Growing Potatoes on Mars

“My best bet for making calories is potatoes. They grow prolifically and have a reasonable calorie count. … I can’t just live off the land forever. But I can extend my life. The potatoes will last me 76 days.” – The Martian by Andy Weir

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land in northern Chile that reaches into portions of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. Within it lies a region 10,000 feet in elevation that, thanks to a double rain shadow, is so intensely dry that nothing, not even microbial life, can survive. Rain falls in this region perhaps once every 10 years, and even then precipitation is paltry. This area is so desolate and devoid of life that NASA scientists consider it Mars-like and have used the area to test equipment that is bound for Mars. Studies have found that the soil in this region is similar to Martian soil – so similar, in fact, that it is now being used to test the feasibility of growing potatoes on Mars.

The study is being carried out by NASA in collaboration with Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), an agriculture research institution based in Lima, Peru. The efforts consist of an initial series of three experiments. Apart from investigating methods for growing potatoes in a Martian environment, researchers hope to develop ways to improve potato production on marginal land here on Earth in order to increase yields and provide a sustainable source of food in parts of the world that so desperately need it.

The wild crop relative of the cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum) is native to the Andes. It was originally domesticated by the indigenous people of Peru at least 8,000 years ago. Spanish explorers brought potatoes back to Europe around 1570, and over the next several hundred years cultivation of potatoes spread throughout the world. It is now one of the world’s top 5 food crops and is a staple food source in many regions. So why not Mars?

potatoes-on-mars-nasa-and-cip

The first phase of experiments is currently under way. A selection of potato cultivars that have attributes such as quick maturity, virus resistance, tolerance to high temperatures, and resistance to drought are being grown in soil taken from the Mars-like region of the Atacama Desert. The second phase will consider the transportation of the potatoes from Earth to Mars, a nine month journey. The harvest from the first experiment will be frozen, thawed, and then planted to determine if the propagules remain viable after making the journey through space. The final phase of the experiments will entail growing the potatoes inside of CubeSat modules in which a Mars-like environment can be simulated. The specifics of these studies vary across multiple reports, so this may be a slight misrepresentation of the actual research program. As official reports emerge, the exact methods will be more clear.

According to this post on the CIP website, this collaboration is “a major step towards building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the invaluable crop in order to demonstrate that potatoes can be grown in the most inhospitable environments.” The post goes on to laud the nutrient benefits of the potato and its potential to address issues of food security, poverty, and malnutrition. As NASA seeks for ways to sustain an eventual human mission to Mars, CIP looks to address global hunger. Together they see potential in the potato.

red potatoes

Space programs, even those that seem overly ambitious, offer benefits that can extend into all aspects of our lives. That is why I remain intrigued by experiments such as these that involve growing plants in space or on other planets. We may never find ourselves mass producing food for human populations outside of Earth (or maybe we will), but what we can learn in the process of simply seeing what is possible has great potential to increase our botanical knowledge and improve agricultural efforts here on our home planet.

Selected Resources:

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Thanks to Franz Anthony, Awkward Botany now has an official logo. Franz is a graphic designer, artist, and illustrator based in Sydney, Australia. Check out his website and his Tumblr, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Also, stay tuned for more of Franz’s graphic design and illustration work here on Awkward Botany. 

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Plants Use Mycorrhizal Fungi to Warn Each Other of Incoming Threats

The March 2015 issue of New Phytologist is a Special Issue focusing on the “ecology and evolution of mycorrhizas.” This is the second of two articles from that issue that I am reviewing. Read the first review here.

Interplant signalling through hyphal networks by David Johnson and Lucy Gilbert

When an individual plant is attacked by an insect or fungal pest, it can warn neighboring plants – prompting them to produce compounds that either repel the pests or attract beneficial organisms that can fight off the pests. There are two main pathways for a plant to send these communications: through the air by way of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) or through the soil by way of a vast collection of fungal hyphae called mycelium. Plant communication by aerial release of VOC’s has been well documented; communication via mycelium, however, is a fairly recent discovery, and there is much left to learn.

