Nutrition News I

by Tom Gibson

It is common knowledge, both among scientists and educated consumers, that food is less nutritious than it used to be.  Here’s a chart that shows how great mineral loss was between 1950 and 1999:

Later studies confirm that the situation has only worsened. One familiar culprit is the need by our modern industrial food system to require “efficiencies:”synthetic fertilizers, plant breeds that withstand long distance shipping, feed-lot-fattened meat, etc.  Less familiar, is humanities’ fatal dietary flaw, its sweet tooth that can’t resist anything sugary.  As Jo Robinson relates in her great book, Eating on the Wild Side, even blueberries, those alleged carriers of anti-cancer, anti-everything-bad nutrition, have lost much of their natural potency through over-breeding to accommodate humanity’s too-sweet palates. The more sour the blueberries, the better they are for you.  (Robinson recommends the semi-wild “Rubel” variety. Sour, but good for you.

Two recent developments that shed new light on the nutrition issue, however, caught my eye.  First, the bad news:  Declining nutritive value may well also be a consequence of the general rise in CO₂ concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide not only causes global warming, it also speeds photosynthesis and, with it, plant metabolism.  Multiple scientific studies now show that this process weakens uptake of vital mineral nutrients like zinc.  The most convincing evidence of causality is that even non-crops like goldenrod, samples of which have been collected and preserved since the 19th Century, have also lost nutritional content.  The only variable, apparently, affecting goldenrod has been rising CO₂ concentration. 

                           Please Don’t Eat the Goldenrod

This is especially depressing news since it identifies a variable that impossible for individuals to correct on their own. Even if you work to balance micro-nutrients in your own garden, global conditions will always be tugging in the opposite direction.

 (For a well-reported article accessible to lay readers, see http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/soil-health-agriculture-trend-usda-000513)

But don’t give up hope. The second item I noticed (the good news) gives us at least some chance to take better nutrition, quite literally, into our own hands.  It’s a prospective I-Phone app—a Bionutrient Meter– that will allow you to perform an instant spectroscopic analysis on fruits and vegetables in grocery bins.  Does that spinach at Whole Foods contain the iron you want it to?  Or does the farmer’s market offering outperform it? Just point and click. And the larger question: Will a small army of consumers demanding better nutrition put enough pressure on suppliers to change their standards?

An organization I greatly respect, the Bionutrient Farmers Association**, will unveil a prototype Bionutrient Meter this fall.  In this podcast, Dan Kittredge, gives more detail. ((https://soundcloud.com/wpkn895/digging-in-the-dirt-37-dan-kittredgeexecutive-dir-bionutrient-food-assoc/ )  His hope is that an affordable handheld device will be available to consumers a year-and-a-half from now.

*I’m ignoring here the far worse role played by manufacturers of highly processed food scientifically formulated to create junk food addictions among naïve populations.  For a truly depressing, but well-reported article that includes a quote from Cleveland’s (and Switzerland’s) own Nestle Corporation, see https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html?_r=0

** (bionutrient.org.  Note that “bionutrient” is not plural.  Adding an “s” will take you to the wrong website.)

Nutrient News (You Can Use) II

It may be news to you that many good elderberry recipes exist.  Although American use of these tiny, astringent black fruits is pretty much limited to elderberry jelly and elderberry wine, European cooks take them much more seriously.  This is a good thing, since elderberries are off the charts in their nutritional value—double, for example, the anti-oxidant power of even the most nutritious blueberry. (Sorry, Rubel blueberries! See above.)

                                                       Sambucus Nigra, a European variety, though                                                          we also use the North American Sambucus                                                              Canadensis*

The best sources for many of these recipes are online and often not in English. But don’t let that stop you! All you have to do is look up the foreign word for the fruit you contemplate cooking, enter that and the foreign word for recipe, and you’ll get an extraordinary variety of good ideas. Just right-click on any given recipe, and it will appear in English. It’s really that simple, with only a mental barrier to stop you.

