Category Archives: Joe

Soil health and mental health

by Joseph Murray
June 24, 2019
Originally submitted to the Warm Springs Valley Garden Club Newsletter

Have you ever found yourself sitting in your garden, trowel in hand, gazing at nothing in particular, completely at peace with the world? Happens to me all of the time. I’m brought back to the “real world” when Anne rings the cottage porch bell signaling tea time or when a visitor rolls-up the driveway. I find it difficult to articulate the state of relaxation I experience in the garden during these special moments of attunement with nature. When I’m away working in a large urban environment, I find that no amount of meditation or Tai Chi provides the mental rejuvenation I achieve in our garden. I’m thankful for these peaceful moments and routinely set aside time to garden in a way that invites this union with nature.

Why do you garden? To produce flowers and vegetables? Based upon the time, resources, and effort you’re willing to expend, your garden probably reflects an agreement between you and nature to provide these material goods. I suspect you also derive enjoyment from your gardening exploits. Let’s bring this immaterial harvest (enjoyment) from the garden to your attention. If you knew there was a connection between gardening and improved mental health, would you garden differently? If your garden was part “medicine cabinet” and part “meditation studio,” would you adjust your preconception of a “proper” garden’s appearance?

Some beds that have been “co-created” with nature may appear chaotic but end up being sustainable and resilient throughout the growing season. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

Feeling good in nature

Since science started exploring possible connections between human health and time spent in nature, there’s been a growing body of evidence that interacting with nature – “green space” in urban areas – is good for your mental health. The “dosage” of nature required to realize better psychological health may be as little as 2 hours a week, regardless of an individual’s age, sex, income, place of residence, or existing health conditions. A study of over 900,000 people found children exposed to green spaces were at lower risk to develop psychiatric disorders later in life. Sadly, those encountering the lowest amounts of green space during childhood were up to 55% more at risk to experience a mental illness than those encountering the highest amount of green space. The association remained even after the researchers adjusted for influencing variables like urbanization, socioeconomic factors, parental history of mental illness, and parental age.

Although researchers involved in this study found a strong correlation between green space and mental health, they admit the study doesn’t offer a causative mechanism(s). They speculated potential involvement of factors such as psychological restoration, opportunities for exercise, improvement of social coherence, decrease in noise and air pollution affecting cognition and brain development, and improvement in immune functioning may contribute to improved mental health. I’m particularly intrigued by the connection between immune function and mental health. New studies are confirming that stress can initiate inflammation which in turn contributes to a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

Anne relaxing in a sunny spot and giving herself permission to be still. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

Feeling good in the garden

In addition to time spent in green spaces, a gardener may benefit from another mental health boost through exposure to gardening in healthy soil. A meta-analysis of 22 published case studies demonstrated the restorative powers of gardening in reducing stress, anger, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

A particular soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, is well documented as positively influencing the moods and immune systems of gardeners encountering it during gardening activities. When macrophages, special white blood cells in the gardener’s immune system, consume M. vaccae, a specific bacterial fatty acid is released that reduces inflammation and thus lessens the risk stress-related psychiatric disorders. Thank you, Mother Nature, for providing us with a stress vaccine that we may administer to ourselves… by gardening!

Medicinal plants, like soil, can produce mood altering compounds. Joe is planting a female Cannabis plant that will later be harvested for CBD. Picture by A. Bryan (June 24, 2019)

If the soil microbes aren’t happy… nobody’s happy

Gardeners have long appreciated the importance of healthy soil in creating sustainable and resilient gardens. Healthy soil, regardless how it is defined, is dependent upon soil biodiversity. The best way to improve soil health is to promote abundant and diverse populations of soil microorganisms. To promote soil life, consider eliminating practices and products that are harmful to living soil. Research shows that practices using organic growing systems experienced 32% to 84% greater microbial populations compared to “conventional” systems employing pesticides, routine applications of synthetic fertilizers, frequent tilling, and reduced amounts of organic matter. After all, nature has relegated the responsibility of plant nutrition to the life in soil, primarily to microorganisms like bacteria. Why bypass this natural system and use synthetic fertilizers which may upset the complex soil food web that regulates the very soil bacteria we are attempting to nurture? If you perceive the need to do something, compost. Feed the soil, not the plant.

I believe another reason why I find it difficult to find mental rejuvenation in urban environments is the absence of these mood-elevating bacteria. Although my inner-nature bends my steps to some urban areas (like a corporate office park) that appear to have vegetation, what I often find is a monoculture of Japanese hollies and ornamental pears growing out of a lifeless soil covered with colored mulch. The landscape architect’s design and horticulture practices responsible for this artificial landscape prevents nature from establishing the necessary biodiversity of plants above-ground to support biodiversity of microbes below-ground. Maybe it’s fanciful thinking, but it just feels to me that the absence of biodiversity contributes to my sense of alienation when walking in these artificial environments.

We grow a variety of hops… but not for the mind-numbing effects that follow the consumption of several hoppy beers. Our hops are used as an aid for sleep and digestion. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

It’s good to get dirty

The hygiene hypothesis posits that children raised in a relatively sterile environment develop impaired immune systems and higher rates of allergies and asthma. This hypothesis is being expanded to include mental health development, as well. Researchers have observed that children raised in rural environments, with exposure to beneficial microbes (in dust from soil) experience more robust stress-related immune systems which typically lower the risk of mental illness compared to children raised in more urban environments. Factors contributing to hygienic environments and reduced exposure to beneficial bacteria include modern sanitary measures, antibiotic overuse, dietary changes, and little access for playing in gardens.

What’s in your garden’s soil?
Now that you are aware of connections between gardening and improved mental health, will you garden differently? Like me, perhaps you’ll schedule idle time to simple “be” in your garden and know that nature is working to rejuvenate your mental health. Perhaps you will adjust your preconceived ideas of a garden needing to be neat, tidy, and under-control. Co-creating with nature means there will be some surprises and a tendency to a state that’s not as “neat and tidy,” and certainly not under-control. That’s okay. You’re moving into a new kind of balance with nature with the goal of improving both your soil’s health and your mental health. Leave a little wildness in your garden. Nature may know what’s in your mental health’s best interest. That surprise emergence of a wildflower or, dare I say it – weed, may be a part of mother nature’s prescription to support microscopic pharmacists in your soil to aid in your mental health rejuvenation.

Who knew growing your medicine could be so enjoyable!

After spending some time in your garden and calming your mind, consider bringing a small chair or blanket and treat yourself to a short meditation. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

References and Resources

White, M. (2019) Spending two hours a week in nature is linked to better health and well-being. 2019. The Conversation. June 13, 2019. Webpage last accessed June 20, 2019.
https://theconversation.com/spending-two-hours-a-week-in-nature-is-linked-to-better-health-and-well-being-118653

Kristine Engemann, Carsten Bøcker Pedersen, Lars Arge, Constantinos Tsirogiannis, Preben Bo Mortensen, Jens-Christian Svenning. (2019) Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 116 (11) 5188-5193; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807504116
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331353080_Residential_green_space_in_childhood_is_associated_with_lower_risk_of_psychiatric_disorders_from_adolescence_into_adulthood

Lori M, Symnaczik S, Mäder P, De Deyn G, Gattinger A. (2017) Organic farming enhances soil microbial abundance and activity—A meta-analysis and meta-regression. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0180442. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180442

University of Colorado at Boulder. (2019, May 29). Healthy, stress-busting fat found hidden in dirt. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 20, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190529094003.htm

Schiffman, Richard (2017). Why It’s Time to Stop Punishing Our Soils with Fertilizers. Interview with Rick Haney (May 3, 2017). Yale Environment 360.
https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-its-time-to-stop-punishing-our-soils-with-fertilizers-and-chemicals

Pollinator Proclamation comments to county board of supervisors

My notes for addressing the Bath County Board of Supervisors Meeting – June 11, 2019 concerning the Pollinator Proclamation

Thank you, Chairman Byrd, for being attentive to this proposed Pollinator Proclamation.  (Addressing the board) I emailed him my letter concerning the opportunity on May 22, 2:36 pm. He responded at 4:42 pm that the Proclamation would be taken up at tonight’s meeting. And he responded on an iPad, no less. I’m grateful for the quick acknowledgement and swift action. Yet another reason I love living in Bath County. 

I’m speaking this evening for the pollinators. Although they live in your districts, they don’t vote… I confirmed that by checking with the county’s voter registrar Charles Garratt (who happened to be in attendance!). And although they contribute mightily to the economic viability of our county, they don’t pay taxes. So it’s difficult for the pollinators to access public government to have their concerns heard. 

They largely go unnoticed. Why? Because their numbers are declining. Need evidence? Take your vehicle’s windshield for example. Do you recall what your windshield looked like 20 years ago? 40 years ago? True, it’s not fun cleaning dead insects from your windshield, but the absence of insects on your windshield should concern you. With each trip in your vehicle you’re performing a simple qualitative survey and the results are not good. Your insect-free windshield illustrates an important point, insect populations are declining. 

And this includes insects that support pollination. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of pollinators to ensuring genetic diversity for world food production. Their loss would be an ecological Armageddon. 

Adopting a Pollinator Proclamation will, in my opinion, be the first step. Such a proclamation will increase awareness and provide momentum in our community. I think we can count on our garden clubs (our county being fortunate to have two garden clubs), birding groups, area master gardeners and master naturalists to step-up and continue to increase awareness with articles in the newspaper and public talks at the library. We can also seek advice from experts in the area, starting with the US Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program to name a few. 

Locally, we can do things to promote habitat for pollinators like mow less and decrease use of pesticides. 

As I said earlier, the pollinators don’t have a way to access county government, nor to write articles and give presentations. That duty falls to us. And it’s a duty we owe to future generations. 

All I am saying is ‘give bees a chance.’  

Good news! The proclamation was the first item on the agenda and it passed!

The Role Native trees play in supporting sustainable and resilient landscape ecosystems (electronic “handout”)

Joe Murray
7 Acre Wood Farm, Burnsville, VA
7acrewoodfarm.com     lichenseeker@gmail.com

F
June 1, 2019
Nurturing Native Plants Symposium, Natural Bridge, VA

The following resources were mentioned in my presentation. Let them help you implement Doug Tallamy’s plan for transforming your landscape. 

  • Read Doug’s book, especially Chapters 11 and 12.
    • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. (2009) Douglas Tallamy. Timber Press Inc. 

Understanding the “big” picture of how trees sort themselves out into a forest. 

  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World. (2016) By Peter Wohlleben 

Identify, research and appreciate your landscape’s tree diversity

  • Start an inventory of plants on your property. My favorite tree identification book:
    • A Field Guide to Eastern Trees. Peterson Field Guides. G.A. Petrides & Janet Wehr. Houghton Mifflin. 
  • Research and appreciate. Get to know the backstory of the trees around your home. 
    • A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. (1977) D.C. Peattie. Houghton Mifflin. 

Tree Selection and building guilds

Feed the soil, not the plants

  • Learn the importance of microbes in the soil and lessons they can teach us about the microbes in our guts. 
    • The Hidden Half of Nature. David Montgomery & Anne Bikle
  • An explanation of the awesome soil food web and ways you can support microbial diversity.
    • Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. (2010; Revised Edition).  By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
    • Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility. M. Phillips. 
  • I do not recommend buying compost… certainly not from a box store. You won’t know if it contains sewage sludge (now called biosolids).
    • Science For Sale: How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits. 2014. D.L. Lewis. Skyhorse Publishing. Explains the problems with biosolids. 
  • Make your own compost. It’s easy! I just use leaves (collected in the fall) and grass clippings.
    • The Rodale Book of Composting, Newly Revised and Updated: Simple Methods to Improve Your Soil, Recycle Waste, Grow Healthier Plants, and Create an Earth-Friendly Garden(Rodale Classics). 2018. G. Gershuny & D.L. Martin. Rodale Books. 

May the forest be with you

Other online resources:

A plea for a pollinator proclamation

Joe Murray

Note: The following is a letter submitted to the Chairperson of the Bath County Board of Supervisors and our local newspaper, The Recorder.

May 22, 2019

Richard B. Byrd, Chair
Bath County Board of Supervisors
P.O. Box 381, 
Hot Springs, VA 24445 

An open letter to the Board of Supervisors and citizens of Bath County

Is it possible to find common ground on economic and environmental issues during these politically polarizing times? The answer is, “Yes!” Even those people firmly entrenched in their political party’s ideology recognize the importance of pollinators to their community’s (and the nation’s) economic and environmental well-being. 

Sadly, the pollinators are in trouble and in need of recognition and support. In addition to the often recognized bumble bee, the diverse cadre of animals performing pollination include birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects. Homeowners may help pollinators by leaving a little “wildness” in their landscapes as habitat for not only pollinators but for other beneficial organisms, including predators to help control pests. Want more information to help pollinators? Visit www.pollinator.org/pollinator-week

Pollinators play an important role in agriculture (Virginia’s largest private industry) with an economic impact of $70 billion. One out of every three bites of food you eat results from pollinators. 

The beautiful vegetation of Bath County owes much to the work of pollinators. The role pollinators perform in agriculture, gardens and residential landscapes may be observed and understood with a modicum of effort. Pollinators also play critical roles in supporting forests, meadows, and wetlands. In short, the influence of pollinators reaches into all corners of our county and impacts hunting, fishing, and tourism.  

Politically, the adoption of a pollinator proclamation presents a win-win situation. Many other states and federal agencies have made pollinator proclamations an annual event to increase the public’s awareness of this important issue. I encourage the Board of Supervisors to seize this initiative and to formally recognize the contribution of pollinators with a Proclamation that June 17-23 (2019) be recognized as Bath County Pollinator Week. Enclosed you’ll find a copy of Virginia’s proclamation. 

Respectfully, 

Joseph Murray,
7 Acre Wood Farm
Burnsville, VA

Chop Drop & Yank

Removing unwanted woody plants with the “chop-drop-yank” approach

by Joe Murray

(Note: This post was originally submitted as an article to the Warm Springs Garden Club newsletter – May 2019)

When Anne and I encounter a woody plant that doesn’t “fit” in our landscape, we employ our own unique “chop-drop-yank” approach to remove the botanical interloper. Our most common unwanted woody plants are multiflora rose, autumn olive, Japanese barberry, oriental bittersweet, and assorted briars. We don’t fancy using herbicides (or any products ending in “-cide”) or tractors pulling up plants. We try to move gently on the land to have minimal impact on soil and its interconnections with the “living” landscape.

