Earth Day Is Your Day

A few thoughts on what Earth Day means for all of us.

From my window right now, I can see two European magpies exploring my small garden – I mowed the lawn for the first time this year, and I suppose they are scouting for anything interesting that was revealed. The resident flock of sparrows is watching the magpies from the safety of a plum tree, and the cherry tree is casting a soft rain of white petals. I’m inside (for the moment), but that doesn’t make me feel any less a part of the scene just a few yards from where I’m sitting.

I’ve always been puzzled by the notion that caring about what happens to our environment is something humans can choose to do, or not to do. It’s one of our great shortcomings, I think, that so many people and cultures see humans as separate from nature itself; mankind is superior, the apex of creation, the eyes and the brains observing nature as if at arm’s length.

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom
The artist manipulates live plant roots to grow in complex patterns and tapestries.

And so we have Earth Day to remind us to think about how important Nature with a capital N is for our well-being. Those who honor or participate in Earth Day also try to remind everyone else that actually, every day is Earth Day. Those who don’t participate might see it as a waste of time for something that doesn’t concern them.

Regardless, we are all profoundly a part of nature – we are just as much a part of nature as a branch is a part of a tree. Nature isn’t ‘out there’ – it’s you and every interaction you have.

In the smallest and in the largest ways, individually and collectively, we are woven into the fabric of what’s around us. And everything we do, from eating to producing waste to reproducing, is a part of that fabric. For better or for worse. While there are certainly many people with few options at their disposal, so many of us think we don’t have the time or energy to make environmental choices – and by doing so, we’ve already made a decision.

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom

This year’s Earth Day theme is reduction of plastic waste – so what are you doing, today and every day, to increase or minimize the tidal wave of plastic that is quite literally suffocating your water supply, polluting the land that grows your food, and infiltrating your fellow creatures?

On Earth Day, which I feel obligated to say is actually every day, what are you, a part of nature, doing to impact the rest of your world?

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom



Plant Plastics

An Australian company named Zeoform has been in the news recently for its patented technology of producing a new kind of plastic that uses neither fossil fuels nor toxic chemicals in its production or materials.

The input materials are water, and anything from landfill fiber-based material such as old newspapers or used clothing. The end material is both fire resistant, and compostable.

According to an article in HuffingtonPost, “Zeoform’s manufacturing process exploits the natural process of hydrogen bonding, taking a patented matrix of cellulose fibers and activating it with water (no glues required) to create a fire-resistant material that can be sprayed, shaped or molded into any form.

Zeoform guitar Source: Zeoform

Zeoform guitar
Source: Zeoform

“Zeoform can also be made to different densities — from cork-like to as hard as ebony — resulting in a wide range of possibilities: home construction, plastics in the aviation and automotive industries, (and) musical instruments.”

I couldn’t find any information on the energy input necessary to make this product, so it’s hard to say what its final carbon footprint would be. It’s hardly the first plant-based plastic, but the lack of toxic ingredients is a major step forward.

Even if it would take longer than most of us can imagine, massive success of any manufacturing technology based on waste would, at some point, ideally run out of ‘raw’ materials when the waste runs out (yes, an unlikely scenario, but it’s nice to dream).

That wouldn’t be a problem for Zeoform plastic, which can use plant fiber when needed.

An interesting product, and one to watch.

Zeoform chair Image: Zeoform

Zeoform chair
Image: Zeoform

Space Salad

Most science fiction notions of humans living in space, at least the ones that aren’t all white-walled and minimalistic, involve at least one image something like this:

Toroid Colony
Illustration: Don Davis via Discover Magazine

NASA announced that later this year, the International Space Station will, for the first time, practice space farming. Six heads of romaine lettuce, to be exact, grown in Kevlar pillow packs filled with something like kitty litter.

From the ISS web site: “The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation.”

So, something a little more modest. Like this:

Lettuce in Grow Bags Image: GardenGirlCT

Lettuce in Grow Bags
Image: GardenGirlCT

Success with lettuce (or lessons learned) could even lead to radishes, snap peas, and a strain of tomato bred for modest space (!) requirements.

I especially like that one of the benefits defined for space gardening, beyond the more sterile standards of ‘nutrition’ and ‘safe food source’ is the more ephemeral potential for ‘relaxation‘. Assuming, of course, that the astronauts doing the tending actually like to garden.

Even though the gardening will be done in a tiny enclosed living area with limited water and soil, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t yet count as urban gardening.

Pollen Architecture

A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse

A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding
Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse

Pollen grains – not all of them, but some of them – have specific architecture which allows them to seal in upon themselves to maintain enough internal moisture to remain intact over distance. Upon arrival, the grain unfolds again, and is ready to reproduce.

We are having a bit of the summer pollen blues at our place this week, and I found this nifty image and short film on how pollen travels without drying out before it reaches its destination.

The paper on pollen folding was published a couple of years ago, but the images and the film provide a beautiful insight into a process that we might otherwise simply find a nuisance.

Pollen Origami:


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study (2010) – Foldable structures and the natural design of pollen grains by E. Katifori, S. Alben E. Cerda, D.R. Nelson, J. Dumais

Film – Pollen Origami, Science Friday 



Sideways Vessel

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

Well, this could save numerous trips to the recycling center as well as to the supermarket. Such a simple, elegant solution to urban gardening, something that is do-it-yourself and requires no land. The materials are readily accessible, the soil requirements are minimal. Even the tutorial offered by the Brazilian design firm that originated this vertical garden is simple and elegant.

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suppose the planting bottles drain out the suspension holes at the bottom. Certainly bottle color and size could be varied.

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

There are so many things to like about this, but what I would really like to see is what the garden looks like once it is mature. I imagine a wall of sweet pea plants would look very fine indeed.

Looking at this, if a gardener wanted to make efficient use of water. a drip watering system could be installed along the suspension wires to avoid waste and minimize exposure of the supporting wall to water damage.

And to anyone thinking of doing this themselves, I would encourage them to plant seeds bought from independent seed companies, or bought locally from nurseries. This would be a lovely way to support local seed varieties and producers. It’s even a way to feed and support pollinators like bees in an urban environment, provided that some flowering plants are included.

Finally, there’s this miniature version for any stray caps left over from all the bottle cutting.

Bottle cap planters with basil sprouts Via:

Bottle cap planters with basil sprouts

Chatty Plants

The Secret Life of Plants (1973, Harper & Row)

The Secret Life of Plants
(1973, Harper & Row)

I remember back in the early 1970s when a book came out called The Secret Life of Plants (P. Tompkins, C. Bird). The book discussed alternative views of plant life, including suggestions that plants were sentient beings, and that by talking to them, we could not only become more relaxed horticulturalists, but the plants would be happier, too. It inspired my mother to have the occasional chat with the African violets on the kitchen windowsill for an entire summer. I can’t speak for the violets, but my mother definitely got bored, and the violets didn’t seem any better or worse for all the encouraging words.

Overall, the notion that plants were sentient, conversation-capable creatures was chalked up to the post-1960s lovey-dovey wish for interconnectedness rather than given credence as having any firm basis in scientific methodology.

But thirty years of research, changed perspectives and better equipment have been showing that plants can, indeed, communicate in a variety of ways, both with other plants and with animals, mostly insects.

There’s this, about plants talking between species:

Larch roots with mycorrhizal fungi. All the white roots on the Larch seedlings in picture are 'Friendly Fungi' roots, the thicker red/brown roots are the Larch's roots. This fungal network increases the volume of soil explored by the plant by up to 700 times. Via: Buckingham Nurseries, UK

Larch roots with mycorrhizal fungi. All the white roots on the Larch seedlings in picture are ‘Friendly Fungi’ roots, the thicker red/brown roots are the Larch’s roots. This fungal network increases the volume of soil explored by the plant by up to 700 times.
Via: Buckingham Nurseries, UK

A new study released this month shows that when plants are connected via an underground network of the common mycorrhizae fungi, the fungi act as “a conduit for signalling between plants, acting as an early warning system for herbivore attack.” The signals not only warn of an attack, they also work to attract enemies (in this case, a specific kind of wasp) of the attacking pests (aphids). Mycorrhizae fungi inhabit the roots of many plants, providing nutrients in exchange for carbon, but this communication takes the relationship a step further. Once alerted by plants under attack, uninfested plants that were connected to the network could start mounting their defences.

A 2001 study published in Science talked showed tobacco plants (Nicotiana attenuata) fighting herbivore attacks by releasing volatiles to attract predators, which would then come and feed on the eggs of attacking pests. The plants were able to reduce pest populations by up to 90%.

Fine, but this is still in the realm of chemical communication. It’s unseen, and it’s not like the plants are actually talking to each other in the sense that we understand vocal communication.

And then there’s this:

Monica Gagliano, plant acoustics researcher. CREDIT: University of Western Australia

Monica Gagliano, plant acoustics researcher.
CREDIT: University of Western Australia

A study in BMC Ecology provides evidence that chili seeds, known to grow more vigorously when in the presence of basil plants, do so even if cut off from any chemical or light-related signals with those ‘beneficial’ plants, indicating some form of ‘alternative signaling channel’. Monica Gagliano, a plant acoustics researcher, suggests that vibrations are the signaling mechanism, which would imply that plants can hear. Or at least, they are responsive to minute sound vibrations.

And finally, there are the people who listen to trees:

From LiveScience: “Air bubbles form when a tree is trying to suck moisture out of dry ground during droughts. As leaves on a tree collect carbon dioxide, they open their pores, a process that leaves them vulnerable to water loss. Lab experiments at Grenoble University in France have isolated ultrasonic pops, which are 100 times faster than what a human can hear, in slivers of dead pine wood bathed in a hydrogel to simulate the conditions of a living tree. The race is now on between researchers to create equipment capable of listening to tree sounds.”

Why? So we can better identify trees that are in distress. Earlier studies have shown that bark beetles may be able to hear which trees are more vulnerable to attack during drought conditions due to the air bubbles that form. Humans might be able to listen to the trees to assist them.

Douglas fir trees Image via: TerraDaily

Douglas fir trees
Image via: TerraDaily

Did I mention that mycorrhizae fungi networks are vast and complex in many natural habitats? Who knows just how complicated these conversations might be?

My mother would have been so thrilled to know her conversation wasn’t entirely one-sided. She just needed to know how to understand the signals.


Ecology Letters study – Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack by Z. Babikova, L. Gilbert, T. Bruce, M. Birkett, J.C. Caulfied, C. Woodcock, J.A. Pickett, D. Johnson

BBC News article – Fungus network ‘plays role in plant communication’

Science AAAS study (2001) – Defensive Function of Herbivore-Induced Plant Volatile Emissions in Nature by A. Kessler & I.T. Baldwin

Discover Magazine article (2002) – Talking Plants by S. Russell & M. Aguilera-Hellweg

BMC Ecology study – Love thy neighbour: facilitation through an alternative signalling modality in plants by M. Gagliano & M. Renton

LiveScience article – Sound Garden – Can plants actually talk and hear? by Becky Oskin

LiveScience article – Thirsty Wood’s Distress Call Heard in Lab by Elizabeth Howell

Moon and Moss

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It finally stopped snowing here. We had a single glorious clear afternoon and night last week, during which I took the picture of the full moon rising behind the budding plum tree in our garden. Depending on the culture (according to the Farmer’s Almanac), this is the:

Full Worm Moon – the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.

Full Crow Moon – when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter

Full Crust Moon – the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.

Lenten Moon – the last full Moon of winter.

Since then, non-stop rain. At least the moss on our trumpet vine is having a season of plenty.

Our mossy vinePhoto: PK Read

Our mossy vine
Photo: PK Read