Monthly Archives: March 2016

Diverse Landscapes for Shaded Areas Using Ferns and Sedges: With Photos!

by Garret Ormiston


Shaded areas of our gardens have been one of the most under-utilized parts of our landscapes for many years. For too long, these areas have been relegated to the category of ‘space that needs to be filled’.

It is recognized that trees are a critical component of our landscaping, and provide us with many benefits. They provide critical food and nesting habitat for our native wildlife, and they make our yards and gardens places that we want to spend time in by blocking out the heat of the sun during the summer months. However, it seems that choosing plantings for the shaded areas beneath these trees is a significant struggle for many gardeners, and in many cases these areas end up being very one-dimensional and uninspired, lacking in both interest and diversity.

For decades, there was a feeling that if an area of your yard was too shaded to plant grass, then it should be planted with ‘ground-covers’ to eliminate areas of bare soil where weeds and other undesirable plants could become established. A ‘triad’ of non-native ground covers quickly became dominant fixtures in the landscape. This triad consisted of English ivy (Hedera helix), pachysandra (pachysandra terminalis), and myrtle (Vinca minor). These ground covers fulfilled their intended purpose, and they quickly covered ground! Quick to establish, aggressive in nature, and pleasantly evergreen, these three plants became one of the most dominant plantings in the American landscape.

Unfortunately these ground covers rarely ‘play nice’ with other plantings. In many cases, gardeners are often stuck with single-species plantings or ‘monocultures’ in these areas. Even if gardeners try to diversify the space by adding additional plantings, myrtle and pachysandra will quickly choke out other plantings with their carpet-like fibrous root systems. They hog space and draw out moisture and nutrients from the soil, aggressively competing with other plantings in the landscape. English ivy is even worse, and it will climb over and up other perennials, shrubs, and even trees. Forcing English Ivy to co-exist with other plantings often involves a tough regimen of regular trimming and pruning to keep the ivy in check. These plants also escape our garden boundaries and out-compete native vegetation in our parks and natural areas.

This is not to say that gardeners have not tried to integrate additional plant diversity in to their shaded landscapes! If anything, the selection of shade perennials that are available for purchase from local garden centers has expanded over the years. New varieties and cultivars of shade perennials and shrubs are constantly being developed which underscores the demand for shade plants in the landscape industry.  Endless selections of popular shade perennials such as hostas, coral bells, and astilbe have been developed, which feature dazzling foliage color variations. There is now ample choices for creating striking foliage contrast and vivid flowering in our shaded landscapes. There is also an exciting trend towards utilizing native plants in shade gardens. Native wildflowers such as wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), trillium (Trillium sp.), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) have garnered significant interest from gardeners in recent years.

However, too many of these plantings (native or non-native) quickly fall victim to the heavy level of deer browse in the urban and suburban landscape. With deer now fully integrated in to residential neighborhoods, the efforts of gardeners to ‘diversify’ their plant choices are rarely rewarded. As gardeners, we are all too familiar with the sight of perennials ‘mowed to the ground’ amidst a smattering of hoof prints in the soil. Its important to note that deer generally do not browse pachysandra, myrtle, or English Ivy. So it is understandable that many gardeners choose to ‘throw in the trowel’, and stick to the traditional ground cover plantings of our forefathers.

But with adversity comes opportunity! The scourge of deer browse in our gardens have forced us to examine overlooked groups of plants and to seek out the landscaping potential in plants that we have taken for granted in the past. When choosing plants for our gardening projects, the ornamental characteristics now often take second seat to a plant’s ‘deer resistance level’. After all, what good is a perennial or shrub that promises vibrant flowers and benefits to pollinating insects if the plant is eaten by the deer before it ever reaches that stage? When it comes to shade landscaping plants that are deer resistant, perhaps two of the most overlooked and under-appreciated groups of plants are the ferns and the sedges.

Unfurling Christmas frond

As gardeners we have learned the painful lesson that the deer will eat any plant if they are hungry enough. However, ferns and sedges are about as close as we can get to a ‘sure bet’ on deer resistance. It has been observed in both our gardens and our parks and natural areas, that ferns and sedges are one of the last plants to fall victim to deer browse. They are generally only eaten when all other food choices have been exhausted.

The gardening public has become increasingly aware of the benefits of choosing native plants for their gardening projects. These plants tend to better adapted to the unique climate conditions of our region, require less in the way of fertilizer, and provide food and shelter for native wildlife that have co-evolved with these native plants. Also, native plants do not escape in to our parks and natural areas and out-compete our native wildflowers, the way that other more traditional ground covers such as English ivy, and myrtle tend to do. Many of the ferns and sedges that are available in the nursery trade are native species or selections of native species. There are also non-native (but non-invasive) species of ferns and sedges that can be considered as additional plantings for these shade gardens.

Ferns and sedges have sometimes been considered to be ‘boring’ groups of plants by many traditional gardeners. However, anyone familiar with the variation of foliage color and texture in the groups, will understand that belief is simply not the case.

Carex nigra 4

Carex-nigra (above)


Carex-flagelifera (above)


Carex Silver Sceptre (above)

The typical gardener is familiar with the lush foliage of ferns, but in many cases is less familiar with sedges. Sedges while grass-like in appearance and habit, are not true grasses. They are also stunningly diverse with more than 160 different species of sedges native to Ohio alone. Sedges grow in a variety of different conditions, but many are very well-adapted to shaded locations, both wet and dry.

The foliage contrast and variation amongst species and cultivars of sedges, both native and non-native, is outstanding. The sedges are prized for their ornamental foliage, although they also have brown-to-black grass-like blooms which can be ornamental when viewed up close.


The wide evergreen leaves of the native plantain sedge (Carex plantaginea) (above)

The cheery grass-like lime-green foliage of the native Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is another welcome addition to the shade garden, especially in moist areas. If you have drier conditions, the Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) is a good choice and is somewhat similar in appearance to Pennsylvania sedge.

There are a number of interesting cultivars of the non-native broad-leafed sedge (Carex siderosticha), which can add striking foliage contrast to your shaded landscapes. Cultivars include ‘snow cap’ with bright cream and green variegated foliage, and ‘banana boat’ with bright yellow foliage. The more wiry foliage of Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii) can also offer noteworthy foliage contrast options including the green and yellow variegated foliage of the cultivar ‘variegata’, and the delicate white and green variegated ‘ice dance’ is particularly showy.

Lastly, the unusual copper and dead-brown foliage coloration of the non-native weeping brown sedge (Carex flagillifera) can be an interesting foliage play and an unusual conversation piece! The most intense copper and brown foliage color is shown when the plant is placed in a sunnier location. But the plant takes on an interesting copper-orange hue when planted in shade. If planting brown sedge, make sure that a cultivar is chosen that is cold-hardy, as some of the selections of brown sedge are borderline-hardy.

The lush, lacy and finely detailed texture of fern fronds is a welcome addition to shade gardens. There are species of ferns that will grow to a wide range of different heights which enables layering in the perennial landscape. There is also something primeval and enticing about an established fern-laden garden.

Ferns such as ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) (below)

Ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris

will quickly multiply as they spread by rhizomes and will create a pleasant natural effect in the garden. Ostrich fern tolerates moist to average soil. If you have a poorly-drained area in your shade garden, royal fern (Osmunda regalis) can be an excellent choice. Both of these species are among our largest native ferns, reaching mature heights of up to 4-5 feet. Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) with its conspicuous cinnamon-colored fertile fronds, is another tall and beautiful choice for moist areas.

Many native ferns have the added benefit of being evergreen plants.

Christmas fern. Polystichum acrostichoides (1)

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), (above) has thick leathery fronds that stay green year-round. Christmas fern is a medium-sized fern, reaching mature heights of up to 2 feet. Another evergreen fern is the marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) that grows to 1.5 to 2 feet. Both of these ferns will thrive in average moisture conditions. The non-native but non-invasive autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) is another interesting choice, especially in dry to moderately-moist conditions. The cultivar of autumn fern, ‘brilliance’ is an excellent choice for adding foliage contrast to the landscape. This evergreen fern produces new fronds that display vivid shades of red and orange.

The delicate and lacy native maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) (below)


is another interesting choice for the shade garden. Its black wiry stems and olive green foliage is a standout in the landscape, especially when planted in mass. Maidenhair ferns have long been considered popular house plants, and gardeners will enjoy that there is a hardy member of this genus as well that can survive our winters. Maidenhair fern can grow to mature heights of 2 to 2.5 feet.