Figure 1. Our tools for removing woody plants. Back row, from left to right, Extractigator and Extractigator Junior. Front row, from left to right, Fiskars lopper, Corona hand pruners, and Fiskars shears.

Anne initiates the process with her shears and loppers, “chopping and dropping” the shoot systems of unwanted woody plants (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Anne chopping and dropping.

The chopping and dropping of woody plants’ shoot systems improves our efficiency by saving time – no need to drag brush to a cart for disposal on a burn pile! Additionally, the cut pieces cover the soil as a rough-and-ready mulch until its decomposition yields organic matter and returns nutrients to the soil. Anne whittles away at the shoot system, leaving approximately 18” of stem above ground which I use later when I follow behind – pulling up the root system of the unwanted woody vegetation with the aid of an extraction device. Using the age-old principle of leverage (Figures 3-5), I place the jaws of the Extractigator on the base of the woody stem, gradually pull back the handle, and watch with satisfaction as the plant’s root system rises out of the ground. I then grasp the upper portion of the stem (that Anne thoughtfully left) and gently tug the remainder of the plant from its terrestrial realm.

Tapping the root several times on the ground knocks off any soil before tossing the extracted root system to the forest floor. There, it starts the slow and gradual process of decomposition along with its chopped bits and pieces of stems. If the plant is too big for the Extractigator, we simply chop-and-drop for two or three consecutive years until the root system has depleted all of its stored energy and presents a dead tombstone-like stump that will eventually decompose.

Figure 6. Extracted plants left to right multiflora rose, japanese barberry, and autumn olive

An internet search reveals many different kinds of plant-pulling tools. Our preference, the Extractigator© employs the leverage produced by our weight (not our strength) leaning on the fulcrum to lift the plant’s roots out of the ground. We purchased two sizes: the “Classic” jaw size is capable of grasping stems up to 2 inches in diameter, while the “Junior” jaw size grasps stems with diameters up to 1.5 inches. The smaller junior model weighs approximately 3 pounds less, much appreciated when spending an afternoon hiking through the woods, popping-up plants. The company also makes other sizes for substantially larger stems, as well as a diminutive version for stems less than one-half inch. Sadly, at this time there are no distributors in Virginia. We ordered our Extractigators directly from the manufacturer in Canada and found the purchase and shipping to be straight forward.

We like our approach to managing unwanted woody plants. We feel this approach gives us the opportunity to interact more closely with all of nature’s interconnections in a particular place on our landscape. In addition to identifying and working on the unwanted plants, we’re noticing (and celebrating) the diversity of other plants, mosses, lichen, rocks and critters that often go unnoticed. We no longer fret about unwanted plants on our property because we know that within two or three years we will have worked our way through all our land. When we return to an area that we addressed several years back, we rejoice (Anne actually dances!) seeing the land hasn’t returned to its unruly, pre-managed state. Rather, these managed areas behave with a different intention. We’ve noticed the native vegetation flexing more muscle and holding its ground, making it even easier on our next visit to chop-drop-yank the few holdout unwanted woody plants that dared return.

If you would like to learn more, visit the company’s website www.extractigator.com
They can also be reach via email at info@extractigator.com or phone at 1-855-743-0353.

Mind the elders overhead, for they are the essence of wildness

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”  John Muir

In late winter, expectant gardeners look to the canopy of their trees for signs of spring. At first glance, they may see only an unremarkable collection of bare branches. Closer examination reveals a miniature forest of lichens growing on branches and the trunks of their trees. Once aware of the presence of lichens, gardeners may exhibit a wide range of responses, from disinterest to active fear. Unfamiliar with lichens, and assuming there’s a problem, they’ll panic and call in landscape “experts” (often equally unfamiliar with lichens) whose recommendations and actions can be harmful to lichens. [Or worse, the author is aware of a tree company in Long Island, NY, that actually offers a service to scrub lichens from trees with wire brushes and disinfectants!] This article will briefly describe lichens and their role in nature, in an attempt to clear up misconceptions and allow readers to look upon these wee green life-forms with appreciation and wonder.  

What are lichens?

An individual lichen is not a single organism, but a symbiotic partnership of up to three different organisms: a mycobiont fungi with a photobiont of cyanobacteria (type of photosynthetic bacteria, earth’s oldest known life form) and/or algae. For a sweet analogy, think of the body of a lichen as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The chocolate layers represent the mycobiont (fungus) enclosing the creamy peanut butter filling, the photobiont (cyanobacteria and/or algae). 

Cross-section depiction of a the body (thallus) of lichen. Fungal hyphal strands weave a protective web above and below the photosynthetic organisms. Drawing by J. Murray.

On the spectrum of symbiotic relationships, lichen’s partnership of mycobiont and photobiont(s) falls somewhere between parasitism (one partner benefits while the other is harmed) and mutualism (both partners benefit). The mycobiont may receive up to 90% of the sugars produced, leaving just 10% for the photobiont. This lopsided partnership more closely resembles controlled parasitism. 

Depending upon the particular mycobiont, lichen may assume one of three common forms: crustose, very small bodies appearing to have been spray painted onto a surface (substrate); foliose, a small leaf-like structure pressed against the substrate; or fruticose, thallus is rolled-up into a three-dimensional form. 

Three forms of lichen growing on an exposed rock in the Highlands of Scotland: crustose (white and black), foliose (orange), and fruticose (pale green). Image by J. Murray, Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve

Lichenologists have been perplexed how to classify and determine the evolutionary origins of lichens because a lichen is a partnership between two and three organisms. Although lichens are named with respect to the mycobioint, the fungi in its lichenized form is significantly different in appearance and function than its non-lichenized form. For example, one species of fungus existing in a lichenized form above ground may be named by lichenologists. When this same fungus is in its non-lichenized form below ground, it’s provided a different name by mycologists. Other than the fungi’s form, the only thing that has changed is that above ground it formed a lichen partnership with a photobiont (cyanobacteria and/or algae), while below ground it may have formed a mycorrhizal partnership with a different photobiont, the tree’s roots!

Where do lichens grow?

Up to 30,000 species of lichens grow just about everywhere on Earth – from the top of the tallest mountains to bare rocks in the desert. Although lichens have survived, unprotected, for 15 days in the vacuum of space, they have proven to be very difficult to transplant to different locations and even harder to culture in laboratory settings. Lichen species are very selective upon which surface, or substrate, they’ll grow, though lichens obtain little to no nutrients from their substrate. Lichens are grouped based upon the substrates upon which they grow, the three most common: terricolous (bare soil), saxicolous (rock), and corticolous (tree bark).   

Corticolous lichen species typically sort themselves out in different areas of the tree based upon their desired habitat. Those desirous of light and less moisture are higher in the tree’s canopy while those preferring less light and more moisture, lower on the tree’s trunk. The characteristics of tree bark further influences lichen distribution within a single tree and among tree species.  Lichens are faced with many microhabitats on tree bark, shaped by the bark’s texture, rate of exfoliation, moisture-holding capacity, pH, leachates, exposure to the light, and other factors. [As an aside, the polymorphism of a tree’s bark is more unique than a human fingerprint!]

