THE PRETTY FACE
I’ve done it, you’ve done it. We are all guilty. It is part of our very nature to choose the one that is pretty when we have a choice. Doesn’t matter if we are considering a new car, furniture, or a set of towels for the bathroom, the size, style, pattern, and/or color always impacts our decision making process. Plant breeders, horticulturists, and in fact all of us in the gardening industry are keenly aware of this. It is really hard to sell an ugly plant!!
You might think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with improving the looks of plants by selective breeding and you would be right for the most part. There is very little harm done in selecting a pretty face from amongst a large group of seemingly identical specimens. That plant can now be propagated from stem cuttings, root division, or grafting to make identical clones that will retain the desirable trait(s) of the parent. This is how we propagate most of our fruit and nut trees, lawn grasses, roses, and many of the plants we find common in the home landscape. However, there is a darker side to our seeking of perfection and demanding more, bigger, and better(?) selections.
One of the greatest fears among those of us involved in using native plant material for ornamental landscaping is that as these plants become more popular the hardiness, tolerance to drought, pests, and disease resistance will be bred out of them. For instance, our native purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea) now comes in a variety of colors including the natural hues from white to pink, to purple and new introductions of yellow, orange, and red.
These new cultivars are often obtained by backbreeding selected plants into themselves. Like selecting darker pinks to attempt to eventually come up with a true red specimen. As these select few are backbred over and over it creates a situation akin to inbreeding animals and humans. The genetic diversity of the plant is lost. The gene pool becomes shallow and what you wind up with is a pretty face that does not have the attributes of its wild cousins.
Roses are a very good example of this. Literally thousands of named rose cultivars exist. Of these, some have been backbred (inbred) so many times that they have become finicky and will not survive without human care. Others, mainly the old varieties we call “antique roses,” remain true to their wild heritage and grow vigorously with little or no care at all. Major difference. A novice choosing their first rose who will likely base their decision on looks alone may decide that roses (all roses) are hard to grow because they chose a fussy cultivar. They aren’t.
Hence the renewed popularity of heirloom plant varieties, open pollinated vegetables, and true native plant species. More and more people are discovering that these plants are much easier to care for than their modern day hybrid counterparts not to mention the fact that they will make viable seed that will naturalize or can be replanted to produce new plants that will come true to the parent species. If you are interested in low maintenance, a true naturalized landscape, or saving your own seed from the vegetable garden, this offers a distinct advantage over purchasing new plants year after year. But you must beware of the pretty face.
In defense of the horticulture industry, astute plant breeders are also aware of this trend. Many of the new rose releases are simply hybrids that have been bred from the old antiques and given a new name. Vegetables are being selected for resistance to drought, disease, and insects. All sorts of heirloom variety plants are finding their way back into the market place, and we are rediscovering the beauty and practicality of our native plants as well. Still, the market is driven by what folks are willing to purchase and most people like variety. You can’t really blame the industry for attempting to produce what people say they want. There is profit to be made by producing lots of pretty faces.
It is my opinion that I hope is shared by gardening enthusiasts everywhere, that we should not sacrifice plant vigor for the sake of beauty alone. It does not serve us very well to have say, a red bluebonnet if the thing can’t live outside the greenhouse environment or if it won’t reproduce from seed.
I recall from my childhood my mother’s frustration with her new colored periwinkles. When they dropped their seed and came back the second year they were all white. So she goes back to the nursery and buys more of the colored periwinkles and the following year they reseeded and again they came out white. Come to find out, the true color of wild periwinkles are white as Nature intended and bluebonnets are generally………….well, blue.
Nowadays we have many different colors of periwinkles. Most of these are sterile due to the incessant backbreeding so they don’t even produce white offspring anymore. The same holds true of most annual bedding plants, many vegetable varieties, and flowering perennials in the traditional nursery system. Gardeners have come to accept the fact that they are going to buy new transplants whenever they want annual color. Some even get a bit perturbed whenever annuals actually do volunteer from seed. They are not used to such behavior and fear those plants will “take over” when in truth, during my mom’s day, we expected reseeding annuals as the norm. In Nature, all annuals drop seed and return reliably year after year. Only human tampering can produce sterile hybrids.
Of course, we all will have a hard time to keep from falling for the latest pretty face to hit the market. That provides some solid job security for the plant breeding industry. Just be aware of what you are buying in to. If you like it, so be it.
There are also plenty of folks in the business, including me, who are out there searching for those good old fashioned plants to make them available once again. There are a growing number of seed companies who focus on heirloom and open pollinated varieties. To be sure there are plant breeders who are listening to the demands of the gardening public. Where there is a demand, there will be those willing to fill that niche.
Ultimately it is the customer who decides whether of not the latest trends catch on or fall by the wayside. If you come across the new red or orange echinaceas you will likely have to try them. So will I. Just bear in mind that these may not perform as well as the true native varieties. My advice is to buy a few and see for yourself, but resist the urge to replant your entire landscape. If they don’t hold up, then don’t buy any more. Stick with the natives if you want maximum performance with minimal care. There is more to landscaping than pretty faces. Look for pretty combined with practical………..now that’s the ticket!!!
September 13, 2011
THE PRETTY FACE
WHAT HAVE WE DONE?
“What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair Sister?
Ravaged and plundered,
And ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the side of the Dawn.
And tied her with fences and………
Dragged her down!!”
Aside from the fact that most civilizations have historically referred to Earth as our Mother, this excerpt from the epic Doors song entitled “When the Music’s Over” has always come to mind whenever I ponder the fate of mankind. It is certain that Nature will survive our insults and eventually repair the damage. The question is: “Will we still be around to see it?”
Some people are predicting dire consequences in our immediate future. Some say we have already tipped the scales too far. Given the fact that many of these modern day prophets are professional scientists I believe we should be paying attention. If any present theories and opinions are to be discounted, it should be those who contend the present situation to be a “natural occurrence” or that our human impact could have little effect on something as large as the planet. These people are generally not scientists or not paying good attention to their own surroundings.
Whether it be the soil, air, oceans, or the various plants and animals that inhabit Earth, all recent studies show our biological systems in decline. All of the ice that has historically (since the last Ice Age) covered the poles and our high mountains is melting at an alarming rate. This cannot be denied. Our scientific protocol demands that facts be supported by rigorous testing and/or precedents set by previous experimentation. Opinions are to be stated as theory until such can be proven scientifically. Therefore, it would be career suicide for any scientist to perpetrate a hoax or attempt to pass off theory as fact. Unfortunately there have been a few who have attempted to do just that to further their own career or particular employer. However, these people are generally exposed by their peers in due time.
Regardless of your political choice or whose rhetoric you would like to believe, the facts are beyond debate. All well informed members of the human race are aware at least at some level that our current abuse of resources and subsequent plunder of natural systems needs to slow down at some point or we will simply consume ourselves out of existence. I personally believe that even those who stoically contend that no real harm has been done understand (at least in their heart) their view is not realistic.
Having been a “Nature lover” all my life I have noticed that in recent years those ultra-conservative advocates of economy based upon unbridled consumerism no longer wish to debate the issue. Their arguments have become weak. Their viewpoint cannot be supported by science or even by unbiased media. One cannot read, watch television, surf the internet, or engage in intelligent conversation and still remain oblivious to the subject. Instead, those who regard their own well being or profits to be above the Law of Nature will attempt an air of smugness as they walk away from any opportunity for discussion. Likely they have already lost an argument or two so they choose to avoid further embarrassment.
Point is that many of us feel basically helpless to affect positive change. The so-called silent majority here in the United States still choose to elect politicians who maintain “business-as-usual” and who owe their office to special interest. We console ourselves by tightening our belts, complaining to our respective peer groups but are reluctant to risk offending our fellow citizens with any truly radical behavior. Yet radical change is just what the situation seems to call for. The longer we procrastinate, the worse things get.
Until recently it could truthfully be said Americans in general enjoyed the highest standard of living worldwide. However there are now several smaller nations in Europe, the Middle East, and even Africa who enjoy greater per capita wealth and/or a higher standard of living. It can be argued that the bulk of these are due to fortunate oil reserves and our American technology to exploit and consume those reserves.