Smaller ferns such as the native rock polypody (Polypodium virginianum) can also be interesting additions to the shade landscape. This small fern only reaches mature heights of 18 inches and is at home on shaded rocky slopes or rock gardens. The native lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is another smaller fern that grows to about 2 feet tall in moist to average conditions. The cultivar of lady fern called ‘Lady in Red’ has distinctive red stems and is very ornamental. Hybridization between native lady fern, and Japanese lady fern (Athyrium niponicum) have produced extraordinary selections including ‘Ghost’, which has brilliant silvery fronds. A selection of Japanese lady fern known more commonly as Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’) contains foliage undertones of silver, pink, and green.


The list of ferns and sedges goes on and on! Suffice it to say, they open up a world of deer-resistant opportunities for shade gardeners. Ferns and sedges work well when planted amongst native woodland shrubs such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Other native deer-resistant perennials such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), and Allegheny foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) can also be planted amongst ferns and sedges with exciting results.


Hopefully the exploration of these under-appreciated and under-utilized groups of plants will open doors for gardeners, allowing us to move past the traditional ‘triad’ of invasive ground-covers that have dominated our landscapes in the past. In so doing, we will be able to incorporate more interest and more diversity in to our shaded gardens, transforming them from ‘spaces that need to be filled’, to artistic places that beckon us to spend more time amongst the trees, and that contain exciting examples of our region’s native plant species.

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Winds from Africa, Part Three

by Jonathan Hull

The first two essays (Winds from AfricaPart One and Part Two) in this series explored the role of dust in nature from the biosphere to the microscopic world of plant leaves.  We now turn to the garden.  What are some practical applications of these discoveries?

Foliar sprays have been one application discussed throughout this series.  I’ve used them for years, but this past season was the first I’ve done so consistently.  The results I observed in the garden, in combination with deeper research into the topic, have convinced me to expand foliar spray use. 

Figure 1

[Photo: Author’s Kitchen Garden]

These sprays have numerous formulations tailored for specific purposes.  Some you can make with what is readily available, while others require the purchase of specialized materials.  In researching this topic, I realized describing these formulations in detail would require a small book.  In this essay, I will offer a few guidelines for general use, and later a peek into the most exciting aspect –  targeted foliar applications.

I prefer making things myself because it is often the ecologically responsible option.  There are numerous DIY foliar sprays one can make, and later I will detail one of these.  However, until I’ve mastered the ability to consistently make and use my own formulations, I’ve decided to not let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

For general use, I opted for a solution easily purchased from a garden center.  This is liquid fish hydrolysate mixed with seaweed concentrate.  (Note that fish hydrolysate is different than fish emulsion.)   The hydrolysate/seaweed spray provides plants with a broad spectrum of nutrients, but above all, phosphorus.    Why is phosphorus so important? Phosphorus is nothing less than the currency of life! Every movement of every living being from plants to humans requires the expression of phosphorus.

Several brands include appropriate doses of phosphorus and other nutrients, but the one I used was Neptune’s Harvest.   I followed instructions on the label, and began by diluting the concentrate with water.  For reasons we will consider later, dawn is the best time to apply – dusk is second best.  For a simple schedule,  I adopted a weekly routine of spraying every plant in the garden, especially during spring, early growth, flowering and fruiting.                

A sprayer is the main tool you will need–one that  mists, not the flat spray jet some sprayers employ.  Solo brand sprayers ( have worked well for me.  I have a small half-gallon version I use for seedlings and other small jobs.  I have another three-gallon sprayer I lug around the garden, but this year I will be looking into a more ergonomic backpack sprayer. In any case, you will want a spray that mists up as well as down since you will want to coat the entire surface of the leaves, especially the underside.  Many plants have the majority of their stomata on the underside of the leaf.

This is a bare bones general use application that is sure to give you good results.  For more applications, the best guide I have found on the subject is the chapter “Foliar Nutrition” in Jerry Brunetti’s book The Farm as Ecosystem.

Putting Foliar Sprays into Context

The most exciting aspect of foliar applications is not their content,  but their context.

Figure 2

[Photo: Author’s beneficial insect garden]

When I set out to write on this topic, my intention was to describe foliar applications analytically…take the subject completely apart in order to show how it works.  Obviously, I decided to do otherwise.  One reason, as I’ve mentioned, is that it is a big subject with a lot of complicated details.  But more than this, my decision to take a different approach was to push myself to try a different way.

I’ve inherited a cultural tendency to view the world exclusively from a linear analytic perspective.  I like tools and I like to study different techniques.  This perspective is a great way to gain knowledge, but it is often a terrible framework from which to act.  I can trace most of my mistakes and inefficiencies back to the fact that I had acted with a tool in mind instead of the context of its use.    

Nature is rarely linear and its systems are complex, dynamic and adaptive.  One of the many reasons I garden is to explore, enact and embody a holistic perspective.  For similar reasons I’ve approached this series as an experiment in how to describe a technique holistically.

If we view the garden holistically as a complex adaptive system, what role can foliar sprays play?

Foliar applications find their most effective use if we understand that plants are the structural expression of the relationship between countless processes.  If we are to engage responsibly in these natural processes then we must have some familiarity with them.  Yet it is impossible to understand such a complex world directly.  What is to be done? 

We can represent the relationship between garden processes in a kind of shorthand – patterns.  Patterns work much the same way as metaphor.  The pattern I’ve used in this series is the relationship between the elemental processes of nature: sun, wind, water earth and the role of life knitting it all together.  The vitality of any one plant could be understood as a particular expression of this pattern. 

A plant in our garden is embedded in this pattern of elemental processes as it extends through the biosphere and deep into its history; but also in a different, yet similar, expression of this pattern in the microscopic realm on the plant’s leaf.

The fractals of nature
The fractals of nature

[Photo: Plant leaf showing fractal self-similarity.  From:]

The journey we took in Parts One and Two went through these different scales to show that patterns are fractal.  Fractals are shapes that show self-similarity when you view them at different scales.  One branch of a river has a similar shape as the whole river.    This perspective allows the pattern at one scale to inform our investigation of another. 

Here is just one example of how a pattern, in all its metaphoric power, came together in my garden.

My garden, Africa, and the Amazon

I had just finished spraying the plants in our garden.  The sun was beginning to rise and its light was playing off the water droplets that were clinging to the plants.  The birds were in full morning chorus.  I was feeling the quiet, anticipative energy that comes at dawn. 

The solution I sprayed was one that I picked up from a school of fertility management called Korean Natural Farming.  It is a phosphorus solution made from animal bones.  Here is how I made it.

Some time ago I started saving leftover bones from chicken and beef that we get from a local farmer.  When I had enough of them, I cleaned the bones by boiling them in water.  (As a bonus I got soup broth).  I then let the bones dry, then charred them in a small stove of my own making, one that is usually used to make charcoal for biochar.   I then soaked the bones for three weeks in apple cider vinegar to dissolve them into a solution.  I diluted this solution further until it had a pH of 5.5, the same pH as  plant sap.  I then put this diluted solution into a garden sprayer that dispenses a fine mist and covered the entire surface of all the leaves in the garden.

Figure 4

[Photos: Author’s biochar stove (above)

Bone char before acid soak (below)]

Figure 5

If you recall from the first essay in this series, the fertility of the Amazon rainforest depends in part on the phosphorus contained in dust that originates in the Sahara.  A significant portion of this phosphorus is from the bones of ancient fish.  When it  travels across the ocean, this phosphorus is transformed by an acidic weathering process that occurs in the upper atmosphere.  As described in part two, when this dust settles on a leaf it starts a process by which a solution is spread over the leaf.  This triggers the opening of stomata whereby the phosphorus moves into the interior of the leaf where it can be used in the plant’s metabolism.

This entire array: ancient phosphorus weathered from soil, complexed by ancient fish, eroded into dust particles by desert winds, acidified in the atmosphere, put into solution on plant leaves – was the expression of the same pattern that I had just used in the garden!

It dawned on me that the solution I was spraying, and the processes by which it was made, was unintentionally mimicking a natural process of global nutrient cycling. 

Both begin with animal bones, which contains a special form of  phosphorus.  Since the phosphorus  was structured by one set of living processes it is easily used by others.  Charring bones weakens their crystalline structure, making the bones easier to dissolve—thus  mimicking the decomposition of bones by desert sand.  Soaking the charred bones in vinegar mimics the process of acid leaching as it occurs in the atmosphere.  By spraying the solution into a fine mist you mimic the way in which African dust settles on Amazonian leaves.