By now, it should be apparent to the reader, corticolous lichens do not harm trees by their superficial existence on the surface of bark, as lichens obtain the majority of their moisture and mineral nutrients directly from the air by absorption. The presence and health of lichens in an area serve as an indicator of air quality because the absorptive tissues of the lichen are laid bare to the environment.  

When do lichens grow?

Lichen metabolism is dependent upon available moisture. When dormant, lichens appear dull in color and their tissues, dry and brittle. Unlike a plant’s leaf, lichens do not have a waxy cuticle to help store water in tissues nor roots to absorb water from their substrates. When actively photosynthesizing, lichens appear more vibrant in color and feel soft. For our area, the best times to observe lichens actively growing are in the fall, spring, rainy periods in the summer, and warm periods in the winter. 

What do lichens do?

Lichens have played a significant role in shaping Earth’s terrestrial environments. Soon after the appearance of lichens 400 million years ago, they set about the task of soil formation, breaking down rock 25 – 100 times faster than physical and chemical weathering. Terricolous lichens nurture soil by adding organic matter and protecting the soil from erosion, compaction, drying, and temperature extremes. With other photosynthetic organisms, lichens helped influence the atmosphere through photosynthesis (sequestering carbon dioxide and producing oxygen). 

Lichens are intimately linked with other organisms in their ecosystems. Lichens provide food, shelter, nesting material and camouflage for many organisms. Lichens are an important food source for slugs, snails, terrestrial arthropods (mites, springtails, and silverfish), mountain goats, moose, deer, and squirrels, making up to 90% of the winter diet for reindeer and caribou. A recent study into declining populations of migratory birds established a link between declining populations of arthropods and short-sighted forestry practices negatively impacting the establishment of lichen. 

Sensitivity to air pollutants enable lichens to serve as bio-monitors for air quality, an inexpensive alternative to high-tech pollution monitoring equipment used by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service. Lichen samples can also be harvested in areas of concern and submitted to laboratories for identification and analyses of specific air pollutants like metals, PCBs, ozone, fluorides, sulphuric and nitric acids and even radioactivity.

Lichens, like many other organisms, are closely associated with trees. In addition to involvement with other tree “associates,” lichens directly interact with trees. One interaction, in particular, should interest gardeners – the ability of some species of lichens to “fertilize” trees. Lichens with cyanobacteria photobionts, like Lobaria pulmonaria, perform nitrogen-fixation (convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that plants can use). During a rain event, a nutrient-rich solution leaches from the lichen, travels down the trunk, and is absorbed by the tree’s roots. Nitrogen-fixing lichens, like L. pulmonaria, maycontribute up to 50% of the total nitrogen input for old growth trees in conifer forests in the Pacific Northwest. 

Following a rain event, nutrient-rich solution from the leaches of lichen in the crown of the tree traveling down to be absorbed by the tree roots. Image by J. Murray.
Lobaria pulmonaria located at the base of two white oak trees along Muddy Run Road, approximately 7 miles northwest of route 220, in the George Washington National Forest. Image by J. Murray.

Lobaria pulmonaria. Image by J. Murray.

Species like L. pulmonaria are indicators of an old-growth forest. When primarily managed for production, forests are prevented from advancing beyond the earliest stages of succession, thus preventing the establishment of lichen species like Lobaria pulmonaria from developing. [As another aside, I highly recommend the book by Richard Preston, The Wild Trees: A Story of Daring and Passion, in which Lobaria pulmonaria plays an important role!] 

How can I support lichens in my landscape? 

The next time you gaze up to your trees in hope of seeing signs of spring, take a moment to enjoy the lichens. Let their presence remind you of the interconnectedness lichens bring to your landscape ecosystem. Appreciate the “wildness” of lichens, that they can neither be transplanted nor forced to grow. 

Acknowledge their free spirit by allowing wildness to return to your landscape. Avoid practices that exert “control” and tend to remove wildness from your property (pesticides, fertilizers, excessive pruning, large expanses of lawn). Strive to increase your plant diversity on your property. Replace the turf below the tree’s canopy with a simulated forest floor. Leave branches and leaves under the tree to promote a habitat to support the diversity of microorganisms, above and below ground. 

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about lichens. They’ve been slow to give up their secrets because they resist growing under artificial conditions in laboratories. Don’t let their small size fool you! The lichens may be the most undomesticated life form in your landscape. Tigers can be tamed and taught to perform tricks, but not lichens. Irwin Brodo, a legendary lichenologist, said it best, “Lichens are the essence of wildness.” 

Awakening a Residential Landscape’s Individuality

By Joseph Murray

This article was submitted for publication in the 2020 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Now, a farm comes closest to its own essence when it can be conceived of as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity.   Rudolf Steiner

Ask homeowners about their landscapes and more often than not, you’ll hear a mournful tale of plants performing poorly. They myopically focus on specific features of their landscapes and fail to consider how the different “parts” could ever work together. Believing they lack the necessary knowledge to improve their landscapes, many homeowners turn to experts in the traditional landscape management industry to fix perceived problems. Yet the following year little has changed, or worse, the health of their land further degraded and their plants dependent on fertilizers and pesticides. In one year, a homeowner may hire a landscape designer followed by a tree expert, turf expert and a horticulturist or gardener. Experts often operate in their own bubble and fail to appreciate that their actions impact everything in the landscape. The experts and the homeowner may view their actions apart from, rather than a part of, nature. Their voluntary ignorance aside, the fact remains: the parts of the landscape areinterconnected and the landscape itself is connected to the greater community. To use a human analogy, the homeowner’s property resembles a precancerous cell operating independently of neighboring cells. This cellular dysfunction can impair the health of the tissue (neighborhood) and even the greater organ (community) should toxins (pesticide and fertilizer runoff) be released into the circulatory system (community’s watershed).

In response to repeated requests from farmers for Rudolf Steiner to provide guidance on how they could reverse the trend of soil degradation and reduced yields, Steiner gave an eight-part lecture series on agriculture in 1924. These lectures outlined principles to improve soil and plant health; afterwards they became the basis of Biodynamic Agriculture. Horticultural practices used in traditional landscape management have been influenced by the industrial agricultural model and, not surprisingly, produce similar problems on residential landscapes. Just as farms can be transformed by Biodynamic principles, I believe residential landscapes are capable of similar transformations.  An understanding of Steiner’s agriculture lectures deepens one’s relationship with the land, be it a farm, garden, or residential landscape. The principles outlined by Steiner, particularly the concept of a farm individuality, can provide a way forward for homeowners struggling with their landscape’s identity.

Early in his lectures Steiner introduced his concept of a farm as an organism or individuality. Steiner concedes that although it’s unlikely one will ever achieve a farm that’s absolutely self-contained what’s critical is that one develops a holistic perspective in order to recognize the interconnectedness of all the farm’s components. Furthermore, Steiner said that there are non-material properties associated with the flow of energy and substances between the components of the farm that are not apparent to farmers only considering the outer material realm. I’ll attempt to provide my own interpretation of this imperative – homeowners should try to maintain the fertility loop on their properties by composting existing materials growing in the landscape, not bringing in compost produced from another location. In other words, over time, the landscape individuality will be able to detect excesses and deficiencies and make modifications to achieve balance. George Washington Carver, a contemporary of Rudolf Steiner and also a spiritually minded scholar, shared this idea of the farm as a self-contained entity. Although Carver’s primary focus was on helping southern black farmers achieve self-sufficiency, and viewed a reliance on chemical fertilizers counterproductive, his core belief was that to rely on external inputs implied that the farm was in some way deficient, an idea untenable to Carter.  