Be that as it may, a recent survey showed the citizens of the tiny country of Denmark to enjoy the most comfortable standard of living in today’s world economy. Denmark does not hold huge oil reserves, nor are they the richest per capita. They are not a democracy. They also have one the highest tax rates with your middle class Danes contributing half their income to taxes. Yet their access to public health care, education, housing, and other programs subsidized by their government (via the high tax rate) allows the Danish to be the most comfortable people on Earth (at least for the time being). No, I am not Danish……………..Just stating the facts.
Perhaps we would not be so reluctant to pay taxes IF our own government would provide more for the average citizen and less for special interest lobbies. Danish students actually get paid a stipend while they attend universities. Our college students are obliged to take out student loans (many of which are defaulted) in order to afford higher education. Medical care? Insurance? Affordable housing? ………..Same story.
Still, much of the world does look to the United States for leadership. Developing nations set their goals by our example and achieve this with our technology. I find it outrageous that our latest advances in sustainable energy are popular in places like Africa and the Middle East while your average American does not own so much as a solar panel save to operate a rinky-dink set of yard lights or to open the front gate automatically. The U.S. citizens who have invested in high end sustainable energy or building technologies are so few in number that they generally become subjects for local media that are seeking “human interest” stories as filler material. We, as citizens should be aware of our leadership role and embrace sustainable technologies.
Even those of us who may not be able to purchase things like solar panels or wind generators should realize that there are many little things we can do that collectively will make a difference. For example, using a tote bag to go shopping, carrying a refillable container for refreshments, or using washable baby diapers instead of disposables will result in untold tons of savings in paper and plastic plus the energy used to make those “disposable” items. Public transport, car pooling, walking or riding a bicycle, the list can go on and on and any one of us can do these things if we simply stop and think. We are so used to being a “throw away” society that we don’t give it much thought.
My favorite example of recycling comes from the homeless. Motivated by lack of income, these people remove tons of thrown away materials each day and recycle for pocket money or make use of our “trash” for shelter, clothing, whatever they may need at the moment. Give a homeless person a stack of newspapers and he or she may show you quite a number of ingenious ways they can be put to use. I would love to see some statistics on just how much waste is put to use or recycled by the homeless that would otherwise wind up polluting our cities or filling our landfills.
Back when The Doors were popular and the present generation was much younger, most of us were part of a very positive, non-violent (for the most part) revolution. We were bound to change things and change things we did. Was it enough? Are we really satisfied now that we have become the business owners, and political leaders, plus the makers of policies, morality, and social structure that will be handed down to our kids? We were all born into a polluted world. That is not our fault. However, it certainly is our fault if we let it continue.
There is a fresh new ideology emerging. We can have a very positive impact on this Earth before our time is up. We can turn the corner from rampant consumerism, an economy based on fossil fuel consumption, and the plundering of finite resources. I think it may be useful to pull out those old vinyl albums, the written material, art, and other paraphernalia of our youth to remind us of who we were. Then think about what we have become and what we can (or should) be doing. Love, Peace, Happiness …….. Far out, man………………………………
Bare soil is a “no-no.” Like raking grass clippings and leaves then putting them in the garbage, maintaining bare soil in our flower beds or vegetable gardens is counter productive. These are old habits associated mainly with neatness and what was once considered standard landscaping ethic. Although most modern day gardeners employ mulching mowers and excess yard waste goes to the compost pile, there are still some people who insist on keeping their gardening spots with nothing but bare soil between their plants. This is fine at planting time as long as your flowers, shrubs, or vegetables are spaced properly so they eventually grow together and shade the ground.
The mindset concerning bare soil culture dates back to the previous century when our forefathers were mainly sustained by the family farm. The thinking was that weeds would rob the crops of sunlight, moisture, and valuable nutrients. This was and still is true today. I grew up listening to my dad and his friends swapping stories about plowing straight rows behind a mule and chopping weeds in the cotton or corn fields. Consequently, my own early attempts at vegetable gardening consisted of straight rows meticulously weeded down to bare dirt. It reflected what I had been taught.
Today, with advanced soil science, techniques, and a better understanding of biology in general, my vegetable garden looks quite different. There are no straight rows or bare soil to be seen. Here are some facts about bare soil.
1. Bare soil dries out quickly. This is especially true of freshly cultivated soil. Any time we turn the soil we are increasing air between soil particles. This is a good thing when faced with tight, compacted soils where better drainage is needed, but is counter productive in soils that are already well drained and well composted. Here in north central Texas our rainfall is sporadic to say the least. Soil that drains quickly but still retains moisture is what we strive for. The summer sun baking down on bare soil increases evaporation at the very time when moisture is needed most.
2. Bare soil invites weeds. Any soil disruption brings weed seeds to the surface. Sunlight actually increases the germination rate of many common weeds that plague us as gardeners. Even the disruption of pulling existing weeds will tend to set the stage for more weeds. This is why “chopping cotton” was the never ending chore for my dad and previous generations of subsistence farmers.
3. Bare soil heats up and cools down quickly. Because of exposure, air penetrates deeper and faster into the soil. Bare soil can be a blessing in early Spring when you are waiting for seeds to germinate, but works against us when temperatures go to extreme heat or cold.
4. Bare soil decreases life below ground. The cutting edge of soil science today is studying the various roles of soil dwelling creatures. From tiny microbes to larger creatures that can be seen with the naked eye, we now have a much better idea of how important living soils are. Everything from decomposition of organic matter to availability of minerals and nutrients to general plant health is related to the presence (or not) of microbes and other soil dwellers. Many of these microbes will die immediately when exposed to sunlight. Others, like earthworms, simply dry out when exposed to too much air. As it is with most life forms, these guys need a stable environment.
The answer of course is to plant desirable plants thick enough and/or cover the ground with mulch. In Nature, mulch acts as an insulating blanket while providing a food source as it decomposes. In the home landscape, shredded wood is most commonly used although grass clippings, leaves, straw, manure, basically anything organic that will break down to feed the soil is good.
Stone is also a very practical solution. Although stone does not feed the soil like organic mulches it does precipitate minerals and is an excellent insulator. Stone helps break up rainfall and runoff offering superior erosion control. It does not float or blow away like the popular shredded or chipped wood mulches. As far as longevity, stone is about as permanent as it gets.
Lately there have been several recycled materials being sold as mulch. We have seen such things as shredded tire rubber, reconstituted paper, and tumbled glass used in place of traditional mulches. The common drawback to these materials is they tend to be pricey due to the processing involved and in some cases dyes are added to make them more attractive.
With all these choices, there is absolutely no intelligent reason to maintain bare soil for the sake of neatness. In fact, one may proceed to indulge in all sorts of interesting patterns, colors, textures, and combinations thereof just using mulches. Things can be kept neat and tidy enough to suit the most demanding personality. Bare soil doesn’t really make much of a statement plus instead of reducing weed growth, bare soil actually encourages it.
There is another option and that is the use of living mulches. Choose a shorter plant to act as a groundcover. Our lawns are, technically, a groundcover. Surprisingly, the same guy that practices bare dirt gardening would not stand for a bare patch in his lawn. Grass covers the soil, reduces heat by absorbing the sun’s energy, keeps the dust down when it’s dry, and gives us something to walk on besides mud when it rains. American suburbanites are well known for their meticulous dedication to lawn culture.
Choices for groundcover are many depending mainly on desired height, longevity, color, exposure to sun, and ease of maintenance. I prefer groundcovers that are short (generally less than one foot tall), that produce visible flowers, and that spread quickly from rhizomes, seed, or both. Being evergreen is also appreciable, but not something I insist on. There are plenty of choices that will perform nicely in any exposure from deep shade to the blistering heat of full sun. Explore your options.
In the vegetable garden, companion plantings will cover the ground while offering insect control or perhaps something extra for the kitchen table. I find some of the shorter types of mint, basils, and other herbs work well. Farmers tending large acreage have been using cover crops and even double cropping nitrogen fixing plants (legumes) like peanuts and alfalfa. Tree orchards lend themselves to double cropping as well. These things also work well in the veggie garden. Try planting some beans in with taller plants like corn and okra.
No matter how you slice it, bare soil equates to high maintenance even if you own a tiller or other cultivation equipment. If you are one who habitually maintains bare soil, and you need further proof, simply try using mulches on any small portion of your landscape. You should see the difference in a side by side comparison. Mulching will result in healthier soil, robust plants, more flowers, better harvests, less water, less work, and more enjoyment of your outdoor environment. Don’t let old habits drag you down. Mulch that soil or plant something you like. If you don’t cover that soil, Mother Nature will, and you may not like her choices.
THE ESTABLISHMENT PERIOD
How long does it take a tree or shrub to become established? That’s a fair question that we get asked very often. What people want from a professional is a definitive answer. The stock answer I learned from professionals who mentored me is three to five years. That gives some leeway and a difference of 66% longer in the case of five years. Not exactly what people want to hear.
A more honest answer would be to say when that we observe vigorous top growth is a good sign the tree is becoming established. Once the tree is established we can expect the tree or shrub to survive on rainfall without the constant need of supplemental irrigation. Provided, of course, you have planted a tree that is native to your region or at least one that is well enough adapted to give you that expectation.
Choosing plants that will survive your particular climate is absolutely critical. Trees and shrubs have a very long life span. Any native or well adapted tree or shrub should potentially last a lifetime. Choose wisely or be prepared to be disappointed. I am a collector and enjoy experimenting but I have learned most experiments fail. If for instance you would like to grow a banana tree my advice would be not to invest heavily unless you live in the tropics or own a very tall greenhouse.
Native trees and shrubs are as close to perfectly adapted as it gets. Therefore, they will establish quicker and get back to normal growth sooner. Well adapted exotics may take longer whereas poorly suited trees and shrubs may not ever be able to grow without extra irrigation and other special conditions provided by the owner.
For instance, most people assume that a fast growing tree would establish faster. That would be true in the case of native trees that grow fast. However, I have seen many examples of trees that are touted to grow astonishingly fast that never make it to maturity here in the Rolling Plains. These trees are most often found in the mail order industry and claim growth rates of eight feet per year or more. No doubt that is true under ideal conditions and in the native habitat of that particular tree. Your best bet is to shop with a locally owned nursery. They have a reputation to uphold and know what will work (or not) in your area.
On the subject of growth rates, that is another area in which there are so many variables that we cannot give definite answers. In truth, there is no such thing as a growth rate. This year of drought has brought this home to many observant people. In 2011 it has been about survival. Many newly planted trees and shrubs are struggling with the dry atmosphere on top of the stress of transplant shock. We are actually seeing negative growth rates this year. If you read or hear about growth rate for a particular plant, bear in mind that these rates are quoted as an average. Just like our weather averages that so far have been anything but average this year.
We often get calls from people who say their new plants look alright but just aren’t growing. They are growing roots. The roots always come first as can be observed on any seed as it germinates. The root always appears before the seed will initiate top growth. As soon as the roots of your new tree or shrub are no longer restricted by the plastic container that once held them, they begin to grow outward into the soil. The entire plant is fed from chlorophyll manufactured by the leaves so immediately after planting most of the energy goes to the roots. Regardless, the part of the plant that is visible to us is the top and we tend to make assumptions based on that or some growth rate that is merely an average.
In spite of these facts that prove there are no easy answers to the time it really takes for establishment, there are some things we can do to shorten that time between initial planting and when we can wean trees and shrubs off the water hose.
1. Go Native: I can’t stress this enough. Your local natives have evolved with your climate, soils, and other conditions that may exist. All other plants, no matter how well adapted or reliable have not had this advantage.
2. Use beneficial microbes: This is the cutting edge of the industry today. Mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobacteria form lasting relationships by colonizing roots. This gives a much greater benefit than fertilizers or root stimulators.
3. Compost: This is the fertilizer of choice. Compost supplies all necessary nutrients plus provides the correct habitat for beneficial soil microbes. Mix compost in the upper 3 to 4 inches of your native soil then supply an additional inch as much.
4. Mulch, mulch, mulch: Add additional layers of organic mulch on top of your composted soil. This is very beneficial in creating the type of soil profile found in natural woodlands. Widen the circle of mulch as your plants grow.
5. Irrigate deeply: Trees and shrubs benefit from deep moisture as opposed to constant shallow applications. Drip or slow irrigation accomplishes this goal best. Irrigate frequently at first then gradually less as plants become established. Eventually you should stop supplemental irrigation altogether with the exception of extreme drought years.
The establishment period is extremely important because transplants experience different levels of stress until they have had time to get roots established in your native soil. This means true cold hardiness, drought tolerance, and/or disease and insect resistance don’t kick in until the plant is firmly established. In fact, the plant is quite a bit less tolerant of any additional stress factors like these when it is first planted.
Trees and shrubs planted in deep fertile soils will naturally grow faster than the same variety planted in tightly compacted or thin soils over clay subsoil. This holds true even if you plant fast growing varieties. If you live in an area that has tight soils, all the more reason to look at your local natives for plants that do well in that type of soil. Yes, believe it or not, there are places where trees like mesquite become very valuable. I happen to live in one of those places.
Some of the new trees I planted earlier this year may not make it through this terrible drought but I am confident the mesquites will. Trees and shrubs are the backbone of our landscape. Proper culture and maintenance will result in a lifetime of reward. Unfortunately this does take time and truthfully there is no way to predict exactly how much time it will take especially when we have weather like we have experienced this year.
Trees should be the very first item on your landscaping list. If you have need of shade or screening you should plant as soon as you can even if you can’t afford to do much else. Early fall through late winter is the ideal season to plant.
AN INCONVENIENT DEAD ZONE
Apologies to Al Gore, but it has occurred to me lately that what the world needs now is Al Gore on nitrates. Without a doubt, the silver lining of Mr. Gore’s controversial loss to George W. Bush was that after conceding defeat, he then turned his talents and considerable resources to educating us on another controversial subject: atmospheric carbon (CO2). Due to this herculean effort we are now well aware of the carbon cycle, carbon emissions, carbon footprints, carbon sequestration, and so forth. The impact of “An Inconvenient Truth” compelled worldwide response. We now have some laws in place plus some alternative energy incentives. Heck, even Exxon/Mobil is promising us algae as a new energy source. Politicians are now willing to talk and debate the issue in contrast to a mere decade ago when the subject was largely ignored. At least some progress is being made. Thank you, Mr. Gore.
Now we need a person with the same dedication and passion to take up the issue of nitrates. Most of you are aware of the infamous “dead zone” that occurs where the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico. While certainly not the only dead zone created by nitrates flowing from the rivers of industrial nations, it is the second largest (worldwide) and therefore a major concern to those who make their living from the Gulf.
The Gulf dead zone now occupies some seven to eight thousand square miles, depending on whose stats you read. Remarkably, the 2009 dead zone shrank to around three thousand square miles even though it was predicted to do otherwise. Clearly, there is much to study and learn.
In one recent report, a University of Michigan zoologist, Nathaniel Ostrom was asked his opinion as to whether the highly publicized (and analyzed) Deep Horizon oil spill would have greater impact than the dead zone, he replied, “It’s a really tough call.” So the nitrate problem which has been with us for some time may actually be as bad if not worse, over the long run, than the recent oil spill.
Speaking for myself, I am rather fond of seafood and would rather continue to enjoy it. “Eat more fish; Live longer,” was a popular T-shirt slogan I remember from my youth, apparently not so true today. Dead zones support no fish, shellfish, or marine life of any kind save some algae. Since this dead zone keeps growing in size, my opinion is that unless we take action, it eventually will be a greater threat than the oil spill. So what is being done and what can you and I as average citizens do to help?
First we must seek an understanding of nitrates and where they come from. That begins with the nitrogen cycle. You can find a fairly easy to understand explanation at this address http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_cycle . What you will learn is that just as with the carbon cycle, our human habits are influencing the nitrogen cycle in a very negative way.
To begin with, free nitrogen (N2) is a double molecule that comprises a large part of our lower atmosphere as an inert gas. Some 78% of all nitrogen resides in the gaseous state and in this form is unavailable to plants and other life forms. In Nature, nitrogen is put into useable (or reactive) forms by bacteria (rhizobium and azotobacters). This bacterial process is called “fixing nitrogen.” Also, in the superheated air around lightning and air pressure changes that result in thunder, the twin nitrogen molecules will separate so they are now free to attach to oxygen molecules to form nitrate (NO3) or hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). This explains why plants grow so well after a good rain. It is said that rain events with plenty of lightning contain around 4% nitrogen products by volume. Remember that number.
