila Colla, a York University ecologist, explains, using one species, the honey bee—and an invasive one, at that—to save a whole taxonomic family is futile and, frankly, bizarre. “We would never do that with other animals,” says Colla, an expert on bees. “It would be like throwing some Asian carp into Lake Ontario to save the ﬁsh. It doesn’t make any sense.
4 Americans love mulch — and many of us are misusing it
Too much, too little, right kind, wrong kind, quality, location…. Many of us buy it, but how many use it properly?
Mulches come in many forms, but they all seem to share a power of mind control over otherwise sensible folk. Each year, we spend an estimated $1 billion to cover soil with decaying organic matter, and I can’t help but think that much of it is unnecessary and even harmful to our plants.
5 Backyard bird feeders may be altering the course of evolution
Image: Magnus Johansson (Great Tit) [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Evolution works very slowly—except when it doesn’t. New research shows that certain British birds appear to be changing quickly as result of bird feeders, evolving longer beaks to help them access the food inside.
6 How flowers manipulate light to send secret signals to bees
Flowers have a secret signal that’s specially tailored for bees so they know where to collect nectar. And new research has just given us a greater insight into how this signal works. Nanoscale patterns on the petals reflect light in a way that effectively creates a “blue halo” around the flower that helps attract the bees and encourages pollination.
The more you know, the better you grow.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