Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Beet Germination

Note the hole. Note the position of the hole.
At first I wasn’t sure what was happening to my beet seeds. After planting and planting again I had only a handful of seedlings to show for it. Were the seeds carried away by ants? Ruined by humidity? Eaten by rodents? But then mouse-sized holes with no evident bottoms opened up, coincidentally, in my beet bed. A more obvious clue was the chewed open ‘Merlin’ beet seed package in the plastic box with the cracked top. That together with the empty seed shells that littered the box’s bottom and the ground around the scene, plus the scattered mouse droppings, clinched it. Sure enough, according to A. Phillip Draycott’s Sugar Beet, “Using its sense of smell, the field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) is able to detect the exact location of ungerminated beet seeds at a depth of at least 3 cm. shortly after they have been sown.” How very clever of them.

Beet seeds are encased in a hard shell. Mice take the seeds, and leave the shell.

Compared to mice, we are woefully deficient in the olfactory department. Mice have approximately 1,300 olfactory receptor genes, of which some 1,100 are functional, whereas we have only about 350 functional genes out of 1000.  (Shepherd, 2004)

But wait. It turns out that, even if 80% of its apparatus is removed, a mouse is still an accurate smeller. Our 350 genes should be at least equal to a mouse at 20% sniffing capacity. But smell, it appears, is not as cut-and-dried as the gene count makes it appear; it is tied to evolution. We (having lifted our noses up from the dirt … mostly) are attuned to the aromas of garlic roasted in butter, bread baking, and apple pies crusting with cinnamony lusciousness. A mouse’s specialty is, apparently, beet seeds.

As regular readers may remember, I have a trio of young cats that are being raised, ostensibly, to patrol the area. They are named, appropriately, after hurricanes: Sandy, Irene, and Ivan. But, as readers may also recall, these lovelies would be more likely to compound the problem than solve it if I were to allow them to blow through greenhouse number 2 (where I grow, among other things, delicate microgreens) which I will not, at least until they settle down into a hunting, sleeping, pooping outdoors routine rather than the one they practice now: racing after each other at top speed, taking naps in my tatsoi, and ignoring my attempts to “litter train” them by inserting their cat turds anywhere they please.

Hurricane Irene
By the way, a cat's olfactory membrane, at about 14 sq. cm., is about four times the size of ours, so they have us beat in the smell sense as well. For comparison, the human olfactory membrane is a mere 4 sq. cm. But a mouse will smell a cat long before a cat will smell a mouse. (A sudden inspiration has just occurred to me, but more on that later)

Ever since I cracked the case of the pilfered seeds, I have refrained from planting beets in the catless greenhouse. But, complicating the problem is an ancillary predicament: carrots are unsuitable for that greenhouse also, due to the nasturtiums (you remember, the nasturtiums that harbor the whiteflies?), so carrots get priority in the catted space. Therefore, I am determined to find a way to get beet seeds to survive the mice until they germinate.

The long and the short of it is, I planted beets today—my third try since the number of daylight hours topped the magic 10. I planted 3 rows of 2 varieties of beet. On top of the bed I placed 5 mousetraps of 2 types. One is a standard, wooden, snap your finger off type, the other a newfangled white-shark-jaws-of-death plastic affair. Consider it a mousetrap trial, for the mice will surely rush to the scene. There is no doubt in my mind that they go to sleep after a hard night of plundering my beds dreaming of the next rich cache of beet seeds that I will so kindly provide for them. I can hardly wait until tomorrow to see if I, with my deficient sense of smell and my hard-hearted gardener’s sensibility, have prevailed in game of cat, mouse, and beet. Will they prefer the smell of cheddar, or the alluring perfume of beet seed? Soon, I will know.

And if my bed still comes up empty, I have a clever back up plan that might work. Would a mouse be deceived by its own olfactory prowess if I were to strategically transplant clumps lifted from a lightly used litter box?

It's a little scary to find oneself thinking like a mouse. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Invasive Plants: Accepting Globalization

Call me irresponsible. When I heard about yet another “Invasive Plants in the Landscape” conference, my first thought was “How depressing.”

And it’s not that I don’t care that our fields and forests are being ravaged by garlic mustard and knapweed, I tried to explain to my friends the other evening at dinner. But, one insisted, we make the natural world a better place by reclaiming patches in backyards all over the region. True. But … Let me see if I can do a better job.
Garlic mustard, by the way, is edible!