During World War One, we were cut off from our natural mined source of nitrate (urea) that was used to make explosives. Scientists got busy and learned to mimic the heat and pressure changes produced from lightning by using natural gas. This became known as the Haber-Bosch process which produced high levels of ammonium nitrate. After the war, ammonium nitrate was used as a fertilizer that contained high levels of nitrogen. In more recent history, these fertilizers were used to make “fertilizer bombs.” Terrorist organizations still use fertilizer bombs.
The nitrogen levels achieved by this petrochemical synthesis are far greater than nitrogen levels from natural or organic sources. This enabled farmers to produce abundant crops, year after year, without any concern for soil health or biology. Plants would have access to all the nitrogen they could use so harvests were greater. This soon became the norm in the agriculture industry and likewise for homeowners. Sounds like a really good deal, but therein lies the problem.
Presently it is believed that these synthetic fertilizers now total some 30% of all the nitrates existing in ecosystems of developed nations that rely on petrochemical based agriculture. That may not seem too bad until you consider that nitrogen is a component in proteins and the nucleic acids of all living things, and nitrates are in the by-products (manures, dead tissues) of all these creatures. Now we are talking one heckuva lot of nitrate.
This nitrate overload is simply too much to be assimilated by plants, bacteria, or other natural users of N. Therefore it winds up in groundwater, streams, and eventually, major rivers. As we all know, nitrates are good for plants so once this load of fertilizer hits the Gulf, it grows algae (a plant) in excessive amounts. One specific type, known as blue-green algae, robs sunlight and nutrients from competing plants. As the algae decompose they consume all the available oxygen which kills all the oxygen breathers and that creates the dead zone. The scientific term for this is “eutrophication” resulting in “hypoxia.”
The news reports generally lay the blame on the agriculture industry and the corn grower in particular. There is no argument that conventional corn crops are heavily fertilized, but that is not the only human input that contributes to the problem. For one thing, the nitrate runoff from your average neighborhood can run seven to ten times higher than the same amount of farm land. The farmer is frugal, being driven by slim profit margins, while the homeowner is mainly interested in green grass. There is little or no economic incentive for the average suburbanite. In fact, the cheaper lawn fertilizers available for the home landscape are the more damaging, high nitrogen, synthetic products.
I hope that what you have gained from this, so far, is the idea that simply switching to organic fertilizers (that by their very nature have lower N values) would significantly reduce leftover nitrates. Remember rain with lightning is only 4% N. What grows plants better than natural rainfall?
Buy organic foods whenever and wherever you can. This sends the appropriate message to producers, plus you will reap the health benefits. Unfortunately, this is only part of the solution. There is much, much more to the story. The next installment of “An Inconvenient Dead Zone” will appear next month. Until then, you may want to do some research. I “googled” dead zones and got 92,800 (plus) hits…..No kidding.
“AN INCONVENIENT DEAD ZONE”
In the last month’s article I attempted to explain the nitrate issue regarding the dead zone occurring at the mouth of the Mississippi and other major river systems. As fertilizer, nitrates are described as the N in NPK. Those are the three numbers that appear on each and every product being sold as fertilizer. Current research has it that some 51% of the nitrates entering the Gulf of Mexico can be traced to the typically high nitrogen levels present in synthetic fertilizers.
The other 49% of the nitrate contribution comes from organic sources. Our own human waste ranks at the top of this list. Effluent from water treatment plants (sewage sludge) plus drainage from septic systems are the likely suspects. However, the runoff from inner city and suburban lawns also add to the nitrate overload. Perhaps more than most of us realize. Consider the human population of the entire Mississippi drainage.
The good news is that sewage treatment standards are monitored closely by state and federal agencies. Standards concerning effluents have risen considerably over the years. This is a very good thing. Most major cities are now recycling much of the treated water back into the system. Solid wastes present the greater challenge and concentrations of nitrate.
Septic systems have also improved over the last decade or so. Self contained aerobic systems discharge water that is useable in the home landscape. Open air lagoons also present better opportunities to recycle sewage effluents before they find their way into our water supplies. Be that as it may, all of these systems do eventually fill with solids which have to be dealt with.
In addition to human waste, there is also the waste from concentrating cattle on feedlots plus the factory production of pigs and chickens. While concentrating animals like this seems to be efficient from a production and shipping standpoint, runoff from these areas adds considerably to the nitrate problem. We have seen some producers who have built “manure barns,” and some send waste products to open lagoons while others simply throw tarps over huge piles to prevent rain from leaching the nitrates.
Manure piles that are denied oxygen and water tend to break down anaerobically. This creates methane which is also a contributing greenhouse gas. Now you would think local farmers would love to have all this manure to use as fertilizer. Truth is that the meat and dairy producers have gotten so big that once the locals have gathered all they want there is still millions of tons of manure that go unused. Shipping the waste to outlying farms gets expensive and time consuming. Most farmers find synthetic fertilizers more cost effective. This system merely exchanges the nitrate problem for a methane problem while leaving mountains of good compostable material wasted.
Speaking of greenhouse gases, nitrogen products also add to the mix. As a result of the feedlots, fertilizers, and apparently any exhaust from almost all heat sources, including auto exhaust, nitrous oxide (N2O, also called “laughing gas”) and ammonia (NH3) have increased dramatically. While not near as abundant as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide is said to be near 300 times more potent in breaking down the protective ozone layer. Ammonia is a major culprit of acid rain. These are distressing facts, to be sure, but all the more reason to reduce the manufacture of nitrates through heat processes.
Because nitrates are readily absorbed in water, they do present some immediate local threats to human health. Nitrates in water supplies cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” miscarriages, and thyroid cancer in women. Nitrates are reported according to EPA ruling and limits are set at ten ppm (parts per million) or less as allowable for drinking. However, some health studies indicate that health concerns may arise with nitrate levels as low as 5 ppm. If you are drinking well water you should definitely have it checked periodically.
Nitrates can be removed from drinking water by expensive treatment plants. This is a typical reaction to seek technology to cure a problem rather than address the problem itself.
In the 92,800 some odd hits I got from googling “nitrates, dead zone, water supplies” it was obvious that there is apparently plenty of people monitoring the nitrate flow and measuring the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the material I have read so far, there are plenty of facts and figures that point the finger at the various sources of the nitrate pollution problem but very few solutions offered.
One of the biggest problems I perceive from all this is that the guys that crunch the numbers to regale us with these facts and possible alternatives is that they seem to insist on measuring crop production in terms of N. In other words, so many pounds of nitrogen per acre result in a measureable amount of productivity and that is that. What is missing in these narrowly focused studies are all the other nutrients and elements, soil characteristics, and biological organisms that also enter in to the equation. For instance, humus from organic matter can hold (or sequester) nitrates in plant useable form. Instead, the numbers people are merely seeking maximum production using less N.
If you look at the flow chart of the nitrogen cycle you will note there are five different species of bacteria that come into play in converting N into useable forms that cycle through the soil, plants, and animals, then return once again as an inert harmless gas in our atmosphere. This is where the solution will be. Just as with the carbon cycle we find that our human activity places too much nitrate and other forms of N in the wrong places. Now we have a problem.
Just what is being done? What are the solutions being offered? We’ll have a go at some answers in part three. Until then, don’t forget that you and I can do our part by using natural fertilizers. Buy organic produce and range fed meats. We hear a lot about our “carbon footprint.” The other footprint is nitrate. Do some research on your own. Knowledge is the key to solutions that work.
AN INCONVENIENT DEAD ZONE
In the first two parts of this series I shared what I have learned from doing an internet search of “nitrates, dead zones, water supplies.” This search resulted in some 92,800 plus references to the subject. I sampled a few articles, reports, and opinions plus did some related research on nitrogen (N) recommendations concerning corn production. From this sampling I developed an overview of the situation that contained far too much information for me to do justice in just one article. If you missed the previous articles you may check your local distributors for back issues or go to livingnaturalfirst.com then click on the LNF magazine button to find current and archived issues. Failing that, the entire series will eventually appear on my own website: wvlandscape.com.