Steiner’s description of a farm as an individuality can be applied to residential landscapes because both entities are ecosystems – a biological community interacting with its physical environment, a term that didn’t come into existence until 11 years after Steiner delivered his series of agriculture lectures. Believing in the axiom that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Steiner encouraged farmers to hold the holistic perspective when considering how the parts work together synergistically. With a few modifications, the same Biodynamic principles used for the farm can be used for the landscape, the obvious exceptions being practices involving animals (manure and materials for making the preparations). The other  Biodynamic principles can be performed on a residential landscape as they would on a farm: composting with the six compost preparations, use of potentized liquid field sprays, striving for biodiversity, and working with natural rhythms of the earth and cosmos. With this new focus on the landscape individuality, previously perceived weed and pest problems (should they occur) become valuable indicators to help the homeowner make small and slow adjustments to return balance back to the landscape. In some ways, it may be easier to work with a residential landscape than with a farm as an individuality: first, there’s no harvest and exporting of materials with the loss of nutrients from the property; second, since the plants in a landscape are primarily perennial, there is less disruption of the land and the perennial shedding of plant material can stay in place as mulch or be used in composting; and finally, typical residential landscapes are significantly smaller than farms and easier to maintain. 

Steiner also called for a diversity of mini-ecosystems on the farm to include forest, orchard, woody shrubs, habitat for fungi, wetlands and meadows. Although a very large landscape may be able to incorporate these components, a typical residential landscape will not. Yet if homeowners reach out to neighbors to suggest that the topography on their land may lend itself to a meadow of wildflowers, a wetland, orchard or other component, then by connecting neighboring landscapes – each specializing in their mini-ecosystems – the parts may interact. In addition to partnering properties to develop a larger individuality, the opportunity exists to share perspectives on landcare with neighbors, family and friends. Indeed, transforming one’s landscape with Biodynamic principles is an example of the oft used expression – “Think globally, act locally.”

I have been maintaining a Biodynamic landscape around our home for five years and have experienced a deeper relationship with nature than I ever have in my previous 30 plus years as a professional in the landscape industry. I have found it deeply satisfying to witness our landscape’s individuality emerge and surprising at times to watch it act on its own volition.  These moments of surprise serve as a mirror in which I can choose to see myself or to see the whole; to either be apart from, or a part of, nature and the landscape individuality. 

Nature has an impulse to perform what ecologists call “secondary succession.” I’ve observed abandon pastures on neighboring properties undergo changes in plant communities, eventually ending with a specific climax community, an oak-hickory forest for our region. Similarly, I see nature’s successional impulse on our property as I mow the lawn and encounter pioneering representatives from the adjoining forest advancing the forest farther into our yard. The regularly mown lawn and primped flower beds represent my impulse to achieve an outcome (albeit unsustainable) while the advancing forest represents nature’s impulse to undergo succession to restore a climax community as its outcome. However, there’s a third impulse, the most special places on our landscape, where the individuality of the land emerges, a combination of my desire mixed with the land’s impulse. These are areas where natural succession seems to have placed itself on “hold” in order for a new dynamic equilibrium to occur.

Two examples illustrate this new dynamic equilibrium, what I believe is our land’s individuality expressing itself on our property.

About eight years ago, our utility right-of-way corridor was, like neighboring utility corridors, overrun with brambles and invasive plant species growing on degraded soil, a result of aggressive trimming and spraying of herbicides by utility contractors. To encourage pollinator insects and discourage trees from taking root and growing into overhead electric lines, I set about the Sisyphean task of replacing the undesirable plants with what I believed to be more appropriate native species. Frustrated at not seeing “my plants” becoming established and realizing my task was futile, I approached the problem differently, investing my time making observations of the land. I felt as if the land was attempting to do something. I observed an increase in native wildflowers and grasses (which I did not plant) as the land rapidly transformed the utility corridor into a goldenrod corridor, providing wonderful habitat for pollinators and many other insects. An added benefit further satisfied my initial goal: goldenrod releases a chemical inhibiting the germination and establishment of tree seedlings. In reflection, I wonder why this transformation to a largely self-sustaining pollinator corridor didn’t arise in the past and why nature has hit the pause button on natural succession. Perhaps what is happening at this moment is a new phenomenon not covered in my ecology textbooks.

About five years ago I abandoned weeding our blueberry patch, again out of frustration, and admitted defeat in the war I declared on dandelions. Unfamiliar with growing blueberry shrubs, I assumed my bed should look like the pictures in books and magazines, weed free and mulched. In awe, I observed how fast dandelions completely enveloped the entire bed. As the bed was located in a prominent location, friends lowered their gaze to express sympathy that I had lost control and had obviously given up on gardening. They were confused by my enthusiasm for the blueberry patch and my reports that yields had increased, with fewer pest and disease problems. Turns out the dandelion blanket is just what was needed for blueberry shrubs and our soil. With its continual eruption of new leaves, the dandelion foliage serves as an effective green mulch throughout the year. The dandelion roots break up compacted soil and, with the aid of soil organisms, transform the soil into such a wonderful friable growing medium that we are reluctant to walk into the bed because our feet sink into the soil. The dandelions bloom all season to provide valuable support to pollinators otherwise dependent on more restricted blooming periods of other plants in the garden. We harvested dandelion roots and added them to yarrow to make a splendid bitter tonic used before meals to aid digestion. Plus, the greens are a tasty addition to salads!

If I had continued headlong into imprinting my control over my land, as many do, I might have escalated my tactics by carpet-bombing the land with fertilizers and strafing weeds and pests with pesticides. I’ve witnessed this war between property owners and nature for most of my career in the landscape industry. In fact, I’ve been both a hired mercenary and an arms dealer perpetuating this unsustainable attack on nature.

Although I had heard of Rudolf Steiner’s description of a farm’s individuality in the past, I assumed it was a concept that applied to farms and farmers. However, upon realizing the futility of my actions attempting to control nature, I slowly realized that his message has a broader appeal to anyone open to a relationship with nature. I only wish I had taken Steiner’s lesson to heart sooner and declared peace with nature years ago.

For more information on compost preparations used in Biodynamic farming see Wali Via’s article, “Biodynamic Compost Preparations,” published on the Biodynamic Association’s website, https://www.biodynamics.com/content/biodynamic-compost-preparations

References

Steiner, R. 1993. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. A Course of Lectures Held at Koberwitz, Silesia, June 7 to June 16, 1924. Translated by C.E. Creeper and M. Gardner. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., Kimberton, PA. 

Biodynamic Association. 2019, January 31. Biodynamic Principles and Practices. Retrieved from https://www.biodynamics.com/biodynamic-principles-and-practices   

Composting: It’s not as dull as it sounds

[This article was published in “The Recorder” on February 15, 2018, and Lexington’s The News-Gazette, February 21, 2018, to promote four upcoming composting workshops that will be presented at regional libraries.]

Joe Murray, Burnsville, Virginia
Contributing  Writer

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”   Franklin D. Roosevelt

Compost happens. Just as compost has always happened. Composting started immediately after life came into existence on earth, whether with the decay of simple bacteria along the shores of a primordial ocean or the remains of an apple in the garden of Eden.