In the case of elderberry, several years ago I looked up its German translation, “Holunder” and the German word for recipe, “Rezept.” The resulting search led to a fruit compote that has become a family favorite.  The genius of this particular dish is that it takes the “bass note” astringency of elderberries and lemon peel and matches them with the treble notes of sweeter pears and plums.    The result is an unusual symphony of fruit flavor that we like on ice cream and on cereal.

Here’s a free adaptation of the recipe:

8 firm pears

1 liter water

1 lemon, juice and zest

1.5 Kg of Italian prune plums, de-stoned

1 Kg of elderberries

400 g sugar  (yes, the best flavor requires some additional refined sugar sweetness!)

Core the pears and chop into bite-sized chunks, add water and lemon zest, then cook until almost tender.  Add the plum halves, elderberries, sugar, and lemon juice and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.   We pour into jelly jars and freeze.

*The elderberry bush is an especially useful permaculture shrub since it allows easy “function stacking”—the permaculture term for getting multiple benefits out of the same piece of land.  In our case, we grow tasty king stropharia mushrooms in wood chips in the shaded soil beneath the elderberry bushes, which, in turn, benefit from the decomposed-wood-chip soil.  We also grow groundnuts, a frequently-found-in-nature companion plant to elderberries. The groundnuts vines curl up the elderberry bush branches, even as its roots fix nitrogen and feed the plants around them.  Three foods in one patch of ground, ever better soil, more nitrogen, plus a privacy hedge between us and our neighbors.  Now that’s function stacking! (Though it’s taken more time than I thought it would.)

The Peripatetic Gardener Visits the Jersey Shore

by Lois Rose

Jersey Shore?  You gotta be kiddin me.

I am going to refute that impression I hope with a description of a recent trip over Labor Day to Long Beach Island, about two hours south of New York City.  Naturally there was traffic—gimme a break, it was Labor Day weekend. Surprisingly, cars never stopped moving and we arrived in the afternoon at our rental house at the very end of the road on the sand bar island. 

(picture of the lighthouse, then the balcony with chairs overlooking the state park)We were at the edge of the 32 acre Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Barnegat is from a Dutch word for breakers of which there were apparently many when the light house was constructed to prevent grounding of ships in the area. The light has been restored after many years in darkness, and the original fabulous prisimed light is on display down the block at the museum.

 

Houses here are raised with many sets of stairs on the outside of buildings between wrap around porches on two floors or more—even on the roof for a great view.

 Older houses do not have the storm surge protection which is now probably required, or at least desired. In our place, bedrooms were on the first floor and kitchen, dining area and living area were on the second.

We were very close to the excellent tram line which ran from several nearby streets to the beach through interesting trees and shrubs and sand happy perennials.

 

 We could walk fifty feet and jump aboard and be near the crashing—or somewhat modulated breakers—in ten minutes. Some of the family saw dolphins. Sand castles, shore birds, not crowded.

Poison ivy unfortunately flourishes along the tram line.

 

  There are areas with a wooden board walk but mostly if we didn’t use the tram we walked on shifting sand.  A well-illustrated trail guide near the lighthouse (217 steps up a yellow spiral stair case with not enough room for two large people to pass each other in either direction) was instructive about the usual suspects. 

There was a lot of pitch pine, 

and Russian or Autumn Olive, a seriously invasive plant which curiously is featured in many yards on the island.  I saw few well-tended or diverse plants in the area where we stayed.  I did see a strange juxtaposition of pokeweed and the often planted and flourishing Crape (or Crepe Myrtle) trees. 

 The island forest is dominated by Black Cherry, Sassafras, Eastern Red Cedar, Cedar, and American Holly. 

I found a few beach plums to munch on—as soon as I started eating them a ton of nearby tourists jumped in and finished off the crop. 

I had better luck with the Russian Olive.  I found it on a walk with my granddaughter—stopped and picked enough to make a small recipe. I packed it into a carry on but TSA decided it was suspect and examined it for explosives.  I got it home eventually.

People were very friendly, especially a woman I ran into while walking the baby—again. She was walking with a huge bouquet of fresh cut flowers, and I stopped and started a conversation. I started naming the flowers—some in Latin—and she said, you must be a Master Gardener. Who else would name flowers in Latin, right?  Turned out she was an MG too. She invited us to visit her back yard, meet her husband (reading in their hot tub) and see her fig trees. 

So, I would say that the trip was very pleasant and also informative with some surprises. The Jersey Shore is newly appreciated in our view.

The Peripatetic Gardener Visits Hocking Hills

Hello dear Gardenopolis readers –

Our prolonged, unplanned vacation is over. Our Gardenopolis party (3rd one, celebrating two years of Gardenopolis Cleveland) was a success, with 50 people attending, enjoying good food in beautiful surroundings, and the rain politely held off until closing hour.  And now – drumroll here, please – co-editor Catherine is now the delighted new grandparent of a lovely little girl, Mira; co-editor Tom’s visiting grandchildren have returned to Chicago; and co-editor Anne has settled into a new living arrangement. Time for all of us to get back to work. I had hoped to have my interview with Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Jim Bissell done by now, but I’m still working on transcribing it, so, not this time; instead I will share my mini-vacation visit to Ohio’s spectacular Hocking Hills.

I can’t believe I waited so long to visit this place (actually a series of places). I remember once as a teen going to a state forest down there to attend a forestry conservation camp. Alas, I was 15 and more impressed with the boys than with the scenery. LOL, as we say today. Then when I was studying landscape architecture at OSU, and the Hocking Hills were close, I was too busy. So the Hocking Hills have been on my bucket list for kind of a long time.

An explanation of the topography; It is all hills and valleys, ups and downs, with no seeming rhythm or natural order and no straight line roads. If you’re not used to the windy roads you might not want to drive after dark with the rising and falling multiple ssss curves, especially with some hot rod local in a semi’s-cab riding your car’s back end. Just off Rt.466 is the winner of the most-lethal-looking-driveway-entrance-to-a-school award, ever. Period. Why? Why? Why put an entrance to a school there?

Anyway, among those roads and tucked into those gnarly hills are wondrous places, cliffs and caves, and waterfalls, and grottos.  Some of these spaces fight the camera — the cliffs, for example, and the caves. Without a human or human structure in the picture to give a sense of scale, they are just jumbles of rocks and trees, lacking depth perception.

     

We started, as I suspect most people do, with Old Man’s Cave, which, along with Cedar Falls, and the Ash Cave are probably the most popular and most visited of the natural attractions in the Hocking Hills (there are unnatural attractions, but we won’t go into them here). All this chaotic multitude of big and little hills drain water into twisty-rocky-cliffy little streams that drain into twisty-rocky-cliffy bigger streams, and eventually become twisty rivers — which drain, finally, into the twisty Ohio River). One of these little streams carved Old Man’s Cave, which is a huge recess cave, created by the wearing away of a softer layer of rock from between harder layers of rock – here sandstone. There is an upper falls, a trail downstream to lower falls into Old Man’s Cave, and then the trail follows the stream that meanders between the walls of a gorge for roughly a mile. You eventually get to Cedar Falls, misnamed. The first colonists mistook the trees, which are hemlocks, for Cedars. Then from Cedar Falls you can pick up another trail to the Ash Cave, the area’s largest recess cave, or across a fun small suspension bridge to Whispering Cave, almost as large, I’m told, as Ash Cave.

What was interesting, to me, was observing that the infrastructure of stairs and bridges and trails that encourages and supports intense public use of this place/space — most of it created by the CCC in the depression years of the early 30’s (and they did a spectacular job), though it is showing signs of wear and much use over some 80 plus years, has largely endured.

Old Structures

New Structures

One enjoys a mix of ‘artifacts’ – Mother Nature’s, on one hand, and man’s, on the other — and both are beautiful. The CCC artifacts sometimes incorporate the former and often feel organic, and stand in contrast to the more contemporary man made structures. On the negative side, this place shows the effects of so much love, of so much use. The paths, and beyond the paths, are worn, the soil is bare. There is little vegetation along the main pathways, other than the trees, and these often have their roots fully exposed. This is the inevitable erosion and compaction of the access path too much traveled, and that tempting short-cut too often taken. Everywhere there are the signs of our human insatiable curiosity (what’s up that ledge? What’s in that cave? Gotta see!). Interesting, too, to me, that not until four years ago was there a precipitation event that damaged this otherwise so durable man-made infrastructure.