“The length of hyphae in the soil and the ability of mycorrhizal fungi to form multiple points of entry into roots can lead to the formation of a common mycelial network (CMN) that interconnects two or more plants.” These CMN’s are known to play “key roles in facilitating nutrient transport and redistribution.” We now understand that they can also “facilitate defense against insect herbivores and foliar necrotophic fungi by acting as conduits for interplant signaling.” The purpose of this research is to explore the “mechanisms, evolutionary consequences, and circumstances” surrounding the evolution of this process and to “highlight key gaps in our understanding.”

interplant signaling

An illustration of plant communication (aka interplant signaling) by air and by soil form the article in New Phytologist.

If plants are communicating via CMN’s, how are they doing it? The authors propose three potential mechanisms. The first is by signal molecules being transported “in liquid films on the external surface of hyphae via capillary action or microbes.” They determine that this form of communication would be easily disrupted by soil particles and isn’t likely to occur over long distances. The second mechanism is by molecules being transported within hyphae, passing from cell to cell until they reach their destination. The third mechanism involves an electrical signal induced by wounding.

If signal molecules are involved in the process, what molecules are they? There are some molecules already known to be transported by fungal hyphae (lipids, phosphate transporters, and amino acids) and there are also compounds known to be involved in signaling between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Exploring these further would be a good place to start. We also need to determine if specific insect and fungal pests or certain types of plant damage result in unique signaling compounds.

It has been established that electrical signals can be produced in response to plant damage. These signals are a result of a process known as membrane depolarization. “A key advantage of electrical-induced defense over mobile chemical is the speed of delivery.” Movement of a molecule through cells occurs significantly slower than an electrical charge, which is important if the distance to transport the message is relatively far and the plant needs to respond quickly to an invasion. Various aspects of fungal physiology and activity have been shown to be driven in part by membrane depolarization, so involving it in interplant signaling isn’t too far-fetched.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

How and why does a system of interplant communication involving mycorrhizal fungi evolve? And what are the costs and benefits to the plants and fungi involved? Determining costs and benefits will depend largely on further establishing the signaling mechanisms. Exploring real world systems will also help us answer these questions. For example, in a stable environment such as a managed grassland where CMNs are well developed, a significant loss of plants to a pest or disease could be devastating for the mycorrhizal community, so “transferring warning signals” would be highly beneficial. Conversely, in an unstable environment where a CMN is less established, assisting in interplant signaling may be less of an imperative. Regarding questions concerning the degree of specialization involved in herbivore-plant-fungal interactions: if a “generic herbivore signal” is sent to a neighboring plant that is not typically affected by the attacking herbivore, the cost to the plant in putting up its defenses and to the fungus in transporting the message is high and unnecessary. So, in an environment where there are many different plant species, species-specific signals may be selected for over time; in areas where there are few plant species, a generic signal would suffice.

As research continues, the mysteries of “defense-related” interplant communication via CMN’s will be revealed. Field studies are particularly important because they can paint a more accurate picture compared to “highly simplified laboratory conditions.” One exciting thing about this type of communication is that it may mean that some plants are communicating with each other across great distances, since “some species of fungi can be vast.” CMNs can also target specific plants, and compared to communication via aerial VOC’s, the signal will not be diluted by the wind.

Since I am in the process of reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, I have decided to include her description of a tree-mycorrhizal fungi relationship:

The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. A kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time. They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.

Using Plant Root and Mycorrhizal Fungal Traits to Predict Soil Structure

The March 2015 issue of New Phytologist is a Special Issue exploring the “ecology and evolution of mycorrhizas.” A mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a plant. The introductory editorial of this special issue asserts that “almost all land plant species form a symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi.” Generally, the association benefits both plant and fungus. The plant gains greater access to water and mineral nutrients by the way of fungal hyphae, and the fungus recieves carbohydrates (glucose and sucrose) that have been synthesized in the leaves of the plant and transported down into its roots. We have been aware of this relationship since at least the middle of the 19th century, but recent advances in technology have given us new insight into just how extensive and important it is . “Plants cannot be considered as isolated individuals anymore, but as metaorganisms or holobionts encompassing an active microbial community re-programming host physiology.”