The timing of the application was also orchestrated to harmonize with the pattern of natural forces  occurring at the microscopic scale.  The best time of day to spray is in the predawn hour.  Why might this be?  Our discussion in Part Two gives us some clues.

Figure 6

[Photo: Sunlight in morning dew.  From:]

Plant leaves utilize a self-regulating system, the opening and closing of the stomata, to balance the need to breathe with the loss of water.  Higher temperatures cause more water to evaporate, so that above 85 degrees a plants will close all of its stomata.  By contrast, cool early mornings allow stomata to open their widest and breathe their fullest. (It has even been suggested that the specific frequency of morning bird song encourages the opening of plant stomata!)

Of equal importance to the foliar sprayer, predawn is also when humidity and dew are most concentrated, thus providing a ready-made liquid avenue into the leaves for your phosphorus solution..

I also time phosphorous application to the developmental stage of the plants.  Phosphorus is in highest demand when plants are in early stages of growth.  A lack of critical nutrients early on can dramatically reduce later growth.  The so-called epigenetic system of a plant senses the lack of nutrients and curtails the plant’s developmental path.  Perhaps the system designates a smaller frame of growth or limits how much fruit the plant will set.  The plant may still benefit from supplemental phosphorus later in life, but in a certain sense the die will have been cast.  In my experience, a small targeted application of phosphorus early in the year dramatically tips the balance of later growth.

Foliar spraying tips the balance of underground growth, as well. In this case, it is the growth of plants’ natural allies in the soil, the mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi, using powerful enzymes, break down the inorganic compounds where recalcitrant phosphorus typically resides and make it available to the plant. In return, plants feed the fungi energy in the  forms of various plant metabolites they produce by photosynthesis.      

Figure 7[Photo: Mycorrhizal fungal threads attached to plant roots.  From:]

It’s a virtuous cycle.  The more energy a plant can capture from the sun and bind to phosphorus the more it can feed the fungi, which in turn scavenge more phosphorus from the soil to transmit to the plant.  But the cycle can also reverse.  If the plant lacks sufficient phosphorus by which it transfers metabolites, it can’t feed the fungi, which then can’t access soil phosphorus. The whole web suffers.

Conventional soil agronomy “fixes” this problem by applying preprocessed, soluble phosphorus.  Many plants then grab the freely available phosphorus and yield to the temptation to abandon their mycorrhizal partners.   In so doing, plants inadvertently abandon other fungal benefits, including disease resistance.   They also make themselves dependent on  still more preprocessed inputs.                     

Here is the context for the incredible potential of foliar applications. 

The phosphorus solution I sprayed, much like what is found in the dust from the Sahara, was in a highly bioavailable form.  Unlike phosphorus in the soil, the plant did not need to expend energy to get it.   By spraying it on the leaf, we bypass the potentially sluggish channel that moves from the soil, to fungi and then to the plant.    Unlike conventional applications of phosphorus to the soil, foliar spray does not short circuit the natural plant/fungal symbiosis.  In fact, spraying small amounts of foliar applied nutrients can actually jump-start interactions in the soil food web!  The plant will use its free gift of energy to give its allies in the soil a leg up.  The virtuous cycle is reinforced.      

Imagine foliar sprays as the equivalent of acupressure in body work:  small, targeted acts that have whole body effects.  Plant health is largely determined by interactions in the soil, but foliar nutrition can be the tipping element that drives the whole system into new states of health.  We’ve seen something similar in the first essay.  The changing orientation of the earth with the sun was thought to be the main driver of climate change in the Sahara.  But it was also determined that atmospheric dust was a “tipping element” that shifted the climate back and forth between different states.

Understood in this way, foliar application can be the tipping element in the creation of healthy soil itself!  Plants are known to channel anywhere from 50-80% of the energy they obtain from photosynthesis into the soil.  They do this to support a diverse suite of microbes (both fungi and bacteria) that facilitate plant nutrition and health.  The healthier the plant, the more energy it can channel into the soil, the more microbes, the healthier the plant: another positive feedback loop.  This represents an incredible input of energy into soil that can affect its physical, chemical and biologic characteristics.  Foliar sprays that precisely target plant nutrient deficiencies can tip the balance of plant health and let the plant drive its own soil rehabilitation!


IV. Integrated Gardening Techniques Produce A Vibrant Food Web

This bring us to an important point.  Foliar applications are no silver bullet!  It is most effective when use in conjunction with other techniques that build healthy soils.  

The most successful of the soil building techniques I’ve employed to this end are the following: water harvesting earthworks, deep mulching, cover cropping, composting with specific microbial communities, soil mineralization, subsoil de-compaction, no-till methods – to name a few.  Foliar spraying is one of the newest techniques I have integrated into my practice. 

figure 8 

[Photo: Author’s “Storage Garden” with water harvest earthwork (aka swale) at lower right]

For instance, I keep one garden bed a year growing a cover crop through the whole year.   I spray this cover crop throughout the year, both with a broad spectrum foliar spray, but also with ones containing minerals found to be deficient in soil tests.  Vegetative growth can be quite phenomenal.  But more importantly, the soil condition after this cycle is equally incredible.  I’ve applied compost to the garden for years and I’ve never seen the dark “crumbly” tilth that I’ve encountered by incorporating foliar sprays..

I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve already witnessed remarkable  improvements in my garden.  Insect damage has shrunk dramatically. We used to dust our beans with Rotenone because the beetles would reduce the leaves to skeletons.  The same with our cabbages and the damage done by caterpillars.  By no means have these creatures disappeared from the garden, but they do so little damage now that we only occasionally pick them off our plants.  The organic pesticides we’ve used in the past are now sitting unused on the shelf.    

Species diversity in the garden has burgeoned.   I use foliar sprays not just on our vegetables but also in those parts of the garden I reserve for plants that attract beneficial insects.  Now instead of Japanese beetles and cabbage moths, our garden is overrun with their predators: assassin bugs and parasitoid wasps.  More beneficial insects are attracted to the plants because the nutrient quality of the flower nectar and pollen has increased.

Figure 9  

figure 10

[Photo:  Beneficial insects in author’s garden. Above and below  Assassin Bug and Syrphid Fly 

Yields have also gone up.  One of our most successful plantings was butternut squash in a 30 inch raised bed 30 feet long.  From this area we harvested over 175 pounds of squash – easily doubling, if not tripling,  yields.

Nutritional quality of our vegetables, herbs and medicinals has also increased. Brix levels (the standard nutritional measurement) has increased, as well as taste.  It feels great to eat this food.

figure 11

[Photo: Partial harvest from Author’s “Storage Garden”

V. Connecting With The Earth

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Masanobu Fukuoka, in One Straw Revolution.

Maintaining a diverse, productive garden can be a complex and demanding task.  It is easy to adopt a head down posture while in the garden, a kind of habit that relates to it only through a veil of tasks to be completed.  Circumstances prevailed in piercing this veil.

A spark of inspiration sent me on this journey.  A meditative moment in the garden revealed a pattern connecting an astonishing relationship: between dust storms in Africa, the fertility of the Amazon rainforest and my use of foliar sprays in the garden. 

Foliar spraying was a garden chore transformed into work done in harmony with the elemental forces nature; an interplay between the sun and earth, water and air, plant and soil.

I felt the deep metaphoric power of the process I helped initiate.  Using fire to transform bones into life-giving dust, working with the rhythm of the sun to use water in the air to channel these nutrients through leaf stomata to living communities unseen in the soil.   As I moved across this landscape from the biosphere, to the garden and down to the microscopic; I found myself in this pattern – playing a tiny part in life’s work of knitting it all together.  It was a brief moment of connection – of being deeply aware of being alive.  This, I thought, is why I garden. 

A Walk in March

by Elsa Johnson

Everything             is exposed and vulnerable        ground frozen

patches of ice softening                     can’t expect leaves on trees

for weeks yet               Movement above :            raptor rides air

settles high in a bare tree          stares down                   Cooper’s?