Just as there is an impulse in nature to build complex structures from simple compounds, there exists a corresponding impulse to disassemble those complex structures back into their original simple compounds. The art of composting works with the latter impulse, orchestrating the interaction between compostable materials and organisms responsible for the disassembling. A walk through the forest illustrates the perpetual balance between growth and decay; in spring and summer, you’re aware of the leaves, charged by the sun, fueling the growth of plants. A visit to the same patch of woods in the fall and winter directs your attention to the forest floor, where last season’s leaf drop begins its transformation into a rich humus material that enters the soil.

Many are drawn to composting because of the numerous benefits of compost’s primary ingredient, humus, the dark brown organic matter resulting from the decomposition of plant and animal materials by microorganisms. Composting helps improve the environment by decreasing landfill waste and by sequestering carbon into your garden’s soil. Biologically, humus serves as the primary food source for the soil food web. Physically, humus improves soil structure, porosity and water holding capacity, thus helping soils resist erosion. Chemically, humus expands the ability of the mineral components of soil (sand, silt and clay) to bind to nutrients.

Although admittedly more esoteric, composting connects us with the “other-half” of nature associated with dying, death, and decay. Often, gardeners focus solely on the germination, growth and harvest of plants and pay scant attention to the remainder of the greater cycle at play in their gardens. Actively becoming involved in composting not only helps achieve the benefits previously mentioned, but provides a sense of balance to the garden and gardener as well.

Composting has produced a history as rich as the humus material for which compost is valued. Humans probably recognized the benefits of composting over 10,000 years ago while transitioning from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian existence. It would be hard to escape noticing the difference in plants growing in the immediate vicinity of manure from a domesticated animal compared to plants not exposed to manure. Early farmers experimented with combinations of plant material and animal manure to create compost to improve soil fertility. One of the earliest known composting recipes was recorded on clay tablets around 2300 B.C.E in the Mesopotamian Valley. Throughout recorded history, composting recipes and procedures were included in publications as diverse as bureaucratic manuals and religious documents. Written accounts of composting are found in the works of William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

As early Native American civilizations in North America developed their own composting operations unique to their methods of growing food, many of those nations in the eastern region of North America shared their techniques with early European settlers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were keenly aware of the importance of composting to agriculture and wrote often in their correspondence about the success of different techniques employed in composting and their use of compost.

In the middle of the 19th century when agricultural scientists discovered that plant roots absorb nutrients in an inorganic form, a shift occurred from composting to the application of synthetic soluble fertilizers to provide specific nutrients in a form in which they could be readily absorbed by plants. The research methodology at that time failed to detect that those nutrients were already present in sufficient quantities in the humus (organic matter), living organisms, and mineral components of healthy soil. We now know that the action of a healthy soil food web, with sufficient and diverse sources of organic matter, releases the necessary nutrients at the time and in the form appropriate for plant root uptake. In contrast, land grant agricultural institutions and government regulatory agencies (both largely coming into existence just after 1862) embraced the application of synthetic soluble fertilizers as the preferred way to provide nutrients to the root zones of crops, thus dismissing the use of compost as antiquated and inefficient. Period extension publications professed that regular use of synthetic fertilizers would allow for the growing of one crop (monoculture) across a large swath of land, year after year (monocropping). Soil was no longer viewed as a living organism, but as a substrate in which to grow plants with regular applications of synthetic fertilizers. This transition, marked by the rejection of composting in favor of widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, coincided with a larger movement in agriculture where land management centered on an economic or utilitarian-based ethic.

George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, standing in field, probably at Tuskegee, holding piece of soil. 1906. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer.

Many organic farming pioneers emerged in the early 1900s including Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, and J.I. Rodale. Celebrating Black History, I wish to draw attention to an unsung hero in the organic farming movement in the United States, George Washington Carver. I’ll leave it to the biographers to share the heart wrenching tragedies and incredible triumphs that punctuated Carver’s life and simply add that our nation is fortunate that young Carver overcame significant challenges in his youth to eventually attend Iowa Agricultural College in Ames, Iowa (now Iowa State University), and have the foresight to study agricultural sciences and the new field of ecology.

Before settling into what would appear to be a comfortable and productive career in education and research in Iowa, he was recruited by Booker T. Washington to start up an agricultural program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver showed himself to be a free thinker and offered a unique view of the farm as a complex ecosystem possessing diverse and interconnected components working synergistically to improve the resiliency of the farm’s health, allowing it to produce a variety of products. Carver’s outspoken opinion on the limitations and potentially harmful effects of synthetic fertilizers on soil and plant health placed him at odds with most agricultural scientists in academia throughout the country and even at his own institution.  He believed that part of the solution for helping poor African American farmers become more self-sufficient involved decreasing their reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

George Washington Carver. Circa 1910, Source Tuskegee University Archives/Museum

In a viewpoint consistent with permaculture design principles of today, Carver encouraged farmers to view their farms not in terms of scarcity, but abundance. He worked tirelessly to demonstrate how materials viewed as waste and weeds can be used for composting to improve soil fertility. Carver, a deeply religious man, freely admitted that much of his insight was obtained from listening to plants which he deemed to be communing with God.

Carver was a pioneer in the American conservation and environmental movements; his call for farmers to move beyond a production mentality if it impaired soil health predated by 40 years what Aldo Leopold articulated in his essay, “The Land Ethic.” Carver’s warning of pesticides entering the food chain and human tissues would later be championed by Rachel Carson more than 50 years later in her book, “Silent Spring.” Although Carver was going against firmly entrenched dogma at the time, his message of improving soil health with organic matter today seems reasonable and self-evident.

Soon after World War II, the industrial agricultural mindset of controlling nature and forcing higher yields in agricultural fields transferred to American home landscapes. Like a chemical fog sweeping across a farmer’s field, a wave of compost-amnesia moved across North America. Homeowners abandoned old organic ways practiced by their grandparents and instead turned to the promise of synthetic fertilizers for lawn and garden needs, while waging war against perceived weeds and pests with the spraying of pesticides.

Today, many gardeners recognize the unintended environmental consequences and unsustainability of an over-dependence on synthetic fertilizers in agriculture and their home landscapes. To restore their garden’s soil health, homeowners are turning back to age old techniques, like composting, to grow plants without relying on synthetic fertilizers. This movement hasn’t escaped the entrepreneurs in the horticulture industry who have developed a plethora of composting “systems.” When homeowners compost simply, alternating grass and leaves in a pile on their property, they are demonstrating an act of reverence for the land shared by their great-great-grandparents.

To learn more about the history of compost, and to explore ways you can make your own compost; attend one of Murray’s composting presentations in your area: Highland County Public Library (2 pm), February 25; Glasgow Library (6 pm), February 27; Lexington Library (6 pm), March 8; and Warm Springs Library (6 pm), March 20.

 

Is your yard part of the problem, or part of the solution?

