Toronto Star column – published January 31, 2015
Important News from the World of Horticulture
“Knowledge is a comfortable and necessary retreat and shelter for us in advanced age and if we do not plant it while young, it will give us no shade when we grow old.”
Lord Chesterfield, [1694-1773]
I have been saving up the most amazing information for you. As we approach the new gardening season it is important to fuel your mind with ideas and facts that will help you enjoy the best garden ever. Here we go:
You thought they were weeds.
There is a collection of over 500 different dandelion species at the University of Newcastle in the UK. Most were donated to the grateful institution by John Richards, a serious collector. I wonder if he received a tax receipt…
According to The Garden magazine, the official publication of the Royal Horticultural Society, Taraxacum officinale (‘dandelion’ to you and me) is technically the species name that refers solely to the rare Scandinavian plant named by 16th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus.
Taraxacum spp. is more likely to be one of hundreds of similar species that invaded North America (including your back yard) when the Europeans brought the seeds over about 300 years ago. They considered the dried and ground up root of the dandelion a suitable substitute for coffee and there was not a lot of that growing in the wilds of Upper Canada at the time.
Just when you thought there was only one dandelion species, the report suggests that there are likely several types growing in your yard. Two new species were found this past year during a study conducted by the National Museum of Wales.
It seems that there is research money out there for all kinds of things.
The upside of global warming.
A Cornell University study in New York came to a rather interesting conclusion with a recent experiment. New growth on urban trees was measured and the results were surprising. Some grew up to eight times faster due to the ‘urban heat island’ effect. Researchers planted red oak trees in New York City’s Central Park and places further upstate to measure the urban influence on the biology of the trees. Their dramatic results were not just in the overall growth, but the amount of foliage and carbon and nitrogen captured.
This only adds to the increasing amount of evidence that says we need to get to work at doubling our urban tree canopy in Toronto. Take note City Council and Mayor Tory.
Plants signal insect attacks through their roots.
Have you ever been digging in the garden and found a labyrinth of finely textured webs knit into the root zone of your plants? That is a very good sign. The webs are evidence of mycorrhiza activity, the greatest enablers of plant health.
Mycorrhiza is a fungus that grows extensively through the soil, forming a network, connecting underground plant life including plant roots. Imagine the central depot of all of the wires that Bell uses to connect our telephones in the city and you get the idea.
Scientists have been aware of mycorrhiza for years but recent evidence has shown that plants are able to send signals of insect attack to one another via the mycorrhiza network. Many plants have built-in defence mechanisms that protect them from damaging insects. Some produce a toxin in their leaves that deters the bugs.
Nutrients are funnelled up the network to the roots of plants where they are shared between plants of similar genetics. This brings new importance to the practice of companion planting in your garden, where two plants of the same species can benefit each other by sharing defence signals and nutrients via the mycorrhizal network.
It’s like a potluck dinner for plants. They share food and gossip at the same sitting.
If you are happy and you know it.
According to the U.K’s Gardeners’ World magazine, 80 percent of gardeners reported being happy and satisfied with their lives, verses 67 percent of non-gardeners. This finding has far-reaching effects on other aspects of your health as well. Having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack and sudden cardiac death.
Feeling blue? Repot your African violets.
Feed the world.
Humans produce enough food to feed the world’s population and then some. Trouble is, those of us with access to fresh food waste about a pound of it per day. According to Dr. Mercola, an advocate for AmpleHarvest.org, the answer to world hunger is to get food producers to provide excess ‘inventory’ to food pantries and ‘soup kitchens’.
At a local level, home gardeners can help out by taking their excess fruits and vegetables to their local food bank. Go to www.compost.org and click on Plant a Row Grow a Row.
Tree of 40 Fruit
For many generations we have grafted the small branch of one tree onto another. Many of the fruit trees that were originally transported here over the ocean from Europe arrived not as trees complete with a root system but as small wood cuttings from the mother plant. They were then grafted onto native species here, where they often thrived on their winter hardy root stock.
Sam Van Aken is an American artist who has taken tree grafting to a whole new level. Each Tree of 40 Fruit is a single fruit tree that grows over 40 different types of stone fruit including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries (all members of the prunus family). He creates living sculptures of the trees through grafting. The trees bloom in spring, often in a vivid burst of varying shades of white, pink and red and produce a multitude of different fruit come summer.
As Van Aken explains on his website, “The number 40 symbolizes the infinite, a bounty that is beyond calculation. Like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, these trees are a potential; they are the beginning of a narrative that transforms the site they are located in. The far-reaching implications of these sculptures include issues of genetic engineering, biodiversity versus food monoculture, and, ultimately, the symbiosis of humankind’s relation to nature.”
You can learn more and get directions to the many locations of the Tree of 40 Fruit project at www.treeof40fruit.com
Landscaping reduces crime
My friends at the horticultural trades association, Landscape Ontario, reminded me in a recent news release that, “Landscaped green spaces are not just limited to the environment.” According to research gathered by the not-for-profit organisation, green spaces can improve children’s self-esteem, lower crime rates, improve moods, encourage social interaction, and even reduce road rage.
A 30-year study conducted by researchers at Morton Arboretum revealed when landscaping projects are promoted in communities, neighbourhoods, housing projects and prisons, self esteem increases and vandalism decreases.
Additionally, green spaces can boost children’s intellectual resources and may enable them to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life’s stresses.
As you make plans for your own garden this winter I urge you to reflect on all of the above. Who knows, perhaps in some small way the experience of gardening will take on a deeper meaning for you in 2015.
And by the way, only 41 more sleeps till the first day of Canada Blooms. The festival can be a life transforming experience. Mark it on your calendar: March 13 to 22nd, Direct Energy Centre.