We also went to a place called Rock House, a collapsed recess cave — impossible to photograph with one’s android phone) a little more off the beaten track. Much the same story of wear and tear there.

Contrast these with Conkle’s Hollow, within a similar gorge, but somewhat – considerably? — less visited, and considerably less worn down, located in a state nature preserve rather than a state park or state forest. Does this explain the difference? I can’t answer that question. We hiked both the loop rim trail (two miles, not counting the ups and downs) and the inside-the-gorge trail. The rim trail takes you close along the edge of 200 foot high cliffs, and even if you do not get vertigo and thus are brave enough to go right to the edges and look down, all you can see are the tops of the trees below. The footing is uneven, challenging. The east rim, which gets the western sun, seems drier. There is mountain laurel and briar edging the path among the hemlock trees. The west rim, which gets the eastern sun, seems wetter, shadier. It is more open and ferny. 

The gorge itself is a religious experience! The path in and out is flat concrete that is handicapped accessible, and — thanks be to God, the ODNR, and the well placed fence — people largely stay on it. It helps that there are frequent signs asking one to stay on the trail to help preserve the vegetative ecosystem — ferns, ferns, ferns and more ferns, densely carpeting the steep slopes under the tall straight trees, clinging to the rock walls, growing on large stones, with lots of stinging nettle (don’t touch!) and little bit of a native broadleaved carex for contrast.

The air is moist, cool. There is a natural hush here, similar to what one felt during the recent eclipse. Perfect.    

                                 

Canadian Anemone: A Frenemy Becomes My Enemy

by Tom Gibson

The story begins with well-intentioned advice from an expert horticulturist friend who suggested Canadian anemone for my backyard Food Forest.  “Yes, it’s a little invasive, but it’s such a great plant for wildlife!” (As I remember her comment.)

And her assessment has proven at least partially true.  Not only do the white blossoms attract diverse insect pollinators, but the roots provide an unusually hospitable home to worms, millipedes, and, no doubt, trillions of other creatures (food to the aforementioned invertebrates) visible only via a microscope.

  ( Canadian anemone looking innocent)

I observed some of this soil life cornucopia as I tried to pull out proliferating Canadian anemone, which wants to pop up everywhere it’s moist.  When it can, it tries to squeeze out any competitors with a thick, fine matt of roots that covers every millimeter of soil surface; with a Cape Cod scraper it comes off like a soil-infused, hairy human scalp.  The moist root mass and regular root die-off probably explains the thriving microbe-to-worm food chain.  So, while I was aggravated by the plant’s aggressive spread, I was delighted by the rich soil it left behind.  Talk about tilth!

( What’s left after weeding Canadian anemone: beautiful soil)

Remembering the permaculture mantra “The Problem is the Solution”, I resolved to keep some Canadian anemone and use it as a nutrient factory for a deeper-rooted plant—the goji berry bush. The roots don’t compete and the anemone root nutrients would trickle down. And, in fact, the combination planting caused an explosion of goji berry production.  When lecturing our various permaculture classes, I liked to pull out this home-developed solution to illustrate permaculture principles in action.

Goji Berries with Canadian Anemone

Alas, even permaculture principles have their limits.  I never found enough time to keep my Canadian anemone under control.  My Food Forest floor was overrun.  It was either get rid of Canadian anemone once and for all or sacrifice too much space to a non-edible, aggressive invader.  (I’ll have to find some other productive ground cover for my goji berries.)

That’s what I’m doing this August. Elimination, of course, requires multiple passes as the Canadian anemone rhizomes refuse to die off.  But, by September, I think they’ll be gone or, at most, require occasional plucking.

( Canadian anemone returning for a second try.  They’ll be gone soon!)

One silver lining:  the beautiful soil they’ve left appears ideal for planting shade-loving salad greens.  Witness my happy new komatsuma sprouts.

 

Stinging Nettle: A Potential Frenemy Becomes a Generous Friend.

I’ve had better luck with stinging nettle.  It could have become annoyingly aggressive, but has pretty much stayed along the south edge of my raspberry patch.  There it accumulates calcium and magnesium, among other minerals, which become more easily available to other neighboring plants.  Thus, its frequent inclusion in lists of superior companion plants.

But stinging nettle is good for us, too. According to Martin Crawford, author of Creating an Edible Forest Garden, stinging nettle contains approximately double the nutrients of even our most nutritious annuals like spinach.  It is also tasty when cooked. (That’s when it also, conveniently, loses its chemical sting.) 

(Stinging nettle and mushroom omelet)

In growing it, I’ve discovered one other benefit: cutting the fresh young tip—the sweetest and most edible– causes the plant to respond with three more of the same! Production triples and, with further cuttings, sometimes even more.

(a second flush of stinging nettle leaves)

Unlike my Canadian anemone experiment: a clear winner!

  

Weather

by Lois Rose
 
Watching the seasons unfold this year after the unusual spring weather has been exciting and puzzling. 
 
Going back four winters, I am reminded that 2013-14 and 2014-15 were very difficult in terms of extreme and sustained cold.  Many plants that had survived in my garden for decades were damaged severely by the first of these winters.  The second dealt a glancing blow but it did not do as much damage. 
As an example my fig trees which had been in the ground for twenty years and had produced five hundred figs in the summer of 2013, were knocked to the ground. They produced new branches but no figs in 2014.  Last year, 2016, I had a few dozen figs and this year my considerably larger trees are covered with baby figs, much earlier than usual, on their way to ripening in the fall.  Everything in the yard seems to have come in two to three weeks early.

My hardy orange trees, Poncirus trifoliata have a lot of fruit now…small so far, fuzzy green oranges, the first since 2013.  There were flowers last year but no fruit. Again, they flowered a few weeks earlier than usual.

Looking at my other fruit crops, black and red currants started ripening in mid June,weeks ahead. Raspberries were similarly ahead.

I have been doing some research online and asking friends from OSU to find some explanations for the patterns which reflect the weather conditions in this part of Ohio this spring. The mild winter, second in a row, is the foundation of the story..very warm temperatures in January and again in February started the ball rolling.  Plants that had completed their chill hours…needed to set them up for their normal spring routines…were thrust into advancing buds which formed last summer and fall early. Maple trees started to open their signature red flowers a month earlier than usual.  Soil temperatures rose early (get a soil thermometer if you want to be on top of this) and crab grass was ready to germinate in early to mid March (time for pre germination treatment)  earlier than usual. Growing degree days (http://www.oardc.ohio-state.edu/gdd/ moved ahead quickly by March. Then some cool and cold weather slowed things down. May have produced some very cold weather (not unusual) which damaged various plants, especially those that had started to open buds or were in flower. The damaging cold was defined by temperatures at or below freezing for many hours.  Michigan as well as Ohio received a cold spell on May 8 and 9.  But depending on the specific place, its altitude, proximity to water, etc.,the results were varied.

Depending on your garden niche, proximity to the cold lake, how far to the east or west and how high above the lake, snow  cover…all of these things contributed  to the damage or lack thereof to our plant material.
Friends have observed a good crop on their berries, and also on hibiscus, roses,  and many other flowers and shrubs and trees.
I am speculating that the two mild winters, generous amount of rain this spring compared with the three month drought last year…plus the recovery of many plants after two damaging winters..has resulted in this year’s bounty.

In my yard, I  see very little damage after the cold spells in March and May which included freezing  and snow after many plants had been exposed to the warm air and warm ground earlier than usual.  Magnolia stellata had buds covered in frost. Daylilies were bent to the ground as were hellebores
and many other perennials. Yet my magnolia blossomed well, and the hellebores were very floriferous.
On the whole it seems that the outcome has been favorable despite the gyrations and surprises of the spring. Cannot wait to see what is going to happen next year!

Dear Fellow Ents

by Elsa Johnson

It’s not just our trees that are dying but trees everywhere, headlines an article in The Guardian (issue of 19 September 2016, written by Oliver Milman in Oahu and Alan Yuhas in San Francisco).