[This article was published in The Recorder, January 18, 2018]

Joe Murray, Burnsville, Virginia
Contributing  Writer

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Gandhi

No doubt you have heard that pollinators are not doing well. Pollinators are on the decline for a number of reasons ranging from pesticide exposure to introduced parasites and diseases. With pollinator populations decreasing, incidents of inbreeding are increasing, meaning effected species face environmental challenges with little genetic diversity.  One of the greatest causes of pollinator decline is habitat destruction, specifically changes in land use. If you live in a house surrounded by a yard inhabited by just a few species of regularly mowed turfgrass, you share in the blame. While you may not have personally cleared away wild lands to build your house, we all play a role, however indirectly, in the loss of pollinator habitat. You may think that your yard isn’t having a harmful effect on pollinator habitat loss, but when viewed collectively with other skeptical homeowners across America, the impact is significant. The continued use of land conversion shows no signs of abatement, so habitat loss will continue. Perhaps we can slow the rate of pollinator decline by doing another type of conversion – converting portions of our yards into pollinator habitat. Is your yard part of the problem, or part of the solution?

Lanceleaf Coreopsis with native bee. Pollinators include the well known honey bees and butterflies, as well as the lesser known wild bees, ants, beetles, flies, moths, wasps, lizards, birds, and bats. (Photo credit: Anne Bryan)

If you think you can live without pollinators, think again. Pollinators assist in the reproduction of over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. At least 90% of the nation’s apple crop is pollinated by bees and one-third of all agricultural crops depends on pollinators. According to a Cornell study, crops pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to farm income in 2010. The economic impact from declining pollinator activity in agriculture will be felt by all Americans with rising costs for pollinator-dependent fruits and vegetables in addition to the disruption of entire ecological systems.

John Muir’s prophetic quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” rings particularly true with respect to the interconnectedness of pollinators with other organisms. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 50 pollinator species with populations so low they’ve been recognized as threatened or endangered. Wild bee populations have declined 25 percent since 1990. No pollinator species exists in a vacuum. If pollinators are unable to assist plants in reproduction, organisms dependent upon those plants suffer. The role pollinators play in maintaining  biodiversity of flowering plants is now so obvious that scientists confidently correlate plant diversity with pollinator diversity. In short, the health of pollinators serves as an accurate indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem.

The plight of pollinators has not gone unnoticed by policy makers at the state and federal levels. Every June [coinciding with National Pollinator week this year, June 18-24, 2018], governors throughout the United States, the US Department of the Interior, and the US Department of Agriculture formally recognize the importance of pollinators with proclamations, often following with mandates to federal and state agencies to examine practices that may impact pollinators. Every year, pesticide usage is increasingly scrutinized by state and federal agencies tasked with regulating their sale and use. Many federal government facilities and state departments of transportation have made efforts to incorporate pollinator-friendly plants as part of a larger initiative to naturalize landscapes at federal facilities, along roadsides, and in highway medians.

So, is there anything you can do to help pollinators? Absolutely! Recall that habitat loss is perhaps the greatest cause of pollinator decline. Imagine the collective impact homeowners can have on restoring habitat for pollinators if everyone makes an attempt to establish a small pollinator garden. A pollinator garden may be a flower bed, of any size, dedicated to growing native plants that can serve as habitat for pollinators. When selecting plants for your pollinator garden include, as a minimum, at least three species of flowering plants of varying sizes, shapes and colors, so at least one plant is blooming at any time during the growing season. Include night blooming flowers for moths and bats that pollinate nocturnally. Identify and encourage local “volunteer” plants, like dandelions and goldenrod, which support pollinators at the very beginning and end of the growing season. To minimize the distance pollinators have to fly, arrange your plants in “clumps.”  Leave your pollinator garden through the winter to provide important cover for pollinators, saving the once a year mowing just before new spring growth.

Native plant species better meet the needs of the native pollinators. When possible, try to purchase plant seeds from local or regional sources since those are better adapted to our local climate, soil, and native pollinators. Avoid modern hybrid flowers and “doubled” flowers which have been bred for aesthetics and not for what pollinators value – pollen, nectar, and fragrance. If you don’t want to research individual plant species, consider purchasing a prepared mix of pollinator-friendly flower seeds from a regional seed supply company like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Share extra seeds with your neighbor!

Another benefit of selecting native plant species is that they are capable of growing without environmental subsidies like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, regular mowing, and irrigation. In fact, it’s in the best interest of pollinators that you eliminate the use of pesticides. Water needs for pollinators can be satisfied with a bird bath or shallow bowl with perches made of half-submerged stones.

The rate at which pollinators are declining is alarming and a sad legacy to pass onto future generations. While you’re debating whether or not to establish a pollinator garden in 2018, imagine standing before a class of third-graders at a local elementary school and explaining your actions. Don’t fall into the defeatist attitude that your part is too small to matter. Collectively, we impact pollinator health; whether that will be for the better or worse remains to be seen. “Is your yard part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

For more information on creating pollinator habitat visit Xerces Society (xerces.org) and Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org).  For wildflower mixes specifically for pollinators  visit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia  (www.southernexposure.com)

 

How Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Lectures can help us see the forest for the trees

This article was submitted for publication in the 2019 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.  John Muir

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.   John Muir

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.   Kahlil Gibran

I’m an arborist. Upon meeting people familiar with anthroposophy or biodynamic agriculture, the conversations often follows a familiar pattern. “So, you must find Rudolf Steiner’s description of a tree especially interesting,” they’ll say, referencing his eight-part lecture series on agriculture. Almost as an aside, Steiner offers a perspective on trees rather radical for his time in 1924. Placing spirituality aside, a reading of Steiner’s lectures today continues to provide a unique and refreshing understanding of Earth’s largest and oldest life forms – trees.

There are as many approaches available to the reader to study Steiner’s agriculture lectures as there are people with different life experiences. Perhaps as a result of spending most of my adult life teaching science, my approach has been to identify patterns and mechanisms which underlie natural phenomena. Although the focus of this article is on advancements in the physical realm of tree biology, for the author feels he still has much to learn about the spiritual realm of trees, the information should help both the novice and more seasoned readers of Steiner gain new insight into his descriptions of both physical and spiritual processes at work in trees.

Scientists, today and in the past, wrestle with a working definition of a “tree” that distinguishes it from other members of the plant kingdom. Biology textbook and dictionary definitions vaguely describe “a woody plant that’s perennial” but differ with respect to their confidence on height, number of trunks, distribution of branches, and other characteristics that vary considerably among trees. When presented with exceptions to dogmatic definitions, experts revert to the “I know it when I see it,” argument. Perhaps the problem with defining a tree is that a single tree, like a single bee or a single ant, doesn’t represent the larger and more complex life form – the forest as a superorganism. If trees are a subunit of a larger whole, where do “trees” end and other lifeforms begin? Steiner doesn’t attempt to craft a succinct textbook definition of a tree, but he does describe an organism physically and cosmically intertwined with other life forms. Perhaps it’s time to tug at the veils of our limited physical understanding of trees and consider what Steiner proposed about trees “fitting” into a larger organism, in his case, a farm. This article will consider two concepts introduced by Steiner: interconnectedness of trees to their soil environment, and the tree consisting of herbaceous plants “rooted” to the branches and trunk of a tree.

Steiner set out in his fourth lecture to explain the importance of having an expanded awareness of subtle interactions of unseen substances, forces, and spirits to better manage one’s farm. Steiner used an example of a tree, an often overlooked fixture in the landscape, to illustrate how one’s preconceived ideas stifle further exploration that may generate new insights and a deeper understanding of the trees’ true essence. By questioning a division between the bark of a tree and organic matter in the soil as two separate entities, Steiner challenges the reader’s perception of boundaries between living and non-living. Although Steiner uses etheric vitality as the thread to connect the bark of a tree with organic matter in soil, one could just as easily use the soil life around the root surface, in the physical realm, and achieve the desired outcome – an understanding that the tree is such an integral part of the greater whole that seeing a tree as a single organism limits one’s ability to understand the bigger picture.