I have been accused many times of attempting to over-simplify complex issues, and this is a very complex problem. Be that as it may, I find simple solutions do work best. My main concern is to raise public awareness. What follows are some of my thoughts and observations on the matter.
From all I read, it is obvious that the corn industry has been targeted as the major culprit in causing the hypoxia, or dead zone that enters the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. This is in spite of the fact that estimates indicate that unused nitrates from fertilizer compose about 51% of the total nitrate causing the dead zone, the other 49% being attributed to human and animal manures plus other sources.
There is major concern over the fact that our government, in an effort to promote alternative energy, is subsidizing an increase in corn to be fermented into gasohol. This will of course, exacerbate the problem unless nitrate leaching is reduced in the Corn Belt. Are we trading profit in the Corn Belt for reduced fisheries in the Gulf? Sure looks that way…….
Kudos to Des Moines, Iowa, for constructing the largest nitrate removal facility in the country. Although this was done mainly to reduce nitrates in the local water supply it is, nonetheless, one of the few attempts at actually solving the nitrate problem. How many more of these facilities exist or how many it would take to significantly reduce nitrates in the Mississippi I haven’t a clue. What pollutants such as carbon emissions or other greenhouse gases are produced by these nitrate removal plants? I don’t know that either. Furthermore, this high tech solution was developed so we can continue to use high nitrogen fertilizers. A “bandaid” solution, if you will.
Another solution was offered in one study that suggested that adding phosphorous to reduce the algae and help the dead zone recover. However, that was immediately countered by other scientists who warned that high amounts of phosphorous may actually make matters worse. Little else was offered as far as actually solving the problem. In fact, many of the myriad organizations that are measuring and monitoring the situation are looking for the government (EPA?) to step up and do something about dead zones.
My good friend Fred Hall, current Texas Agrilife Extension agent in Wichita County, shared a recent study that was a co-operative effort of several leading universities in different states that produce corn. Sure enough, that study was aimed at using less N to produce the same amount of corn and thereby realizing better profit. The fact that nitrate leaching from corn fields is likely (likely?) contributing to groundwater pollution plus the hypoxia (dead zone) in the Gulf of Mexico was mentioned, but only in that fashion. This study was published in 2003 whereas the dead zone had become apparent roughly a decade prior to that.
Using crop rotation (soybeans) and recycling organic matter from the previous year’s corn stalks (and/or soybean stalks) were mentioned as natural sources of N. These sources were considered highly variable depending on the presence of decomposing bacteria and rainfall. Additions of manure were considered as a much more reliable source of organic N. However, these studies indicated that additional fertilizers (110 to 125 lbs. N per acre) are still needed to achieve a profitable yield of around 200 bushels per acre.
The entire study was aimed at realizing the “economic optimum nitrogen rate” (EONR) with the conclusion being that present day farmers may be wasting fertilizer dollars through over-application. There was no discussion of synthetic versus organic fertilizers. Also missing was any discussion of the thirteen other essential elements and minerals that are factors in corn production as well as techniques to build and maintain healthy microbe populations (although the term “environmental stewardship” was used). According to the study, growing corn without additional fertilizer is just not feasible in meeting current market demands.
Fred Hall is a third generation corn grower. He chooses to rotate corn with alfalfa and soy beans (both nitrogen fixing legumes) and even double cropping alfalfa with corn. Cow manure is Fred’s choice to replace N that is lost to crop harvesting. Fred does not enjoy the production that some of his synthetic nitrogen using neighbors harvest, but he also does not have the input costs of the high production guys. Fred figures his input costs to be around 30% less on average, so he can stay profitable on lower production. Add to this the fact that Fred’s organic corn also fetches a higher price at the market so what we have here is a modern farmer that is successful and sustainable.
As far as the problem in the Gulf, Fred’s nitrate leaching is undoubtedly a fraction of the high nitrogen, maximum production farms. Fred’s living soil is full of all of the bacteria species that break down organic matter, convert nitrates into plant useable ammonium (NH4), and denitrifying bacteria that return nitrates back into harmless nitrogen gas (N2). Remember our flow chart shows different bacteria species at each stage of the nitrogen cycle. It is debatable if these discreet bacteria exist in adequate numbers in soils that are inherently low in humus due to constant tillage and the routine application of synthetic fertilizers. In fact, I wonder if the proper array of microbes can even exist at all with the high production farming practices.
It is my sincere hope that more farmers consider using organic methods. Right now, there are very good indications that they will, but we cannot expect this to happen overnight. I see farmers like Fred Hall as part of the solution to many problems we are faced with today. The dead zone in the Gulf would, at the very least, be significantly reduced by organic farming.
Since corn production was the favorite target in every bit of the published material concerning the dead zone in the Gulf, I have devoted this segment of “An Inconvenient Dead Zone” to that subject. I feel like I have gathered enough information on corn to write a book even though I admittedly knew very little about it in the beginning.
So what about our agriculture here in Texas, where we don’t grow so much corn? The existing dead zone does impact our Texas fisheries. Due to the fact that all the runoff in this state winds up in the Gulf we should look to the Mississippi as being a warning as to what may happen to the Trinity, the Brazos, the Rio Grande, and any other river system in our state.
Next month I will share my final conclusions on the subject. Until then, do some research on your own to draw your own conclusions. Support your local farmers and live naturally to the extent you can.
AN INCONVENIENT DEAD ZONE
Apologies to Al Gore once again, but I thought this a good title due to the similarities to the carbon cycle. Nitrogen, like carbon, also has a natural cycle that has served the biosphere for millions of years until our human activities upset the balance. Unlike carbon, nitrogen is an inert, harmless gas. There are no plants or animals that breath nitrogen, but all living things do utilize nitrogen in production of proteins and nucleic acids (RNA, DNA).
Nitrogen combines with other elements in these useable or reactive forms. Carbon products are not the only contributor to greenhouse gases. As I explained in the preceding articles, combined nitrogen (ammonia, nitrous oxide) and nitrogen by-products (methane) also contribute to global warming.
The dead zone that occurs where the Mississippi drains into the Gulf of Mexico, presently covering thousands of square miles, is directly related to nitrates from fertilizers and animal manures. In a nutshell, it is highly apparent that we have not done a very good job of managing the use of fertilizers, animal manures, and our own sewage.
Considering that human and animal wastes are in fact effective fertilizers, it seems one part of the solution would be to utilize these resources to cut back, or replace entirely the popular high N (high nitrate) synthetic fertilizers being used today. Wichita Falls has a city operated composting program that utilizes our sewage sludge mixed with yard waste and industrial organic by-products. Now if we could manage to get all the manure generated by our feedlot and dairy operations distributed then get other cities and states to follow suit, we would effectively solve that part of the nitrate problem.
Of course there is the drawback that we have built our agriculture industry to rely on synthetic fertilizers. We have an entire generation of farmers, equipment, and decades of applied science that supports the reliance on synthetic N. Then there is also that nagging issue of production. There is no argument that high N fertilizers do increase production rates. The real issue is, are we willing, as an informed and advanced society, to continue to seek bumper crops at the loss of coastal fisheries, not to mention human health and wildlife in general?
In my last article I used the example of our Texas Agrilife Extension agent, Fred Hall, who still owns the family farm up in Iowa. Fred grows corn organically and apparently he has been profitable. Having Fred’s firsthand knowledge of the corn issue has proven extremely valuable. Although there were references to organics in some of my reading, most were of the opinion that switching to a organics was not going to solve the problem. However, using natural N sources (legumes, nitrogen fixing bacteria, manures) will reduce nitrate leaching however you want to do the numbers. This is irrefutable.
There are also a good number of pelletized, crushed, and liquid organic fertilizers on the market that could be used with modern farm equipment. So far I have not heard much about these being utilized or even considered by large scale producers. As owner of a retail organic nursery I can say with confidence that these natural fertilizers are being used with excellent results by a good number of homeowners. Couldn’t the agriculture industry with all the accompanying university based science have similar success? I see no reason to think they could not.