Red Tail?    Sharp Shinned?                They all look a lot alike :

studies me        large intruder in its naked kingdom                It is

hungry         eats meat         prefers morsels        I’m too big   

Patience hawk  :  small meat’s coming       better hunting ahead

Further on a chipmunk churrrs     flicks her tail       She’s made it

it through a hard winter         I call  :  hawk is hunting the perfect

snack              she dives into her round bare hole          Take care

chipmunk     hawk is hungry :                better cover is coming

Out on the lake the honking geese waddle across the melting ice

drive at rivals with rush of wings                They will breed soon

lay eggs    hatch chicks        Beware geese     hawk is hungry : 

turtle will be hungry too when he wakes up                     Danger

lurks below the ice        snapper swims there            last summer

he took down a full size goose     with a squawk       and a flurry

as wings wrenched air       trying to lift           hang on            lift    

Then goose went down           under the water           and did not

come back up :                    Good hunting     

turtle                      when the water warms       

Winds from Africa, Part 2

by Jonathan Hull

The following essay is part two of a three part series that explores how something as commonplace as dust can profoundly effect natural systems.  Part one, which can be found here, explored its effect on the biosphere as a whole.  This second part takes a microscopic look at dust on plant leaves.  The third and final essay will be published next week.  This essay will take what has been discovered in parts one and two and consider practical applications, by way of foliar sprays, in managing fertility in Ohio gardens.  Foliar sprays have the potential of becoming one of our most powerful tools available in creating healthy gardens. 

I. Reorienting

Our biosphere is an incredibly complex, dynamic and ever adapting play of forces.  In the first part of this series, we met the main actors of this play in grand elemental forms: sun, earth, water and wind.  The title role is played by life; the adaptive tissue that knits these elemental forces into a global system. 

We learned that minerals in dust are essential to the function of the Amazon rainforest as well as numerous other ecosystems.  Changing distributions of this dust and its effects on life can even modulate changes in global climate patterns ultimately driven by the earth’s orientation to the sun.

In the next part of our investigation, these same elemental actors will reprise their roles in another complex and dynamic play of forces. Only it will play out not on a global scale but on a microscopic one: the surface of a leaf. 

Figure 6

[Figure 1: Microscopic detail of Leaf.  From: Stomata Of Lavendula Dentata, Sem Photograph

Recall that this whole investigation started when I realized that the role of dust in global nutrient cycling had implications for the use of foliar applications in the garden.  These are a broad range of techniques that attempt to boost plant health by changing the microscopic environment of its leaves.  One technique that seemed to work well in my garden was one that covers plant leaves with a spray of minerals in a solution.  I was a tentative proponent because I did not understand how this could work so well. 

When I learned how much dust moves around the globe and how important it is to any number of ecosystems; the results from foliar sprays no longer seemed incidental.  At the time it was pure speculation, but the thought occurred that it was entirely likely that plants adapted the ability to absorb minerals that were deposited on its leaves from atmospheric dust.  This led me to research if this was indeed true and in doing so I learned the features of several important processes that take place on the leaf.  These features will be incredibly important to my future use of foliar applications and to the realization of their maximum benefit.

II: When the Dust Settles

When you consider where plants first emerged in the history of life, it is not surprising that in some degree, they can all absorb nutrients through their leaves.  Plants first evolved in bodies of water and most aquatic plants use their leaves as the main sites for mineral uptake.

Once inside the leaf these minerals can move throughout the plant via the liquid sap that connects the various metabolic functions that happen inside of it.  This flow of minerals is critical to the function of a plant. For instance the electrical resonance of magnesium is essential to the structure and function of chlorophyll.  Now in the case of aquatic plants, their leaves are structured in a way that allows them to be relatively open to the flow of nutrients.  Their leaves can be open to this flow because the surrounding water buffers them from the effects of the sun and wind. 


[Figure 2:  Aquatic Plant.  From: … quality for aquatic plants and fish | Activities and Information]

However, when plants moved onto land they no longer had this luxury.  Separate and specialized structures were adapted for gathering the sunlight, nutrients and carbon dioxide needed for their metabolism.  Roots, protected underground from the harsh effects of the sun and wind, became the main site for mineral uptake in land plants.  Terrestrial plants still need to gather energy from the sun, so they adapted a waxy covering on their leaves called the cuticle.  This was done mainly to protect the plant  from the loss of too much water through its leaves by evaporation.  An interesting side note for this discussion: this layer also protects the plant from excessive leaching of nutrients from its leaves by rain.  In any case, this protective layer made leaves in terrestrial plants a lot less open to the flow of nutrients than those found in aquatic plants. 

Figure 8

[Figure 3: Water on a  Leaf. From: Beyond the Human Eye: Plant Cuticles]

This cuticle layer is the main barrier to the entry of nutrients.  It is by no means impenetrable and there are practical strategies for moving nutrients through it, but this mechanism is outside the scope of this essay.  Instead we will look at a more promising avenue.  You see, the cuticle layer is not continuous because leaves cannot be completely closed to the outside world: plants also use leaves to breathe.

Plants breathe, oxygen out and carbon dioxide in, through openings called stomata. (See Figure 1 above).  Thousands of these microscopic mouths can be found on the surface of leaves.  Stomata also serve as thermo-regulators by allowing the plant to transpire water through these openings to cool the plant when needed.  A self-regulating system exits within the leaf where stomata open and close depending on environmental conditions.  The system balances the trade-off between breathing and losing too much water to evaporation.    

When a stoma opens, it forms one tiny point of interface between the water inside the plant and the atmosphere.  It might seem obvious that the stoma would be a convenient avenue for the entry of foliar minerals.  But it is not that simple.  In fact, for some time it was considered impossible for nutrients to enter the plant in this way.  Although there are thousands of stomata on a leaf, added together they still comprise a tiny surface area.  The dust particle would have to land in just the right place to make contact.  Additionally, the vapor pressure from evaporating water flows out, which would seem to prevent the movement of anything in. 

Recent research has found that a unique process that occurs on the surface of leaves in the presence of dust changes how the stomata operate.  This process transforms stomata into a main avenue for the entry of nutrients.  To explain this phenomenon, we need to understand what happens on the surface of a leaf where dust collects.  How,we need to consider, does dust interact with a leaf.

The leaves of many plants have adapted structures to facilitate the collection of dust onto their surfaces.  These include microscopic ridges in leaves that trap dust and tiny hairs that grow out of the leaves, called trichomes, which change aerodynamics on a microscopic level to pull even more dust to the leaf surface.  With such microscopic adaptations, plant surfaces have evolved into the major sink for atmospheric dust.  To give you an idea of the amount, one study in Chicago found that, urban trees, which occupy 11% of the city area, remove about 234 tons of dust from the air per year!

        Figure 9

[Figure 4: Leaf Trichomes.  From: Nettle Leaf Trichomes, Sem Photograph]

These particles are deposited on the leaf from dry dust in the atmosphere but also from particles left by evaporated rain droplets.  Which come to think of it, you might wonder how much of this dust is washed off by rain.  One study found that although the large particles of dust were washed from the leaves of trees the majority of smaller particles remained in the canopy.   The study reported here, found that 75% of nitrogen that was deposited on a spruce forest never made it to the soil but was retained in the canopy!   

Most of the particles of dust deposited on leaves are of a certain type that readily absorb moisture from the atmosphere.  These are technically termed hygroscopic particles.  On the leaf’s surface, they function in much the same way as they do in the creation of raindrops in the atmosphere; they serve as the nuclei for the condensation of water vapor.  We might think of dust as dry, but in this case when considered  at their own scale, they are positively soggy.  Even at relatively low humidity levels, dust condenses water vapor  on leaves where it would not otherwise stick.   

Taken together, the moisture these particles gather produce the provocatively named “breath figures”: microscopically thin films of water that are invisible to the naked eye.  These thin films of water remain persistent on the surface of plant leaves even under surprisingly hot conditions.  Breath figures are not pure water, but a solution of the mineral particles that attract water from the air. 

Breath figures have enormous implications for uptake of the nutrients into the leaf – especially through the stomata.   In a newly opened “pristine” leaf, the liquid sap and all of the functions it connects are largely separate from anything that might occur on the leaf surface.  Stomata on such leaves are just a tiny ports to the atmosphere.  However, this new leaf quickly attracts dust particles, which, in turn, attract tiny films of water.  Now when the stomata open, the liquid sap inside the plant connects to breath figures.  The mineral can now land anywhere on the leaf and be connected to the stomata, and so connected to all of the functions that occur inside the leaf.

This continuous film of liquid that runs from the exterior of the leaf through the stomata and into the interior of the leaf is even thought to play a role in activating the opening of stomata themselves – a feedback loop that furthers the development on this continuous liquid connection.