One is not considered a radical today when recognizing soil to be a living organism. Steiner said as much in 1924, “the soil surrounding the growing plants’ roots is a living entity with a vegetative life of its own, a kind of extension of plant growth into the Earth.”1 Recognition of living soil is embraced and practiced by individuals today disillusioned by industrial agriculture’s approach to growing food. Increasingly people are referring to soil “health” instead of soil quality and mindful of practices that impair their farm and garden’s soil health. Organic and biodynamic growers often have a better understanding of living organisms in soil and speak in terms of feeding the soil with compost, instead of feeding the plant with chemical fertilizers.

Focusing specifically on the interface between the plant’s root and the surrounding soil, Steiner continues, “It is not at all true that life stops at the plant’s perimeter. Life as such continues on, namely from the roots of the plant into the soil, and for many plants there is no sharp dividing line between the life inside them and the life in their surroundings.”1  Soil scientists have long known that unusually high populations of microorganisms exist in a zone approximately 2 mm around the surface of plant roots known as the rhizosphere. Plant roots secrete a variety of compounds to manipulate chemical and physical soil properties to attract beneficial microbes, even jettisoning actively secreting living cells into the rhizosphere which remain alive for several days. Recent discoveries show that plant roots and soil microorganisms disregard artificial boundaries to form a seamless transition of plant-microbe life within, and beyond, the rhizosphere. Select soil microorganisms, loosely called endophytes, can enter root tissues and improve a plant’s ability to tolerate drought, acquire nutrients, and resist insect and disease damage. Beneficial bacteria which adhere to up to 40% of the root surface are involved in relationships with organisms as far out into the soil as the food web extends. Indeed, we now have a greater appreciation of how a bird, perched on a tree’s limb, can fly down to the ground, pluck up an earthworm, and tug on the strings of a resilient soil food web, ultimately modulating populations of bacteria adhering to the surface of that tree’s root.

Although not well understood in 1924, today soil biologists recognize the importance of the life that occurs within, on, and near plants’ roots, so much so that the rhizosphere has been called the most biodiverse and dynamic habitat on Earth.

 

A Canopy Rooted in the Crown

Just as there is no clear boundary between a tree’s root and living soil, likewise there’s no clear boundary between a tree’s twig and its parent branch, that branch and the trunk, and the trunk and root system. Iterative growth occurs throughout the tree, resulting in a continuation from the smallest of branches, to the smallest of roots. True, there are some anatomical and physiological characteristics unique to a branch as compared to a root, but the appearance and function are very similar and lack a feature delineating a boundary. This uniform development emerges from the action of a relatively small number of cells whose growth (cell division and elongation) and differentiation produce the more specialized tissues that make up the tree.

In temperate regions, most trees grow in a pattern alternating between increasing in length and width, primary and secondary growth respectively. Primary growth, in the above-ground shoot system, occurs when buds grow into young green shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits. [A similar mechanism occurs below ground in the root system producing fine absorbing roots.] The most notable effect of primary growth is the elongation of branches and roots. Secondary growth, in the above ground shoot system, occurs when a thin layer of cells within the vascular tissue, the cambium, undergoes growth and differentiates into a new layer of xylem and phloem. Xylem is the water and mineral conducting tissue composing the wood or central bole of the tree, while phloem is the specialized tissue actively pumping sugars throughout the tree located just under the tree’s bark. It’s the action of the cambium, situated between the xylem and phloem, that produces the most notable effect of secondary growth, the addition of an annual ring of new wood on the tree’s trunk and branches with a resulting increase in diameter. For the purpose of this article, the canopy of the tree will refer to new shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits produced by primary growth, while crown will refer to the trunk and branches produced by secondary growth. At first glance, a tree appears to be a simple organism that results from the iterative growth just described; however, the areas of the tree produced by primary growth that interface with the atmosphere/sunlight and the soil environment parallel sense organs in an animal extending out in both directions from the more inert woody portion of the tree.

In lecture 7, Steiner continues his unconventional view of a tree by suggesting the canopy of a tree, defined here as the products of primary growth, is similar to herbaceous plants “rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree, just as other plants are rooted in the Earth.”1  Steiner addresses the obvious confusion of his statement by acknowledging that physically there are no roots where the canopy is fixed to the crown observable by “coarse outer perception.”  He states the canopy has lost its roots and remain in contact with the tree’s root system etherically. Is it possible that even with “coarse outer perception” one can view the tree’s crown as capable of serving root-like functions?

A tree’s root system performs a variety of functions, five of the most recognizable being: absorption of water and nutrients; storage of starch; conduction of water, nutrients and sugars; structural stability; and production of hormones. Of the five functions, two, absorption of water and minerals and production of hormones, are primarily performed at the very ends of the root which may be considered a recent result of primary growth, not the secondary growth that produced woody tissue referred to as “root” and “crown” in this article. It’s interesting to note that the leaves, products of primary growth, also function in absorption (carbon dioxide) and, along with buds, production of hormones, the most obvious being the hormone auxin which stimulates the primary growth of roots.

The three remaining functions of the root are just as easily fulfilled by the trunk and branches of the tree. In other words, with respect to conduction, storage, and structural stability, one would be hard pressed to distinguish where the root ends and the trunk and branches begin. The vascular tissue is seamlessly linked from the roots through the trunk and branches of the tree’s crown. Like the roots, the trunk and branches are capable of storing starch, the preferred long term storage form of sugar. All parts of the tree modulate their growth to improve structural stability to remain intact in response to loads, such as gravity and wind. Through primary and secondary growth, the tree adjusts the number and orientation of roots, trunk and branches, including load-bearing components of cell walls, to optimize the tree’s ability to withstand loading events.

To gain a more holistic perspective of trees, follow the movement of sugar, not just within a single tree, but as it courses through an entire forest. Within a tree, sugars move from where they’re stored, or produced, to where they are being utilized. This network of sharing selflessly extends to other trees and soil organisms. Sharing of sugar with other trees may not make sense when viewed from a single tree’s perspective, but from a forest’s perspective, this collectivistic practice creates a complex and redundant network that results in a more resilient organism. Interconnectivity among trees in a forest has lead some to marvel at the similarities between the World Wide Web with the forest’s Wood Wide Web.

What makes trees one of Earth’s largest and oldest organisms is a single male quaking aspen tree that has become an entire forest in central Utah. The Pando forest measures over 100 acres and consists of a “tree” that has cloned itself by repeatedly growing over 40,000 trunks from its spreading root system.  No doubt Rudolf Steiner would see the humor in experts stumbling on the terms “tree,” “trees,” and “forest,” trying to define this organism with its canopy “rooted” in the branches and trunks, which are in turn, “rooted” in a massive root system.

So in response to inquiries about whether I find Rudolf Steiner’s description of trees interesting, I reply, “Yes!” Judging by the startled expressions on the faces of the inquirers, it appears my response is more than enthusiastic!

1 Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. Translation by C. Creeger and M. Gardner. 1993. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Kimberton, PA.