Here is a true paradox with the nitrate finger pointing going mainly to the Corn Belt. Some of the more popular organic lawn fertilizers to hit the market in the past 15 or 20 years are actually made from corn. The University of Iowa has led the research and at least one patent is held by the scientist (Dr. Christiansen) who conducted the field trials. So, here we have a crop that relies on copious fertilizer being produced with increasing amounts going to make…….well, fertilizer? As my friend John Krause would say, “I don’t get it!” Al Gore might respond with his classic ……”H,mmmm.”
As far as acreage for production is concerned, I do recognize that to produce the same volume of corn we harvest using the high N synthetic fertilizers, our production acreage would basically have to be doubled if all the farms went organic. I would think this might make the corn lobby in Washington DC pretty happy? Perhaps as an alternative we could find ways to get by with less corn altogether?
One way would be to plant crops (other than corn) for bio-fuels. I have read some very good statistics on studies from the University of Tulsa that suggest that our native switchgrass (panicum virgatum) is a viable alternative to ethanol from corn. Switchgrass is native as far north as Canada and is common throughout much of the United States. Switchgrass is a perennial that returns from roots each Spring so it would not have to be replanted like corn. Like corn, switchgrass can be baled to pull double duty as hay for livestock plus supply the bio-fuel industry. Switchgrass can be grown in the Corn Belt with little or no fertilizer input. Less fertilizer means less nitrate and ultimately less dead zone. Main problem is that switchgrass does not have a powerful lobby in Washington; corn does.
Perhaps our government should use that corn subsidy money for ethanol production elsewhere. Maybe they should subsidize manure hauling? As stated, large feedlots, chicken farms, hog farms, etc. also contribute to the nitrate problem. Maybe we should develop laws that make it mandatory that animal wastes be trucked to the nearest farm fields or composting operations.
Maybe we should have incentives for nitrate reduction as we are beginning to see with the carbon issue. High nitrogen fertilizers (ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulphate, anhydrous ammonia) can be very damaging to a great many soil dwelling creatures, not the least of which is earthworms. In my opinion, anhydrous ammonia (very popular in large acreage production) should be banned altogether. This is an extremely volatile substance that has caused respiratory illness, blindness, and instant death to humans who are exposed. This chemical concoction was originally used during World War II to compact soils in creating runways for air traffic. Compaction was quickly accomplished by killing off all soil dwelling organisms. What farmer really wants soil compaction? Taking anhydrous ammonia off the market would also have the side effect of reducing illegal drugs. It is one of the ingredients in home brewed methamphetamine. Zero anhydrous ammonia equates to less soil compaction, less nitrate pollution, and less drugs to boot?……Sounds good to me!
Aside from the dead zones, nitrate pollution also compromises local water resources. This is especially problematic with underground water supplies. Well water generally comes from deep reserves beneath the level of the denitrifying bacteria or other living organisms that could utilize excess nitrate. Look once again at the flow chart of our nitrogen cycle to see how important it is to follow Nature’s plan. I am confident that future farmers will be “managing microbes” instead of trying to juggle fertilizers to achieve the EONR (economic optimum nitrogen rate).
In conclusion, I believe it is irrefutable that we are using too much N and wasting far too much of what we apply. These ideas I have offered may seem over-simplified, but I am confident they would at the very least reduce the dead zone and return that part of the Gulf into the valuable food source it once was. Seafood does not have to be planted and tended like other food sources. It only requires a suitable environment and someone to harvest. I hope you will join me in being part of the solution rather than adding to the problem. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or better yet, maybe we can get together one day, throw some fresh shrimp on the grill, and have a good discussion.
THE NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY OF TEXAS
I have just returned from the annual NPSOT Symposium in Denton. This October marked our 30th anniversary. Every 10 years we all go back to the Texas Women’s University where the organization was started by a handful of native plant enthusiasts. Today the Native Plant Society of Texas state organization consists of some two thousand members serving 33 local chapters scattered about the state. Check npsot.org on the web for more info and the chapter nearest you.
This year’s anniversary symposium was especially good. Consider that we had no less than three pages of field trips to choose from, plus another three pages of Saturday afternoon workshops, not to mention the eats, entertainment, vendors, silent auction, and the photography competitions (I’m certain I left something out here). We heard three keynote speakers, noted author Jill Nokes (How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest), David Bamberger (restoration of Selah Ranch), and Doug Tallamy who wrote Bringing Nature Home. All of this was first rate stuff. However, it was the message brought by Doug Tallamy that I personally found most inspiring so I am now compelled to share with others.
Dr. Tallamy’s message was so direct and easily understood that it was simply irrefutable. Having been a Nature lover all my life, I was well aware that the main problem is our ever expanding human population. However the numbers put forth at this seminar brought home to me that the loss of biodiversity due to land use geared to suit our human wants and needs is far worse than I thought. For instance, the millions of acres that have been converted to suburban housing is now greater than the total acreage of all our national parks…….combined! Add to that the concrete jungle, highways, and land rendered useless for wildlife by agriculture, drilling and mining, you find we have already compromised the better half of available land in the United States. USDA census reports quoted in the book put pristine areas still untouched by human hands at less than 5%. Clearly something must be done in order to preserve our biological heritage for future generations. Obviously, our population will continue to increase as our resources dwindle. What can we do?
The solution put forth by Dr. Tallamy is simple and remarkably do-able. Use more native plants in the suburban and inner city landscape. This will provide the correct habitat and food supplies to keep things going. The problem then is convincing the general public and the landscaping industry in particular of making this change. The Native Plant Society of Texas is actively engaging Texans with the slogan, “Saving Texas, One Landscape at a Time.” NPSOT also promotes educational programs such as NICE (Natives Instead of Common Exotics) and a curriculum that is being developed to certify landscape architects and design professionals like myself who understand the practical role of native plants in the formal landscape.
This brings up the obvious reply, “I already put out feeders and water for the birds plus I have plenty of butterflies and other wildlife in my garden.” While it is true that local wildlife will utilize whatever is made available, including some of our common (mostly Asian) exotic landscape favorites, the truth is this simply isn’t enough.
When we bulldoze an area for housing we remove a wide range of diverse plant species plus the birds, insects, and other animals that were supported by those plants. After houses, streets, and utilities are put in place we plant comparatively few trees and shrubs to replace what was lost and those that we do plant tend to be repetitive to the point of redundancy. In fact the main plants present in the traditional landscape are lawn grasses. Usually just one or two types of lawn grass will be seen in most neighborhoods. These are usually imported exotics as well (not to mention invasive). So as the diversity of plants is significantly decreased, so too is the wildlife that once used those plants for food and shelter.
Dr. Tallamy uses the complex relationships of plants, birds, and caterpillars to make his point concerning biodiversity. What person does not welcome birds and butterflies into the garden? However, I think the same philosophy would hold true and could be applied to any of our native American plants and animals who are now precariously existing in increasingly shrinking habitats.
Here is just one example. The monarch butterfly will lay eggs only on certain plants commonly called milkweeds (asclepias species). The caterpillars feed almost exclusively on these same plants. Our chemically controlled farm fields are now full of gene spliced plants that allow repeated use of herbicides to keep fields weed free. Milkweeds that were once common in farm crops are gone. Since the life cycle of the monarch is inextricably tied to the milkweeds, as we continue to poison these plants we are also reducing the monarch population. The hope is now that butterfly gardening is gaining popularity, the asclepias species will be grown in the home landscape or at schools, city parks, and arboretums.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has a very successful program called Wildscapes. If you meet the criteria, you will be given a sign to display that will stimulate interest among your neighbors to get them to follow your lead. That is a hurdle for the Tallamy solution. This has to be sold to individual homeowners, communities, cities, and eventually the entire United States. One or two people in a given community can start the ball rolling.
Most of us are spending way too much time, money, and natural resources mowing grass. If you will give any portion of your lawn back to Nature the reward is greater than you may realize. How much lawn do you actually use? Not only will you save time and money for yourself but you will be providing a sustainable source of food and shelter for your fellow creatures, who, most of us agree, deserve a place on this planet as much as we do.
I have had the pleasure of helping people turn their outdoor spaces into interesting pathways, full of features, full of life itself, as opposed to the relatively sterile environment of the lawn. If you are limited in funds you can do this a little at a time. Take the money you would have spent on birdseed and purchase instead a few native trees, shrubs, or flowering plants that will produce flowers or berries (often both) with little or no maintenance………..for a lifetime. That is a truly wise investment.