In Hawaii, on the big island, in 2010, the iconic ohi’a trees – a rainforest evergreen — started dying at an astonishing rate. After almost six years nearly 50,000 acres of native forest on the big island are infected, and there is the potential for major deforestation to a whole family of metrosideros trees and shrubs of the Pacific. It is caused by a beetle carrying a pathogen (dark creeping shades of Moana!).

In other areas of the tropics, disease threatens banana plantations, coffee growers are dealing with fungal attacks that reduce yield and kill the plants that produce the coffee bean, and citrus greening is a threat to citrus growers worldwide.

In California an invasive pathogen called Sudden Oak Death – distantly related to the cause of the 19th century Irish potato famine – is infecting hundreds of different plants, including redwoods and ferns (but …but…it’s called oak death): 66 million trees have been killed in the Sierra Nevada alone. SOD is caused by phytophthora ramorum. Despite its name the pathogen slowly saps the life from oaks over two to five years. It is spread mostly through water, like rain splashing off an infected leaf, or wind driven rain that can carry the pathogen for miles. Whole mountainsides have died.

In the Midwest, from Texas to Minnesota and east into Ohio, trees are dying. Ashes succumb to ash borer, oaks succumb to oak wilt (as we know to our regret through the loss of old growth red oaks in Forest Hill Park), caused by the fungus Ceratocystic fagacearum, and to opportunistic insects like the Two-lined Chestnut Beetle.  And now something is affecting our native beeches. Meanwhile In the Pacific northwest, bark beetles and pine beetles are killing trees. Five years of drought starved trees of water and weakened their defenses. The beetles that used to be held in check by wet winters now have more time to roam beyond their normal territories, expanding from British Columbia to the Yukon border. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the iconic English and European beech forests are also threatened by climate change, especially drought. For us here, weather – mild winters possibly? – may not kill off the two lined chestnut borers the way a bitterly cold winter would, hastening their spread.   

What seem like small changes to us – the shift of a degree or two, the lengthening of fall and the earlier spring onset of spring by a just few weeks (which feels beneficial to us – who doesn’t appreciate a milder winter around here?) — can have profound negative cascading affects to ecosystems which depend for communal health on everything living in a balanced equilibrium of competing and cooperating interconnected organisms, both above and below ground.  Events like a long and too-wet spring, followed by a longish period of drought, such as we had here in northeast Ohio last year, which affected the prairie states even more severely, stress trees, leaving them vulnerable. They live lives many times longer than ours, but are slow to adapt.

Alas.

These changes to climate – that seem so unremarkable to us, or even good as we enjoy that mild winter day – naturally affect all components of an ecosystem, and there are parameters beyond which any ecosystem becomes destabilized and the natural equilibrium of the healthy ecosystem is sent awry. I believe we laypeople inadequately appreciate this. Probably new equilibriums will be established over an extended time, but we, personally, probably will not live to see it. Recent reports suggest as much as 80% of species may be on a path to extinction…. and we? We are who understand – we who care? Galadriels, sadly looking at the world we love, knowing that much in it that is wonderful will pass away.   

This is what tree death looks like.

 

 

A Feast for the Eyes: GardenWalk Cleveland 2017

by Elsa Johnson, Ann McCulloh and Catherine Feldman

This edition of Gardenopolis Cleveland marks our third summer on the beat. One of our first stories was about GardenWalk Cleveland …and here we are again! Last year there was no garden walk, but they were back up last weekend and even added an additional territory, North Collinwood. Your intrepid editors Catherine Feldman, and moi, Elsa Johnson, drove up to what felt to us like another country. …. perhaps somewhere on the Baltic? We got out of our car on a road where the houses all look out over a private park over looking our inland sea…breezes we’re blowing. It was a small place of summer heaven. A treasure! Why don’t more people know this is here? !  Enjoy,…

 

 
 Our co-editor, Ann McCulloh also went on Garden Walk Cleveland, to West Park on Cleveland’s west side. But she also manned a table in North Collinwood, and had the chance to take in a few gardens…by luck, she saw the one we missed. 
We’re sorry we didn’t see more of Garden Walk Cleveland…. it’s just so big and sprawly that — even though it is open over two days, the idea of seeing the whole thing is daunting. We wonder what it would be like to break them into groupings and spread them out over the course of the summer…? 