Solutions always try to even themselves out.  If there are differences in concentrations within the solution, called concentration gradients, the liquid will move from low to high concentration and high to low.  The force of movement caused by concentration gradients can overcome the force of pressure moving water out of the stomata by evaporation. Thus, a flow of nutrients from plant exterior to interior becomes possible. ]

Plants have adapted different responses to the formation of these continuous liquid connections.  Certain plants are particularly reliant on  inter-leaf nutrient cycling.  In the dusty grasslands of South Africa researches have shown how trees can establish themselves in poor soils, even where grasses might otherwise have a competitive advantage..  As the trees grow taller, they collect more dust and thrive that much more.  The cycle reinforces itself in a positive feedback loop.

However, it can also be the case that plant leaves provide too much of a good thing.  If there are too many hygroscopic particles activating too many stomata, and so increasing evaporation through the plant,  it can significantly lower its ability to deal with drought.  In this case we have a negative feedback loop. 

Plants that live near the coast have had to adapt to this problem.  These plants can receive heavy deposits of sea minerals from salt spray that is carried off the ocean by winds.  These plants have adapted leaf structures that rapidly shed particles so that they are not desiccated by the formation of continuous liquid connections and the resultant opening of stomata.

One issue that I will briefly mention: plants have adapted to environments that over evolutionary timescales receive relatively consistent amounts of dust.   The problem is that in last 200 years there has been an 270% increase in particulate matter in the atmosphere – an increase caused by industrialization.  Plants that had adapted to collect a steady stream of dust may now be overloaded.   This increase in human produced particular matter, which has strong hydroscopic properties, has been theorized to be major factor in the decline of forests the world over.

We will consider all of these factors in the final essay in this series.  Here we will discuss the practical use of all this knowledge in creating healthy and vibrant gardens.  It should be noted, however,  that we have highlighted only one tiny portion of a huge set of interconnected processes that effect how plants absorb nutrients through their leaves. 

If one wants to master the use of foliar applications there is so much more that needs to be understood and even more that has yet to be discovered.  Perhaps a topic for future essays, but as such it is out of our scope.  However, what has been sketched out so far is a good foundation for incorporating this tool into a general gardening practice. 


Beyond Today

by Lillian Myers


Blow a kiss

To the smallest child

A ray of Hope

Pass her to adopting hands

Like a flame lights a candle

Never diminishes


Brilliant, open hearted, mrembo (beautiful)



She enters school, bewildered

Bullied for her long legs and big feet

Her flip flops, one bit broken, repaired, broken, repaired

Mother, Father and classmate beat her on the back of the head

With a leather shoe



Clever, direct, survivor


Abandons one school


Moves into another school, then out the house, to the street, to a new school

To be worth something to herself

To respect her own skin

Sometimes at the top of the class

Sometimes at the heel


Young Mother

Proper, regal, mud hut


Sings Hope into the braids of her three daughter’s hair

Sleeping baby on her lap

Young to divorce

Shines in the refuse


Older Mother

Searching, strong, stressed


Ask the Mother of seven, “Can you see beyond today?”

Abusive boyfriends pass like seeds in the wind

Lucky with 350 Shillings a week ($3.50), no chakulla(food)

Mother’s Hopes for 1 kg of flour on her table, water, electricity

Must offer her eldest to older men on the streets

50 shillings per shot


Baba (Grandmother) 

White black hair, light heavy face, open hearted bosom

Old for her years

During the peak of her wealth she is abundant in family, tradition and time

Once she wove late night stories into the mornings of her long short days

During gatherings of company, she treated people more important than food or wealth

Once her classic firm slow handshakes

Wore wrinkles into her fingers as rivers wear into the rocks
Watched the introduction of HIV, English colonialism and steel

Asphalt, telephone and street child,

Saw the birth of a Christian God

Still relies on her neighbours and family for


Now must trade big Bobs, big money, for clear water
And she still believes in you

Has time for you

Smiles for you



And she always will


The Earth as Mother

Patient, wise, empty

The eldest child

1,000 black birds cross the East African sky

As she drinks cups of late night milky mountain mists

She still lives in the volcanic rocks of Menangai crater

She still flows out from her own hills

Bleeds into her own ocean


The womb of the sky rises to meet her

Upside down

This blue burnt bonanza of uncontrolled mystery is rewritten


A Traveller 

Giving, optimistic, bewildered


“How are you?” sing the children as she walks the slum’s dirt roads


Teaching youth, she wears her mothers used trainers

Contemplating the ladder

Of the Ivory tower


Lillian Myers








Ecological Restoration: Integrate, not Segregate

by Diana Sette

as previously published in “Permaculture Design: Ecological Restoration #99, online version”

I did not always think of ecosystems as I do now. If you would have asked me ten years ago as a Religious Studies and Literature undergraduate at Drew University what an ecosystem is, I probably would have said it was a marsh with frogs eating dragonflies pollinating daisies photosynthesizing, or maybe a rainforest with monkeys and jaguars and fish and hissing cockroaches. Now, when I hear the word ‘ecosystem,’ I think of something completely different. I imagine a city. I imagine a no-name town off some major highway almost completely paved over with asphalt and maybe an occasional pile of dyed woodchips in a coffin of pavement. Are these not ecosystems too, just extremely degraded to the point where there is barely any sign of life aside from a car driver pumping gas and a courageous dandelion? I also envision communities of people, and the design of a neighborhood. I imagine urban farms, and intergenerational interracial exchanges connecting people and cultures across invisible boundaries. I imagine a family, the trillions of microorganisms living on my hand or in my gut, or the complex web of memories, thoughts, and feelings that comprise a single human being. If an ecosystem is a set of relationships, are we not ourselves and the communities within which we live not also incredibly complex and intricate ecosystems? Unfortunately, with patterns of oppression like racism, classism, sexism, ageism, and ableism, among the other degrading -isms, most of us are living in greatly damaged ecosystems. As the writers of the recent Rights of Nature & Mother Earth put it, we must “recognize that there is no separation between how we treat nature and how we treat ourselves” (1). For the process of ecological restoration to have the greatest impact, we must start work in the area upon which we can have the greatest influence: the ecosystem within. I had no idea when I started on this journey that ecological restoration would bring me here.

Becoming aware of ecosystems

I grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, a town with a strong Colonial history (George Washington’s military headquarters were based there) and a pattern of urban sprawl. Some of the development was a product of white flight, and some of it was the product of a mostly white population climbing the economic class ladder that requires the colonizing of country and moving into a McMansion in order to be ‘successful.’ I remember it being heartbreaking for me as a child to watch the construction of our new home. It was the second phase of a new housing development called Forest Glen. I was entering fourth grade, and I was devastated to move into this new cookie-cutter home with brightly dyed green turf and a tree sapling out front. I was moving away from my community of friends to live where a young forest glen had been decimated in the name of my family. I saw only destruction. Perhaps, this was my first understanding of living within a damaged ecosystem.

The house didn’t feel like home to me. I felt as if I were moving onto ancient burial grounds, having taken over someone or something else’s home with no acknowledgment, let alone sacred reverence, for the place, or wildlife that had lived there before. All the trees were cut, lawns were rolled out, and template houses were erected in assembly-line fashion. I felt at the core of my being how myself, my family, our neighbors, and the developers were responsible for the destruction of this ecosystem. The nature of the development demonstrated a cultural belief that nature has no rights and no value aside from potentially adding to property value.

I was around ten years old at the time of my move. What could I do? All I could think to do was protest by refusing to sleep there the first weekend we moved in. My parents allowed my protest and did their best to make the house welcoming and cozy for me. They were providing for me the best way that they knew how.

In the years following, I watched as more and more old farms and abandoned forests were divided into parcels and sold to developers who quickly paved them and turned them into strip malls. I remember thinking, isn’t there anyone who has lived in this place long enough who will stop this horrible urban sprawl?! By the time I was a teenager, my protests elicited responses like, “this is what progress looks like.” When I finally moved away from that town at the end of my high school years, I felt like a refugee. My homeland had been destroyed. I no longer had a home connected to the land. I left in search of a place to live, because the culture surrounding me seemed one of death and decay despite the glitz.

I went away to college at Drew University in New Jersey and lived in ‘The Earth House.’ There I lived with a Vermonter, and another friend with a connection to that state (2). I visited the rural countryside of Vermont for the first time soon after. I was struck by un-mowed lawns with wildflowers and vibrant local food coops in almost every little town center. My naive suburban upbringing probably contributed to my rose-colored glasses perspective, because everyone I met seemed to know how to cook and garden. People waved to each other passing by on the road, and knew each other’s names at the convenience store. Initially, it was hard to believe that this place was for real.

I learned so much during my time living there. I lived in community while working at Rock Point School, a residential high school for at-risk youth where care for self and care for others were key (3). Later, I spent several years living and working at the Bread and Puppet Theater in a community that drew people from all over the country and world to make radical political puppet theater shows and live on the land (4). We made puppets giant and small from garbage pulled from the waste stream, including cardboard, bottle caps, and the inner tubes of bicycle tires. We insisted that art is for everyone, not something exclusive to art museums or galleries. We ground flour by hand, baked sourdough bread, and raised chickens and veggies to sustain our community. The number of residents staying at the farm ranged from 3 to 200 throughout the year. In the summer, I slept in a decommissioned school bus refurbished as a cozy abode. We heated our old farmhouse through the Vermont winters by wood stove and fed ourselves from the stored harvest.

From five years of living in the Bread and Puppet company full-time, I grasped the concept of the commons. I learned what it takes to live in community through conflict and celebration. I participated in effective grassroots political action, and engaged with the thriving world of microbes. I lived in alignment with the cycles of nature. Foraging through the forests on the 200 acres (80 ha), I learned which mushrooms and plants were edible, and then cooked them together with others in the summer kitchen on rocket stoves. I felt in my heart how a garden without art was only half the story. Having grown up in the suburbs of the mid-Atlantic, I had had no prior understanding of the potential of this type of cultural reality. My inner ecosystem was transformed in a deep way through living in a larger thriving ecosystem overflowing with abundant and resilient relationships.

I never would have guessed that five years and a marriage later, I would move to the post-industrial rust belt of Cleveland, OH where I live currently. Transitioning from the ecosystem of the Northeast Kingdom to Cleveland was a huge cultural shift. Cleveland is the most racially and economically segregated city in America (5). The city has over 12,000 abandoned properties and over 27,000 vacant lots (6). Cleveland is notorious for her Cuyahoga River catching fire 13 times due to egregious pollution. Cleveland is a prime example of a degraded ecosystem. Even though land was plentiful and cheap in Cleveland, growing on formerly abandoned city lots in declining neighborhoods seemed like a very different type of relationship with nature—one potentially lacking in connection.

Surprisingly enough, it was only a month or so after moving to Cleveland where I found myself feeling a deep connection with nature and Mother Earth’s wild spirit. I was at a community potluck at Gather ‘Round Farm, an urban permaculture garden farm in the Near West Side of Cleveland. I had heard of permaculture, although I didn’t know too much about it. Gather ‘Round was built atop a former parking lot. Every path was curvy and intimate alongside raised beds of intercropped heirloom abundance. There were chickens and a little waterway that flowed through the garden. Art made from found objects littered the lot, creating magical alcoves. Folks at the potluck were of all walks of life, coming from different economic, racial, and social strata. Everyone gathered to share community and the organically grown vegetables and other wild edibles in a delicious chili-filled soup. Sitting alongside a brick-lined bonfire and staring up into a star-filled sky, I stopped noticing the cars driving past on the main avenue. I was utterly inspired by the transformation and resiliency of the space. I was encouraged by meeting the all-women volunteer collective who cared for the land. They were empowered with a strong sense of social justice and commitment to community through grassroots action and inclusivity. I knew then I was a permaculturist.

The alignment of social justice, environmental justice, and community came to be my understanding of ecological restoration. I spent the next year observing two vacant lots next to my house on the East side, and getting to know my neighbors in a primarily African-American neighborhood before cooperatively creating Possibilitarian Garden, an urban permaculture garden and community orchard grounded in racial equity, food, and social and environmental justice. Possibilitarian Urban Regenerative Community Homestead, or PURCH, is the name we use to include the cooperative living house and community workshop space alongside the garden on two formerly vacant lots. Permaculture design presents solutions to the problem of ecological degradation, and now we have the opportunity to co-create working ecological models. Who knew I’d be here now?

What is ecology anyway?

Permaculture is grounded in ecological theory. Audrey Tomera in Understanding Basic Ecological Concepts (7) defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions (relationships) that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environment.” Therefore, permaculture is simply the observing of and designing for optimal relationships between organisms and their living and nonliving environment—permaculture is ecological design.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture’s founders, were both trained ecologists. Holmgren dedicated his 2002 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (8) to Eugene Odum, one of the founding scholars of ecology who brought ecological thinking to the mainstream with his book Fundamentals of Ecology (9). Interestingly, there are conservation ecologists, urban ecologists (10), deep ecologists, ecosystem ecologists, civic ecologists (11), human ecologists, evolutionary ecologists, schoolyard ecologists (12), microbial ecologists (13), and even ecosystems ecologists! Each ecology field is based on the study of relationships—the fields differ in the lenses with which they study those relationships (14).

Older ecological design studies tend to not include humans, never mind that most ecologists will agree that humans now have the largest impact on every ecosystem on this planet. Urban and social permaculture is the cutting edge for research and practice in ecological systems, as more the half the world’s population lives in urban environments. Within the permaculture movement, more buzz is growing around urban and social ecosystems. Recent books like Hemenway’s The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban and Town Resilience (15) contribute to the increasing study of urban ecologies.

Assessing ecosystem health

Analyzing separate ecosystem elements to assess ecosystem impact (and arguably for other purposes as well as discussed below) is where I see the greatest divergence between colonized and indigenous ecological thinking. For example, in 2011, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (16) broke down the ecosystem services into four main categories: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services (17). The direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems listed are extensive, ranging from providing food, shelter, and clean water, to creating a sense of place and spiritual experience.

Identifying ecosystem services is one way to assess ecosystems. It is important to note, however, that to engage with the ‘ecosystem services’ assessment tool is to work in opposition to indigenous people’s ‘Rights of Nature,’ which demands “the rejection of all market-based mechanisms that allow the quantification and commodification of Earth’s natural processes, rebranded as ‘ecosystem services’ ” (1).

I respect and honor this perspective, as I have felt how assessing ‘ecosystem services’ using monetary value is the first step to commodifying something with deeper qualitative and priceless value. I remember the first time I saw ‘ecosystem services’ signified by an old centennial oak. Hanging on a sign pole, a big tag marked what the tree’s monetary worth was. It communicated to me that the tree was paying its due, and therefore was allowed to stick around for a little bit longer until humans decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. Marking ecosystem services in this way promotes and protects current laws that prescribe what Rights of Nature describes as “the ownership of ecosystems and other aspects of the natural world…, upholding the control and dominance of humans over nature” (18).

While modern societies have clearly lost touch with indigenous wisdom regarding ecosystem health and needs, it can also be useful and necessary (at least for the time being during this Great Transition) for ecological designers to use ecosystem assessment tools as a gateway to observing and understanding ecosystems better. Tools like the EPA National Stormwater Calculator (19), National Tree Benefit Calculator (20), climate and weather patterns, soil quality tests, and other ecosystem services calculators and measurement tools (21) track non-human systems. Demographic surveys and cultural histories of a place provide foundational information for design considerations as well. Having a grasp of cultural, economic, and social patterns for your design site can be the keystone for truly resilient ecological restoration (22).

Moving forward

The notion of owning ecosystems brings to light several of permaculture designers’ greatest risks in ecological design. If our cultural heritage is non-indigenous, we most likely carry within our personal ecosystem patterns of colonization, oppression, and subjugation. We must work cooperatively, and engage and include various diverse voices of different demographic (and species) background in the design process (23). Restorative ecological design considerations can all be identified as issues of social and environmental justice, and we must work to understand them as such if we hope to successfully support Nature’s ability to restore her ecological systems.

This observation brings us full circle. We must start with our inner ecosystem, observing our thoughts, our patterns, and the ways our body, mind, and soul interacts with itself. Whatever spirit with which we communicate will be what we transfer to any other ecosystem, including our family, organization, neighborhood, community, farm, or forest. We must bring awareness to unconscious biases, privileges, and personal cultural beliefs in order to be able to understand how we carry them forward as designers and how that impacts our ability to co-create resilient ecological restoration.