Although Doug Tallamy’s solution is easily applied, it does require us to adopt major changes in our landscaping habits and indeed the very way we think about what constitutes an acceptable landscape. There are also weed laws, covenant agreements, and the attitudes of city managers to be dealt with, plus our own attitudes toward wildlife in general. This is where the membership of NPSOT has and will continue to make a difference.
The Native Plant Society of Texas has a working relationship with environmental groups and universities statewide. We fund research and hand out scholarships each year. Our goals are to educate ourselves and others, protect native plant communities in the wild, and encourage the use of native plants by example and outreach to all communities and landowners (public and private) throughout the state.
Find a copy of Bringing Nature Home at your local bookstore. Go to the web site mentioned in the first paragraph to join NPSOT or start your own chapter if need be. Perhaps I’ll see you at the 2011 NPSOT Symposium.
….AND SO IT BEGINS
A new decade in a new century in this new millennium brings positive change. At the turn of the 21st century, access to organic produce, range fed meats, alternative energy, plus other products and/or services associated with the green movement were hard to come by in the Wichita Falls area. Although my wife and I never cared much for the big cities, I must admit being more than a little bit jealous of those that live in or near the Metroplex, Austin, and other big cities. Ten years ago we had to travel or pay shipping to buy organic produce or other products we were interested in.
The past few years we have seen the beginning of local producers, services, and products that are closer to home. This is a sign of things to come in the future. Currently my wife and I are part of a community supported agriculture farm (Rose Creek Farm) out of Wise County. Owners Ronny and Pam Johnson say the drive to Wichita Falls is less hectic (no crowded freeways here) and they would be happy to serve more customers here. Nila and I are naturally encouraging this.
In addition we have bought range fed beef from our friends the Wilson’s at RCW Farms near Bluegrove. For the past two years we have had access to raw milk and fresh eggs from nearby Montague County. As far as organic fertilizers and pest controls for the home and garden, Nila and I are the owners of Wichita Valley Nursery. This past year marked our 18th anniversary. Unfortunately we are still the only totally organic nursery in the area, but we are seeing more organic products on the shelf at other local nurseries and garden centers.
Recently we also the doors open on a local provider of solar panels and a new wind generator factory in neighboring Vernon. Our phone book shows many builders and consultants specializing in green building products and techniques. We even have our first green building community called The Prairie located just south of town. Yessir, things are shaping up nicely here in my local area, and I’ll bet if you take a look around you will see the same wherever you live.
Ten years ago the idea of alternative energy was, to say the least, unpopular with the citizens of the Texoma area. Oil has always been the mainstay of our economy and understandably the oil guys did not welcome these new technologies that were seen as competition. Lately, it has been these same oil producers that are now using solar panels to run their pumps plus some are even buying in to the wind farms that are popping up all over the area now. To me, this seems a purely logical progression in energy production, but I realize this was not easy for those who have dominated the industry to accept. When you do the numbers though, it does add up. It is a fact that it takes a fair amount of oil to produce solar panels and wind generators. Now they are saving money in the oil field and producing electricity as well. Definitely a win/win situation.
All of this serves to make me feel a lot better than I did ten years ago. My only regret is that it did not happen sooner. Of course we still have a long way to go on our way to healthy and sustainable lifestyles. This will be a journey into the future utilizing technologies from the past, but driven by better understanding with the aid of modern science and engineering.
Using energy derived from wind, water, and sun are really ancient. In fact, the first large scale machines ever built were mills that ran off of wind or water. Not so long ago we had low voltage electricity that could light up a household anywhere. This ran off of storage batteries and DC wind generators. Present day sailboats are pretty much recreational vehicles for modern societies but still very much a part of Asian and African cultures. We still use the term “shipping” to refer to the movement of goods. Will sailboats once again rule the seas? Or maybe we will sail through the air? I’ll leave that question to the scientists.
As far as agriculture is concerned, we have a history of sustainable agriculture that goes all the back to the Neolithic Age. We should be very concerned with what has happened to modern day agriculture. We are seeing the rapid takeover by a mere handful of profit driven companies. We see much less profit going to the farmers and ranchers who actually produce our food. Presently, the big companies control profit margins and have patents on their genetically engineered seed. The smaller farms are being bankrupted or sued for patent infringement.
The good news concerning agriculture is that the diversified small family farm is making a comeback. American consumers have shown that they really do want fresh, local food sources. They are willing to pay a bit extra, drive to local markets, or even out to the country itself to get the good stuff. Furthermore, these local producers may prove to be the salvation for the rest of us once the price of oil makes shipping rates get ever higher. We have, in fact, seen a steady increase in pricing at the grocery store due to oil prices for at least 50 years now. Soon the local meat and produce will become more affordable for this reason alone.
If you are one who would rather step out your front door and start the day’s work rather than punch a clock at the factory or sit in a cubicle working a computer all day then I would encourage you to act now. This is a growing market (pardon the pun). Those who address it now will be the first to benefit. The work is hard, the hours are long, just ask anyone who is already doing it, but it is very rewarding. At least you will no longer be at the mercy of some huge conglomerate or franchise owned by stockholders.
Had this current market existed thirty years ago I might have gone to growing produce instead of ornamental plants. At that time I saw growth and opportunity in the landscaping industry, so I worked hard, saved and borrowed, and took control of my own destiny. Who knows? If the economy does get to the point that luxuries like landscaping are no longer a viable option for average folks, I may get into it yet. The family farm saved millions of people during the Great Depression. I know my dad’s family lived in poverty, but at least their small farm kept them fed.
I am confident that as more of us begin to recycle, reduce waste, shop locally, eat healthy, and just stop and think about where the mistakes of the past are leading us, we will manage just fine. Many predict that things will get a whole lot worse before they get better. Call me an optimist. I am one who believes this gloom and doom scenario can be avoided……and so it begins. Let’s get busy.
PLANTS LOVE HEAT
Having been in the landscape and nursery business for many years, I have learned to compare plants and humans. There are many good correlations and analogies that work. Since even non-gardeners understand human physiology to some extent. This tactic works well to help folks understand plants better. However, when it comes to heat plants are entirely different from humans. Plants love it!
Somewhere around 90 to 95 degrees we humans begin to feel stressed, especially in high humidity. At 100 degrees, most of us are making good use of outdoor shade and are extremely grateful for indoor air conditioning. Heat makes us lethargic and cranky. Unfortunately as we get older our ability to withstand heat becomes diminished. Even young folks can have serious problems from too much sun.
Because of this, people seem to think that plants that are in full sun or that are planted (God forbid) on the west side of a structure need to be especially heat tolerant. For sure there are some exceptions. Heat is not conducive to cool season annuals or some of the plants better suited to northern climates. You certainly should not plant shade loving woodland plants in the sun. Maybe somewhere in the northeastern United States you could plant say, a hydrangea in full sun with western exposure. Not in my part of Texas. That hydrangea better be in shade from midday on. These exceptions aside, it really doesn’t matter because most plants love heat.
Think about it. Didn’t we invent the edger to keep the grass off of the sidewalk? Of course we did. That same sidewalk on a hot summer day may reach temperatures in excess of 200 degrees. Did we not melt our crayolas or actually fry an egg when we were kids? Sure we did. I can remember kids on my block seeing who could stand barefoot on the asphalt the longest. If heat was a problem for plants then shouldn’t they shrink away from these areas? No sir, you see plants growing through the cracks in asphalt all the time.
One more fact, as we look at our planet we find the most heavily vegetated areas to be near the equator and adjacent tropics. This part of the planet is hot or at least warm all the time. There is no winter in the tropics. There are so many plants in the tropics that I’ve heard it said a good botanist will find a dozen new species………….on the first day! So it is obvious that plants respond favorably to heat as long as adequate moisture is available. And that, my friends is the key,
Perhaps you have heard the rain forests of Africa and South America referred to as the “lungs” of our planet. As the moisture contained in all these plants transpires it creates a perpetual cycle of rain that forms during daytime heating. In fact, the tropical storms that affect our Texas coast actually start out as a puff of moisture from the rain forests of Africa that gets carried out to sea. As this disturbance moves across the Atlantic Ocean it feeds off the warm water, gaining moisture until it becomes a tropical storm or full blown hurricane. The same thing happens in the Pacific from moisture produced in tropical South America.