Be Here Now

by Elsa Johnson

What else              would one write               on a fairest day?

Yesterday      overhead                         the clouds flew by like

fluffed white dragons                strung out       horizontally —

battalions                no       legions !               lined up against

perfect blue                  Today’s heavens have changed three

times this last hour         wisps first         tattered         as if

breath ripped apart in some great battle                     then

infinite           pale         and        totally        cloudless        sky

Now?         Dragon spawn                         Today is all sea rush

a constant in-rushing         wall          :        Sound        wave

upon wave               wearing away                 relentless and

without emotion                  Thus     what else can I say    but

Great Spirit               Dragon Breath             oh   cloud and air

let me be present        Here         :          Let me be           now

Chimney Swifts

by Elsa Johnson

Back in the day before people caged off their chimneys there were probably fewer mosquitos.

What??? You say… what possible connection????

The answer? Chimney swifts/chimney ‘swallows’.

Chaetura pelagica, voracious eaters of all flying insects, like mosquitos. These birds, native to the Americas, spend the winter (as I would like to do) in South America (northwestern countries), but breed in North America during our summers. Their range is from the Rockies eastward to the Atlantic and northward into lower parts of Canada. Like all swifts, they are incapable of perching, but instead cling vertically to surfaces. And this is where chimneys come in.

A swift spirals down to its roost opening from above. Originally these birds roosted and nested in trees. While they are diurnal foragers, able to stay afloat in the sky for hours, the time I am most aware of them is in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk. They are easily recognized, with their strange short, neck-less bodies, long slender wings, swift erratic flight and chittering call, but they are also easily mistaken for swallows (hence the name confusion). Able to drink and bath on the wing, they are one of the swiftest of birds.

They have extremely acute vision and interestingly, can focus with one eye or both eyes, and, like our native whippoorwill, which they somewhat resemble, they have a huge mouth gape — the better to eat you, little flying insect – but they are sociable rather than solitary, and many birds – sometimes hundreds – will share a roost.  In that roost there is only one breeding pair, mated for life.

Although originally cavity-in-tree dwellers, since the arrival of European colonists – and chimneys – these birds now almost exclusively use chimneys (and air shafts, isolated corners in lightly used buildings, and the walls of cisterns and wells). Here’s the catch, however: today many of us cage our chimneys, thus preventing chimney swifts/swallows from using them.

In 2010 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed this bird’s status from Least Concern to Near Threatened. Its population has declined precipitously across the majority of its range. The causes of its population decline are unclear. There may be contributing factors besides loss of roosts.  In the U.S, the chimney swift is protected and neither birds nor nests can be removed from chimneys.

How can you help? You can build a chimney ‘swallow’ tower.

This tall slender structure offers an alternative to chimneys. It is usually placed to allow easy maneuverability to descending birds, in an open field, or in a yard, in an open area…. but could also be placed, it seems to me, on a flat roof or deck. They can be big or small. As with chimneys, some maintenance is required. You can find plans on line; look for chimney swift houses. 

Book Review: Mycorrhizal Planet

by Tom Gibson

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.  The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.

The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course  last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]  You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.

We need them.

The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.  Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:

Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.  Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants.     Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.  See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food. 

Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.  In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.  These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.

Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.  It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas.   The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.   

But that’s only the beginning.  Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.  The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnsYh6511Ic And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.  We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction. 

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The modified dry litter waste management system uses dry available carbon materials such as chipped coconut husks and woods as bedding materials that reduces exposure of pollutants and pathogens from animal manure to ground and surface water resources.. It requires no water. Pigs are comfortable in their bedding. Pig activity turns and aerates the litter promoting decomposition of waste materials. The system allows farmers to safely manage animals while promoting a healthy and clean environment.

Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.  Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!

It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.  Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae.   Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).  Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.  These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.  All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.

Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.

The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.  Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.

  1. Ramial wood chips.  These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.  Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.  So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.  I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier. 

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  2. Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.  I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.   The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
  3. Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”  These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.  Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.  So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.

As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.  Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readable  the author is able to make it.

A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”  But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.  Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.

So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.

Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?