To that end, the global climate is changing fast, and new patterns are emerging and transforming constantly, so we must trust our direct and attentive observations. Do not overlook the force of nonliving factors, as living things are in constant interaction with them. Honor that every being, living or not, has a special ecological niche that only it can fill, and whether you understand it or not, there is a reason they need to do what they do currently. Allow that to direct your interactions and engagement with bumblebees, real estate agents, drug dealers, microorganisms, artists, fences, trees and rocks. Be inclusive. Remain curious. Value complexity. Work the edge, and work to understand best you can, because even though it may be hard to see the value of some element, keep all the pieces- we will need them all as we move forward to restore our damaged and degraded ecosystems. The principles and ethics are a road map and a check and balance; use them. Take action. Listen for feedback. Respond with change. And when practicing ecological restoration, remember the words of indigenous artist and activist Lila Mills who said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”                                               

Diana Sette is a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer working primarily in Cleveland, OH, after almost a decade of growing in the Green Mountains of Vermont. She serves on the Board of The Hummingbird Project ( and Green Triangle (, two permaculture-based non-profits working locally and abroad. Much of her work in social and urban permaculture experimentation is centered at Possibilitarian Urban Regenerative Community Homestead (PURCH) in Cleveland (Facebook: Possibilitarian Garden). Diana currently works for Cleveland Botanical Garden as the Youth Manager of Green Corps, its 20-year-old urban agriculture work-study program for inner-city teens.

[Editor’s note: We inadvertently misspelled the author’s first name in PcD #98. We regret the error.]


1. Biggs, Shannon & Tom B.K. Goldtooth, eds. Rights of Nature & Mother Earth: Sowing Seeds of Resistance, Love and Change. Nov 29, 2015.

2. One friend, Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, is now an herbalist, edible landscaper, and owner of Robinson Hill Beef, a grass-fed cattle business you can find on Facebook at Another friend, Sarah Corrigan, later went on to co-found ROOTs—Reclaiming Our Origins in Traditional Skills School—in VT.

3. Rock Point School in Burlington, VT, is now one of the leading providers of renewable energy for the city of Burlington with the construction of an extensive solar panel orchard.

4. Bread & Puppet Theater.

5. Frohlich, Thomas C. & Alexander Kent. “America’s Most Segregated Cities” 24/7 Wall St. August 19, 2015.

6. A total of 12,179 vacant structures equates to 8% of the city’s parcels; 27,774 vacant lots is 17% of the city. 2015 Citywide parcel survey of Cleveland. Nov 20, 2015.

7. Tomera, Audrey N. & A. Tomera. Understanding Basic Ecological Concepts. Portland, ME: J Weston Walch (2002).

8. Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles & Pathways beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services (2002).

9. Odum, Eugene. Fundamentals of Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders (1953).

10. Niemelä, Jari, ed. Urban Ecology: Patterns, Processes, and Applications. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (2011); Mark McDonnell, Amy K. Hahs, & Jürgen Breuste, eds. Ecology of Cities & Towns: A Comparative Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2009); “Nature of Cities,” a collective blog on cities as socio-ecological spaces:

11. Krasny, Marianne E. & Keith Tidball. Civic Ecology: Adaptation and Transformation from the Ground Up. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2015).

12. Dank, Sharon Gamson. Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. New York: New Village Press (2010).

13. Antonio Gonzalez, Jose C Clemente, Ashley Shade, Jessica L Metcalf, Sejin Song, Bharath Prithiviraj, Brent E Palmer, & Rob Knight. “Our microbial selves: what ecology can teach us.” EMBO Reports 12: 775-784. (2011).

14. Many ecological theories have been developed, although many more are needed, as the world is quickly urbanizing, and patterns are changing and transforming. Some ecological theories include: island biogeography theory, metapopulation dynamics, human ecology model, etc. Applying these theories in an urban versus rural context may demonstrate variation in behaviors.

15. Hemenway, Toby. The Permaculture City. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green (2015).

16. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment:

17. More specific definitions of ecosystem services included at The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) website:

18. RoNME



21. California ReLeaf’s website includes additional ecosystem service calculators and measurement tools:

22. The City Repair Project based in Portland, OR. and Cleveland, OH are interesting examples of community permaculture design working towards ecological restoration.

23. For a hefty start to understanding social and cultural patterns, see the in-depth articulation of social and architectural patterns in the following books: Alexander, Christopher, M. Silverstein, & S. Ishikawa. A Pattern Language. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (1977); Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House (1961); Schuler, Doug. Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2008) by Doug Schuler. Other ecology resources include these journals: Ecology, Ecology & Society, Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Human Ecology Review, and the Journal of Political Ecology.

….. Winds from Africa ….. A Deep Breath, Part 1

by Jonathan Hull

My mind was churning, neurons were firing in sync; a pattern had been recognized.  What got the idea mill running was when I learned of the astonishing relationship between dust storms in Africa and the fertility of the Amazon rainforest.

Behind this process of global nutrient cycling was a set of relationships, a pattern, that had exciting implications for fertility on a much different scale: in the garden.   Ideas began to tumble one after another that centered on just how important foliar applications could be in facilitating the growth of nutritious food and potent medicinals. And, for me, the biggest question of all:  What would the African/Amazonian relationship mean for my own garden in Northeast Ohio?

I. Introduction

Foliar applications are a broad range of techniques that attempt to boost plant health by changing the microscopic environment on its leaves.  I have had impressive results using a few of these techniques, but until recently I did not fully understand how they worked.

It might seem strange that a process occurring on a global scale could lead to a breakthrough in understanding one that happens on a much smaller scale; but I’ve found such cross scale connections to be very illuminating.  It can be a way to shake the mind out of its tendency to view things in isolation.  It is easy to get hung up on tools and techniques without considering the context in which they are being used.  As the expression goes “to a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” 

However, understanding the context of our actions is easier said than done.  If you are like me, then you were trained to act in a world that is thought to operate in a linear, static and superficial way.  But this is not how the natural world works.  Natural systems are complex, dynamic and adaptive.

We might look into the garden in a superficial way and see plants that are “under-performing” and grasp at the latest fad to whip it into shape.  Not only is this kind of thinking dangerous, the picture of the world it produces is dreadfully boring.  Instead we could look at the structure of a plant as a flow of energy.  This flow of energy is the expression of relationships between an innumerable set of processes.

With this picture of the world, we will see that some of these processes structure this flow of energy with the broadest strokes.  The latitude where this plant looks out toward the sun will pattern it in the most profound way.  The climatic patterns in which it grows, whether it is near an ocean or up in a mountain, will affect the flow of energy that is this plant.  Right now the structure of any plant is the expression of relationships between processes that happened eons ago.   It might be most vibrantly healthy when growing in soils containing minerals brought in by now-long-absent glaciers.

There are also those processes that fill in the details of the larger processes in which they are embedded.  A plant might be growing in a certain way because it is in a small depression in the earth that protects it from winds and extends the heat energy of the sun.  A plant might be growing well because the flow of energy through it is being facilitated by all the minerals it needs for its metabolism.  These minerals might have been pulled from a rock by a bacteria so that the plant could absorb it.  The shape of the quantum vibration of one these minerals might be structuring an enzyme that dramatically speeds up chemical reactions in the plant.                   

It can be both breathtaking and dizzying to look at world in this way.  Any picture of such a complex world is going to be  limited.  It also might seem strange to spend all this time exploring when all you want to do is grow food.   But I think it is an essential exploration if we are to participate responsibly in the world.  If we want to dance to the rhythm of life than we have to listen to its music.

This is the kind of exploration we are going to make in regards to foliar applications.  We will start on the global scale.    There is a process of global nutrient cycling that dramatically patterns the structure of the natural world.   This global process will help us understand how we can use foliar applications to cycle nutrients in our garden.   Some of what we will learn will have direct implications for our practical efforts.  Other things we might learn might not be practical but will be grist for the intuitive mill. 

Lastly, I wanted to explore this connection for more than just its utilitarian value.  I like to garden not just for food but because even the most practical work participates in a great chain of being that runs through worlds incredibly small to those incomprehensibly vast.  Researching this topic deepened my awareness of how profoundly the natural world is shaped by its interconnectivity.  This awareness of interconnectivity sparks in me a sense of awe – an awe in being part of the living tissue of organism earth.

This was all the more the case when I learned of the importance of dust.

II.  Dynamics of the Global Ecosystem

The Amazon rainforest is at odds with what I’ve learned about soil.  In most terrestrial ecosystems, nutrient rich soil is the foundation of a healthy biome.  Rainforests are burgeoning with life, but more often than not they sit atop notoriously poor soil.  How can this be?  One explanation is that in rainforest ecologies, nutrient cycling happens at breakneck speeds.  Nutrients in dead organic matter do not have time to build up in the soil because they are quickly reassembled back into living tissue.  A number of plants called litter trappers  have even evolved to capture organic matter before it makes is to the forest floor! 

These soils are also lacking in nutrients because they are weathered soils. The torrents of rain that give these forests their name comes with a price: all that water leaches minerals out of the soil profile.  The rainforest might be a prolific nutrient recycler, but with so much rain it is inevitable that soil minerals are carried away in rivers and eventually deposited in the ocean. 