I am, in fact, a tackle-any-job kind of girl. For years I’ve pulled garlic mustard and greater celandine at the optimum time, and hacked English ivy from tree trunks before it had a chance to become a bearer of berries. I’ve refrained from planting burning bush even though its brilliant and long-lasting color is unmatched by more responsible choices. I still do these things in my own garden, because I know what will happen if I don’t. For years I have cared, fretted, and educated myself about the seed-spreading cycles and eco-niches of culprits like stilt grass and purple loosestrife. But the realization that has crept over me and overtaken my zeal is this: I could pull invasive plants from roadsides gone wild every Saturday all year long, and they would proliferate as soon as I took a break. Inevitably, we fall behind. As Emma Marris put it in her book, Rambunctious Garden, "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem." Creating a native landscape can be seen as a way that we busy ourselves to further an impossible goal: putting the natural world to rights.

As we toil away, making little patches better places for pollinators and symbiotic organisms, corn fields and deciduous forests alike continue to be transformed into commercial and industrial districts by those who think of soil as something to be moved out of the way so concrete can be poured. We must “spur the economy;” we must “speed up economic growth,” we are told daily by politicians. Growth has saved us in the past. Growth will make us happy. The U.S. GDP rose a remarkable 3.4% a year for 100 years—up until 1980. Thus, the American Dream. All we need to do is produce more—more natural gas, more refined oil, more corn—and we will be saved again (with no new taxes!). 

Polllinators love native plants, and foxglove, too.
It’s time we wrap our heads around an ecological truth: perpetual growth is impossible. When the deer populations exceed the carrying capacity of the land, we moan about the effect on forest regeneration. When mosquitoes flourish we spray the infestation. When garlic mustard rosettes stretch into flowering stalks, and spit out their copious seeds, we fund studies that determine the survival percentages of ginseng. And yet, we exclude our own species from the rules that the science of ecology has established, and on those infrequent occasions when we act to limit our impacts on other species, it is with the stipulation that economic growth will continue unimpeded. Always and forever.

Despite all good intentions of leading a meaningful and intentional life, we are spending increasing amounts of time in climate-controlled boxes, and packing them with more and “better” stuff. We work and work, for if we take a break, the bills will proliferate. We will fall behind. We spend less and less time in nature, and more on electronic devices. We (and I include myself in this) are hopelessly goal-oriented—which seems, more and more as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, a path to inevitable dissatisfaction. 

There is one benefit to pulling garlic mustard, so long as we have no illusions that we can permanently repair the so-called damage, and that is that it gets us outside. Every time a rosette is yanked out by the roots, someone has to stoop, and observe the forest floor. It’s likely that the puller may look up, and watch the way the wispy clouds move across the blue sky, and listen to the singing of the robin or the popping of peppergrass seedpods, and think, I am doing something good for the environment, and I feel good. But the truth is, the best thing that is being done for the environment is that people are being given a reason to leave their climate-controlled boxes, a reason to step outside, a reason to care. 

Face it: Life is messy. Globalization is a done deal. We are going to have to learn, somehow, to love our neighbors. The wild things will work it out for themselves with little or no help from us, thank-you-very-much. They’ll have to. 

And there are, I believe, better ways to spend Saturday mornings than acting as judge and executioner of aliens that have crept into our country, our wild spaces—better for the earth and better for us. I would rather see people thrill to the sight of thousands of butterflies sipping nectar from purple loosestrife than look at the scene with consternation and a sense of duty. I would rather see them step into the whirl and become enveloped by the buzzing of bees, notice the astonishing diversity that is to be found on a single plant. If people, young and old, were to spend time joyfully learning the world outside their boxes and truly feeling the life in the soil that lies beneath the soles of their shoes, they might experience a kinship with the other organisms that we share our space with. Maybe they will see that a little goal-free time offers rewards that can’t be gained from the accumulation of stuff. Maybe they will grow up to be politicians. Maybe they will understand that never-ending economic growth is not the path to happiness—or even a desirable thing.  

Did you know Japanese hops causes dermatitis when you pull it?
So yes, I’m done wringing my hands over the presence of Japanese hops and European garlic mustard in the wilds—and it’s not because I don’t care that natives are losing their niches. I care a lot. But my American Dream has taken on a different perspective. I believe that if we can succeed in getting Inside People out, into nature, we might, as a culture, stand a chance of remembering that More (to paraphrase Bill McKibben) is not what we need. We need to value the joy that comes from getting to know the non-human world. Some things are beyond our control. Others, starting with our relationship with nature in this period of our species’ “progress,” are fixable.