So heat is not the enemy. It is instead lack of moisture. Humidity, morning dew, fog, and rainfall keep plants hydrated as heat simply speeds up the growth rate. Without adequate moisture, the plant will slow its growth rate and begin to shed older leaves to conserve moisture. As drying continues, the plant will wilt, then finally die. Unfortunately, in the western two thirds of Texas, our hottest part of the year is also typically dry. Low humidity combined with hot southerly winds, few (if any) isolated showers, no morning dew or fog can spell disaster for any new plantings. Even in shady locations. Make no mistake about it.
This is why we recommend native and well adapted plants. Emphasis should be on drought tolerance for the western two thirds of the state. Be aware that true drought tolerance does not kick in until after the plant has become established. I think this may be one reason that some folks have trouble in hot locations. On a hot summer day evaporation rates may surpass the equivalent of ¼” of rain per day. Most people plant in the Spring when the weather is favorable. Then along comes Summer, just when our homeowner is most reluctant to venture outdoors. The rain quits, things begin to dry out, and the inevitable happens.
East side, west side, full sun, or partial shade, we should always keep the dry days of summer in mind. This does not mean you should have to settle for cacti or some other desert flora to take that reflected heat of a south or west wall. Just remember that those plants that catch that reflected heat will dry out faster. If you are using the right kind of plant material then which side of the house you are planting should not matter unless we are talking deep shade. Don’t forget that a shade lover planted in the sun is toast…………..Regardless.
So many people come into the nursery and describe the time of day that their intended spot gets sun. In truth, any time after 10 AM until 7 PM is hot and the Summer sun is intense. Anything beyond four hours of midday sun would be considered full sun in Texas. Most plants will thrive in that sun provided they have adequate moisture. Even a prickly pear will appreciate a bit of help during a serious Texas drought.
I know that far too often those of us in the landscaping business tend to get carried away when proclaiming the ease of growing the plants we know do well in our respective areas. I also realize that some people take everything said as gospel. They want a schedule, easy procedure, and simple instructions. Experienced gardeners know that you must water according to the weather. No schedule can match our roller coaster weather. Watering every day doesn’t work either. The leading cause of plant death is not the heat of summer, or the cold of winter for that matter. It is too much, or too little……………….water!
During the mid 1800’s we saw the first permanent settlements of predominantly European peoples in North Texas. Most of these folks were buffalo hunters, cattle ranchers, or shopkeepers. All were gardeners. Survival was the name of the game. If you were going to raise a family you were going to raise crops and tend animals to feed them. Any excess could be sold or traded for other goods and services but survival of the family unit came first.
THE YARD: If there was a grass lawn to be seen in North Texas, it would be surrounding the courthouse or possibly the local church. Pioneers did not have lawns, they had yards. The terms front yard and backyard are still common today. Most yards were kept by goats and/or chickens, guineas, ducks, or other fowl (hence the name, yard bird). Fences were built using pickets, wire, or dense vegetation (some used prickly pear) to keep these animals in and wild predators out.
Most of our early settlers farmed and ranched from sunup until sundown. The very last thing they needed in their routine was something else to add to the list of chores. Water had to be carried in buckets from the nearest source. Some homesteads had wells or cisterns but many settlers simply relied on creeks, rivers, and natural springs. The idea of watering a lawn would seem ridiculous to these folks.
One of the more interesting customs in yard culture was called the swept yard. Children old enough to walk were taught to gather broomweed and use it to sweep the ground clear of vegetation. Soon the ground would become so compacted that few seeds could germinate. This compacted soil would also shed water rather than absorb it so it would dry quickly after rain. This practice of sweeping yards lasted well into the 1930’s.
Persistent vegetation was kept at bay using the axe, scythe, or double edged tool called a yo-yo ( I’ve also heard it called “idiot stick”).
THE GARDEN: Pioneers grew many of the same varieties of vegetables that we do today. Corn, beans, squash, okra, and black-eyed peas were summer staples with collard greens, turnip, onions, cabbage, and potatoes during the cool season. Oddly enough we find our much loved tomato missing from the pioneer garden. This tasty fruit did not become popular among vegetable gardeners until after the turn of the 20th century. Believe it or not, the fruit of the tomato was at one time believed to be poisonous by our European ancestors even though it had been eaten by Native Americans in South America for thousands of years.
The pioneer garden not only contained vegetables but also included many herbs for spices and medicine. One could not simply go to a druggist or grocer and purchase spices or medicine. Seed saving was extremely important. It was common practice to save the finest ears of corn, the largest melons, squash, and etc. for next year’s garden. Seeds, bulbs, and roots of favored herbs were coveted by early settlers. These were passed down through generations and shared with neighbors.
These are just a few examples of some of the vegetables, spices, and medicinal plants used by early settlers that are rarely seen in modern vegetable gardens.
Dandelion ( taraxacum officianale) Brought by European settlers. Considered one of the most nutritious plants in the world. Wine was brewed from the flowers. All parts of the plant are edible.
Amaranth (amaranthus tricolor), (amaranthus cruentus) Eaten raw or cooked. Amaranth tea was used against dysentery. Seeds ground and used as flour.
Parsnip (pastinaca sativa) Root crop. Member of the carrot family.
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) Treats high fever and nervousness. Insect repellant.
Horehound (marrubium vulgare) Popular candy of those days. Flavoring.
Mexican mint marigold (tagetes lucida) This is the yellow marigold your grandma told you would repel insects. The modern day bedding plant called marigold actually attracts insects (spider mites in particular). Mexican mint marigold produces licorice flavoring.
Flax (linum perenne) Stems produced fiber for linens. Seed is the source of lindseed oil.
Mullien (verbascum thaspus) Dye, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, astringent, candle wicks, padding, toilet paper, relief from coughs and lung ailments. A very useful plant.
These and many other useful native and imported plants have all but been forgotten by modern gardeners. However they all can still be found in the wild, especially near old homesteads. Our European ancestors did utilize quite a few native plants. Pecans, grapes and wild plums are among the more obvious. Apparently the more refined palette caused our European settlers to reject many of the wild foods that were abundant and on which the Native Americans had subsisted for thousands of years. In short, nearly every plant found in the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers has been used as food, fuel, fiber, or medicine. Here are just a few that were used by Indian and white folks as well.
Agarita (berberis trifoliata) Called “false holly” by pioneers. This evergreen shrub produces sweet red berries that were used in jams or jellies (often referred to as “agarita butter”).
Western Soapberry (sapindus drummondii) Erroneously called “Chinaberry” or “China tree,” by both modern day locals and early settlers. Western soapberry was used in making soap. The seed were popular as buttons. The berries were also used to stun fish.
Rusty Blackhaw (viburnum rufidulum) Large shrub or small tree produces sweet berries that change color from pink, to purple, to black at respective stages of ripeness. The word “haw” meant berry in days gone by.
Wax Myrtle (myrica cerifera) Found mainly in Eastern and Southern Texas, the blue berries of this shrub were a source of wax. The leaves as well as berries were known to repel insects. ”Myrtle” is another archaic term that referred to a large shrub or bush.
Elderberry (sambucus nigra) Elderberries were highly prized by early settlers for wine, jelly, and eating fresh. Lately we have seen elderberry juice making a comeback as a health tonic. Oddly enough, the entire plant is poisonous as are the unripe berries. Dried leaves were used to repel insects.
ORNAMENTALS: Life was not all hard work and drudgery for our early settlers. In fact much was written about the natural beauty of the native landscape in various diaries and history books, beginning with 15th century Spanish explorers. God certainly favored Texas when he was passing out the color. Since our pioneers were expert gardeners it was an easy task to collect seed or dig some roots to brighten up the homestead.
We also find that as more and more Europeans moved into North Texas there were more of their favorite plants brought from the old country and “back East.” Some of these survived well and still can be seen marking the spot where a cabin or sod house once stood. Roses, bearded iris, gladiolus, wisteria, forsythia, and flowering quince are a few of the popular varieties that have withstood the test of time and Texas weather.