Chief among these important minerals is phosphorus.  In the orchestra of life, phosphorus plays a central role in the flow of energy in all living things.  However, when it is in an inorganic form it is anything but energetic.  It is not easily induced into biochemical processes so that only a small portion of phosphorus in an ecosystem is being cycled through living systems.  The rest is much more likely to be leached away by weathering.  In soils that are heavily weathered, phosphorus is often the limiting factor in plant growth.    

Unlike its northern cousins, forests in the Amazon have not had their soil minerals renewed by the erosive power of ice age glaciers.  One would expect that without such an input, the slow and steady loss of soil minerals like phosphorus would degrade the biomass potential in a kind of ‘wet desert’ ecosystem.  Yet, where civilization has not wreaked havoc, these biomes are unmatched in their vibrant diversity.  What gives?

An explanation is found in the amazing story of how dust storms that occur in the Saharan desert in Africa fertilize the Amazon rainforest in South America.

Figure 1

[Fig. 1] 

The dust borne on continent-spanning winds is rich in minerals like the all-important phosphorus.  This critical input of dust has been found to perfectly balance what is leached away by rain and lost to the ocean!  How wondrous that two biomes at such complete extremes and separated by an ocean of water can be so intimately connected!   

Equally incredible is the set of finely tuned processes that allows for this instance of global nutrient cycling.  The majority of Saharan dust that falls in the Amazon comes from one small area called the Bodélé depression.  It is only .5% the size of the Amazon and only .2% of the Sahara, but it is the greatest contributor of global atmospheric dust, emitting on average over half a million tons of dust per day!

Figure 2[Fig 2.]

A small area producing such an immense volume of dust is only possible because of a very specific set of geographic and meteorological circumstances.  Geographically the Bodélé depression is located at the mouth of two large magma formations.  These formations are situated in just the right way that they focus and accelerate, like breath through a straw, powerful winds that carry the dust aloft.

Figure 3

[Fig. 3]

These winds, referred to as low-level jets,  are unusual in themselves and only formed because of a particular set of regional conditions including the shape over northern Libya of the high altitude globe spanning jet-stream.   The directionality of this low-level jet is important because it moves the dust into the right position to be picked up by the higher altitude winds that travel to South America.

The Sahara and the Amazon are not just spatially linked, there are also processes that link them through time. The dust from the Bodélé depression isn’t any old dust.  It is uniquely mineral rich because this area was once at the bottom of a vast freshwater lake.    

Thousands of years ago the Sahara was a different environment – more closely resembling the Amazon than the desert we see today.  It was full of rivers and lakes that teemed with life.  The  Bodélé depression was the lowest point in the largest of these lakes – Paleolake Megachad.  At its peak nearly 7,000 years ago it was larger than all of the Great Lakes combined.  Global climate patterns shaped the jet-stream so that it brought the monsoon rains further north than it does today.  Lakes like Megachad were supplied with nutrients that were washed from the soils of Northern Africa by these monsoon rains.  These nutrients in combination with the steady sun shining on this equatorial latitude made for the biological equivalent of a freshwater paradise.

The ancient creatures that populated Lake Megachad complexed and concentrated these essential minerals as part of their metabolism.  Once integrated into a biological process many of these minerals cycle within the ecosystem (see below), but as we have seen some is inevitably lost to the system.  In this case, when aquatic creatures die some of their remains collect on the lake bottom.

One of the more important creatures for our story is a group of microscopic algae called diatoms.  As a function of their metabolism they secrete tiny crystalline shells made of silica.  The Bodélé depression is absolutely chock full of these tiny shells – a deposit called diatomite – so that the dust that blows from this area is predominately composed of them.   The hollow structure of these shells make them incredibly light and explains why the dust can travel such vast distances in the upper atmosphere.

Figure 4

[Figure 4]            

Higher forms of aquatic life, like fish and turtles, complexed and concentrated minerals in their bones and scales.  These also fell to the lake bottom and are also present in deposits found in the Bodélé depression.  The diatomite mentioned earlier erodes these bones like sand from a sandblaster.  The result is that a significant portion of the phosphorus that settles on the Amazon originated from the remains of ancient fish!

Figure 5

This is important because as we detailed earlier, phosphorus that is in an inorganic form is resistant to being incorporated into biologic processes.  On the other hand, the phosphorus found in fish bones is dramatically more bio-available.  In fact, all of the phosphorus that travels in the dust is altered by a process of acid leaching that occurs in the atmosphere.  This acid leaching makes all forms of phosphorus more water soluble; an important step in making it more available to biological processes.  These are critical factors in the fertility of the rainforest and will be processes that we will mimic in the practical discussion of foliar applications to follow.           

At some point in the last 5,000 years, the climate of the Sahara shifted dramatically.  The monsoons no longer tracked north to fill its lakes.  The prime driver of this shift is a change in the orientation of the earth’s axis.  It is remarkable to think that the global cycling of nutrients that is occurring between the Sahara and the Amazon is itself embedded in an even larger process occurring between the earth, sun and moon!    

Yet this might not even be the most incredible part of this story.  Although a change in earth’s axis may have been the prime mover of this shift in climate, how it shifted suggests a more complex process.  It shifted in a disturbingly rapid fashion, which the gradual change in the earth’s axis does not fully explain.  In something called the North African climate cycle, it also vacillated several times between two regimes of a wet Sahara and dry Sahara.

Recent studies have suggested that changes in global vegetation patterns may have both dampened and  amplified the effects of earth’s shifting axis, triggering what regime the climate favored in this region.  One provocative theory has even formulated that cycles of excavation and deposition of the Bodélé depression may itself be responsible for these climate cycles!  In simplified form: as the depression is emptied of its mineral rich deposits, it prompted a degradation in vegetation patterns.  This prompted a change in global climate patterns, which among other things favored a change in the track of the monsoon.  This allowed for the depression to once again be filled and for the cycle to continue.  This is global nutrient cycling  occurring on a truly grand timescale.

Although highly speculative, this theory has more going for it than just changes in vegetation patterns.  The dust from the Bodélé depression also has a huge effect on the size and type of phytoplankton blooms that happen in the Caribbean Ocean (in this case iron is the limiting nutrient of which this dust is also rich).  Supporting a number of major ecosystems means that this dust is involved in sinking vast amounts of atmospheric carbon.  In combination with a number of other effects like cloud physics and radiant heating, the dust from this area is being considered as a “tipping element,”a force that can determine the larger state of global climatic patterns. 

Clearly atmospheric dust is incredibly important to the global ecosystem.  Many other ecosystems are dependent on mineral inputs of atmospheric dust that originate from other parts of the world.  Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, cites the varying distribution of volcanic dust as a factor that determined why some Pacific Island cultures endured while others did not.  Closer to home, the forest of Eastern North America also receive important inputs of minerals from dust.

But it was the role of dust in the Amazon that triggered the “AHA! moment” that started this exploration.  I’ve studied a lot about healthy soil and continue to work on building the best soil I can for the creatures in the garden.  When I learned about foliar applications I could never see how feeding the plant through its leaves could have near the effect as feeding it through the soil.  But when I tried them they seemed to work quite well.  How could this be? 

The inspiration came with the thought: if plants in the Amazon are growing in nutrient poor soil, perhaps they adapted the ability to trap and absorb the minerals from dust that fell on their leaves before it even reached the soil?  Might all plants have on their leaves something akin to microscopic litter trappers?

This will be the starting point for the next installment in this series, where I will present evidence that this may indeed be the case.  From the global processes we have charted here, we will take a journey into the microscopic ecosystem of the leaf–including the leaves in our Ohio gardens.  Stay tuned!

Photo Captions/Credit:

Figure 1: Conceptual image of dust from the Saharan Desert crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon rainforest in South America. Image via Conceptual Image Lab, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Figure 2: NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team, oddard Space Flight Center

Figure 3: The surface wind focusing toward the Bodélé. Right: 3D topography of the Sahara; left: a rare shuttle image of emission from the Bodélé between the Tibesti and the Ennedi mountains. From: The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest:

Figure 4: Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a Triceratium sp. diatom. By Steve Gschmeissner. :

Figure 5:  Sub-fossil skeleton of a 1.15 m long Nile Perch preserved within diatomite on the floor of palaeolake Mega Chad within the Bodélé. From Solid-phase phosphorus speciation in Saharan Bodélé Depression dusts and source sediments.