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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment