Neighborly Garden News
Plant intelligence; something to consider?
“I want people to realize that the world is full of magic, but not as something only some people can do, or something that is outside of this world,” Dr Gagliano said. “No, it’s all here.” As environmental collapse looms, we’ve never known so much about life on earth — how extraordinary and intricate it all is, and how loose the boundary where “it” ends and “we” begin. Perhaps if we didn’t see plants as just room decoration, we could suspend our skepticism. Plants can already do things we can’t, like summon wasps to attack feeding caterpillars, or trees can clone themselves into super-organisms. Humans and plants also have similarities: they can share nutrients between themselves, plants can feel us touching them, and they have shown they can count.Ted Farmer, professor of Botany at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, was one of the first to defend the concept of inter-plant communication. We now understand that plants react to their environment in very complex ways, more complex than was originally thought, until just recently. Rather than plant intelligence the new concept is one of plant “consciousness”, he has said. This has generated dissension in the scientific community, with other groups of scientists publishing their own theories under the title “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.” The groundbreaking 2013 experiment that Dr Gagliano performed is her most well known demonstration of plant learned behavior. In it, she sought to discover whether plants, like animals, could demonstrate a basic type of learning called “habituation.” The Mimosa pudica , you may know it as the “sensitive plant”, contracts its leaves when touched. So, in the experiment, potted mimosas were dropped a few harmless inches onto foam. At first, the leaves closed up immediately. But over time, they stopped reacting. It wasn’t that they were fatigued, Dr. Gagliano wrote, because, when the pots were shaken, the leaves closed up again. And when the dropping test was repeated a month later, their leaves remained unruffled. The plants had ‘learned’ that the drop wasn’t a threat, Dr. Gagliano argued. The plants remembered.
At the time Dr. Gagliano’s conclusions were not widely accepted, even though she says that learning is the best descriptive of what occurred to explain what happened, even if we don’t understand how the plants are doing it. Humans do underestimate other life forms besides themselves. There have been many other studies that seem to illustrate intelligence in plants. One experiment exposed plants to just the sounds of predators chewing leaves, and this was enough to generate a defensive response within the plant- it produced more insect repelling chemicals. These revelatory experiments are allowing research to be made into areas we may not have previously. Currently I believe we are in a wellness focused drive for naturally based answers. People believe and look for wisdom from nature, and there may very well be people who are able to commune with other living organisms besides humans. Can those who possess ‘green thumbs’, or are ‘dog whisperers’ be among them? Who’s to say where the line should be drawn in regards to plant intelligence? There’s a lot about plants we don’t know apparently, and these may be the secrets that help preserve our world.
January’s ‘to-do’ list:
The month of January is named after the two-faced Roman god Janus; the god of gates and new beginnings. One face looked back to the old year, while the other faced towards the new. January is a good time to reflect on our past years garden successes and failures, while looking ahead to the new gardening year.
Plan for next winter – consider adding something new to perk up your winter landscape. Be on the lookout for plants with winter interest; such as flourishing evergreens, trees and shrubs with dramatic and graceful bare branches. If you see something really cool, but don’t know what it is; snap a photo with your phone and email it to us, so we can I.D. it for you.
While the garden is dormant is the time to plan for corrections to the major elements and address problem spots. Take a survey of its structure. Is there enough shade where you need it, or too much where you don’t? Are there low spots that always stay wet after heavy rains? Maybe this year, install a drip irrigation system, or a rainwater collection system to conserve water.
January, and throughout the winter, is a good time to perform corrective pruning and shaping of your trees. You have a clear view of the whole tree, and needn’t worry about oozing sap. Fruit and ornamental trees need annual pruning to keep them healthy. Most fruiting trees have a very vigorous nature and will grow quickly. Pruning helps channel that energy into fruit production, by eliminating extraneous twiggy growth, and poorly shaped branches. Overgrowth, too dense a canopy, and letting water sprouts develop, all can contribute to a tree’s decline. Always remove any dead or diseased wood; during winter storms these weak spots can tear off, and cause greater damage, than if they were preemptively pruned.
We may receive a ‘January thaw’, but be careful not to walk on your garden beds when they are wet and muddy during a thaw, because it can permanently compress the soil structure. Do check for any plants that may have ‘heaved’ out of their planting holes during freeze/thaw cycles. Gently push them back into place.
Keep on checking your overwintering houseplants for pests, indoor conditions are just about ideal for plant pests to multiply rapidly. By the end of January, we will be adding extra minutes of light each day. Your houseplants will notice the extra light too, so plan on resuming a weekly dose of half-strength fertilizer to their watering schedule in late January.
Plan on ordering your mail order seeds soon for the best selection. Hopefully this will be the year you try out your green thumbs and grow some plants from seed. I usually start my warm season veggies, like tomatoes and peppers, in March, for planting outdoors in May/June. Cool season crops, like broccoli, kale and cabbage, can be started 4-6 weeks before the outdoor planting date.
Don’t forget about our little feathered friends! Deep snow and ice severely limit the food and water available to our wild creatures. Providing fresh water and food can literally save a life. Feeding birds is a wonderful, rewarding hobby with ecological benefits. The birds will become residents in your area, and eat many insects and pests that would otherwise grow unchecked. I also put out suet, but if you’ve had an animal problem, be mindful of where you place it. Last year something stole my entire suet feeder off the tree branch, dragged it away, and I never found it. Suet attracts many kinds of wild birds, and provides them with essential extra calories during the winter.
Basil Downy Mildew is here to stay, unfortunately…
Initial symptoms of BDM on a leafBDM affected Basil plantBDM was first discovered in 2007, in Florida. It is thought the disease may have been present earlier, but not recognized. BDM, is also a problem for greenhouse grown basil. BDM can be spread via airborne spores, or through contaminated seed. Research points to contaminated seed, as one reason why it has spread so quickly throughout the USA. Some seed production companies are experimenting with steam treated seeds, to kill the pathogen. Because the disease is so new, many growers confused the early symptoms with a nutritional deficiency, because it’s hard to differentiate without close inspection. Yellowing typically first appears in areas along major veins and eventually spreads throughout the leaf. Infected leaves also can show irregular black spots as well as gray, fuzzy spores on the underside of the leaf. As the disease advances, the leaves turn completely yellow and fall off, the stems wither, and the plant eventually dies.
BDM on Basil leaf undersides
BDM on Basil leaf upper surfaces
Basil has become a mainstay culinary herb, available in markets year-round. So there has been funding put towards developing strategies to manage this plant pathogen. BDM has been found to mainly affect Ocimum basilicum, or sweet basil. The exotic, spice and ornamental basils (Ocimum citriodorum and Ocimum americanum), have resistance to the disease. Using disease resistant varieties and good management practices will help to combat BDM.
To this end Rutger’s and Cornell have developed some new sweet basil types with resistance. Look for Obsession, Devotion and Prospera basil seed. Prospera in particular did not develop any symptoms during the 2018 testing. Besides keeping your plants healthy and weed-free minimizing periods of leaf wetness will also help combat BDM. Plant Basil in a hot, sunny spot where it will get good air circulation, allowing leaves to dry quickly. Avoid overhead watering on the basil plants. Unfortunately outdoor growers can’t do much about managing dew, and rain; that’s up to Mother Nature.
According to the UMass extension service, the resistant varieties of Basil will buy us at least few more weeks of growth, but they will eventually succumb to the disease as it is now in our environment. These new varieties of basil are resistant, but not immune to BDM. Last season in addition increasing air movement along the beds of basil, I also grew some basil in pots away from the main garden, and they did live a few weeks longer than the others. The downside was the potted basil needed more care: watering daily and fertilizer weekly. Even so, when I first noticed the beginnings of BDM that was my signal to harvest all the plants, and process them into pesto, basil oil, etc., which I freeze for use over the winter. I would have preferred to be able to cut basil shoots as needed through the summer, but this seems to be the new normal when it comes to basil in the home garden. Keep an eye out for symptoms of BDM, and be prepared to harvest all your plants before they succumb. For 2020, I’ll be growing one of the new hybrids, updates will follow.
January would be very bleak with all the bare trees and deep snow; if not for our evergreens. We would only see a world of black and white during the winter. So many different species of evergreen will grow in our area; there is a wide color and textural palette to choose from.
Abies fraseri the Fraser fir is a hearty native evergreen tree. It is prized for its very uniform shape, dark blue-green needles, and graceful upward turned branches. Fraser fir is the #1 Christmas tree species in the USA. This evergreen is related to the Balsam fir, and thrives in cool temperatures. Fraser firs prefer consistently moist and well drained soil, with a full or partial sun exposure. Considered a slow growing tree; grows to 30-40 ft tall, x 20-25 ft wide.
Snow covered Fraser fir
Juniperus chinensis the Chinese juniper has been used as a garden plant for centuries, and there are numerous cultivars. There is a size and shape for almost any application, from ground cover plantings, to hedges and screens or single specimens. Chinese juniper needs full sun exposure to do their best, and will tolerate a wide range of soil pH.
Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’
Juniperus chinensis ‘Sea Green’
Pinus strobus, the Eastern White Pine is native to our New England woods. It is adaptable to a wide variety of growing conditions. In the wild White Pine can be found in bogs or dry rocky ridges, it prefers direct sun exposures, but can tolerate some light shade. Needle bundles are grouped in 5’s, and are long and slender, bluish green. P. strobus maintains its soft plume-like appearance through the trees’ youth. It is considered fast growing; reaching 50-75 ft tall x 20 ft wide in 25-40 years.
Snow covered White Pine needles
Pieris floribunda or ‘Mountain Pieris’ is a native broad-leaved evergreen. A great candidate for a partly sunny or shady area, it has long lasting panicles of creamy-white fragrant flowers that bloom in April. Pieris floribunda is also called: Lily of the Valley shrub. Mountain Pieris is more adaptable to higher pH soils than other broad leaved evergreens. Depending on the variety, grows 2-6’ tall.
Fall/winter color of Pieris floribunda
Picea pungens glauca ‘Globosa’ is the dwarf blue spruce. This is a natural dwarf form of a US native tree. Dwarf blue Spruce has a broad rounded form. Just the right plant when you’d like a touch of blue in your garden. Dwarf blue spruce prefers full sun, and moist soil with good drainage. A very hardy shrub, it is more drought tolerant than other species of spruce. Dwarf blue spruce grows medium-slow to 3’ tall X 4’ wide.
Picea pungens glauca ‘Globosa’
Snow covered Dwarf Blue Spruce