However, there are still “critical gaps” in our understanding of mycorrhizas, hence the special issue of New Phytologist. In this issue they endeavor to address the following questions: “How is the balance of mutualism maintained between plants and fungi? What is the role of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil ecosystem? What controls fungal community composition, and how is diversity maintained?” There is so much more to learn, but the research presented in this issue has us moving in the right direction. If you are interested in this sort of thing, I encourage you to check out the entire issue. I have picked out just 2 of the 32 articles to present here – one this week and the other next week.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plant root and mycorrhizal fungal traits for understanding soil aggregation by Matthias C. Rillig, Carlos A. Aguilar-Trigueros, Joana Bergmann, Erik Verbruggen, Stavros D. Veresoglou, and Anika Lehmann

Soil structure is determined by the size, shape, and extent of soil aggregates and the resulting pore spaces found between them. The arrangement of soil aggregates and pore spaces helps determine the availability and movement of water and air and also has an influence on the growth and movement of micro- and macroorganisims, including fungi, plant roots, bacteria, and arthropods. The authors state that “soil aggregation is important for root growth and for a wide range of soil features and ecosystem process rates, such as carbon storage and resistance to erosion.”

Soil aggregates are composed mainly of clay particles, organic matter (including plant roots), organic compounds (produced by bacteria and fungi), and fungal hyphae. There has been plenty of research on soil aggregation, but much of it is focused on management practices and physical chemical factors. Less is known about the contribution of plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi to the formation and stabilization of soil aggregates. We know they play a role, but we lack understanding about the extent to which soil aggregation can be predicted not just by abiotic factors but also by the presence of plants and mycorrhizal fungi. The authors of this paper propose a widespread, trait-based approach to researching this topic, recognizing that “summarizing ecological characteristics of species by means of traits has become an essential tool in plant ecology.”

Possible traits to be considered were grouped into two categories: formation-related traits and stabilization-related traits. Formation refers to “the initial binding together of particles” to form an aggregate. Stabilization is a process in which aggregates are “increasingly resistant to the application of disintegrating forces, such as water penetrating into pores.” These two processes (along with disintegration) are occurring simultaneously in virtually all soils, but they “may be executed by different organisms expressing different traits.” Some of the formation traits include length, extension ability, and relative growth of roots and hyphae; root and hyphae exudate quality and quantity; and the “ability of roots or hyphae to bring soil particles together by moving them, leading to potential aggregation.” Stabilization traits include tensile strength, density, and “entangling ability” of roots and hyphae; water repellency of the aggregates and cementation capability of the exudates; and the life span, palatability, and repair capacity of roots and hyphae.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The amount of time and effort it will take to measure the traits of each and every plant and mycorrhizal fungi species and to determine the extent to which those traits contribute to soil aggregation will be considerable. The authors acknowledge that “some of these traits will be relatively easy to measure,” while “others will be quite challenging.” However, as technologies advance, the mysterious world under our feet should become easier to explore. As the traits of each species of plant and fungi are measured, a database can be constructed and eventually used to determine the plant/fungi combinations that are the best fits for restoring and conserving the soils of specific regions.

Ultimately, this research may help us answer various questions, including whether or not we can use a survey of plant and mycorrhizal fungi (along with soil type, climate, and management) to predict soil aggregation. Ecosytem restoration efforts may also benefit if we are able to produce “tailor-made mycorrhizal fungi inocula and seed mixes” in order to “enhance soil aggregation.” Better understanding of these traits could also be applied to sustainable agriculture in areas such as crop breeding and cover crop selection. This research is in the hypothesis phase right now, and “only controlled experiments employing a range of plant and fungal species” can reveal the role that certain plant root and mycorrhizal fungal traits play in soil aggregation as well as the full range of applications that this information might have.

Speaking of soil, did you know that the 68th United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils? The purpose of this declaration is to “increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.” You can read a list of “specific objectives” on their About page.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part three

The second section of Evelyn J. Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, is all about the unique challenges and obstacles one faces when gardening in that stretch of land between the sidewalk and the road. I highlighted some of those challenges last week. This week we are into the third section of Hadden’s book, the part that is all about designing, building, and managing a curbside garden. As I have read through this book, I have begun to look at hellstrips in a much different light. They are no longer boring sections of yard with little potential, but instead are full of possibility and have unique characteristics involving publicity and functionality that are absent from most of the rest of the urban landscape. Now that we are in the creation phase of the book, this fact becomes abundantly clear.

Choosing a Style

When deciding how to design and plant your curbside bed, it is important to consider – along with aesthetics – the functions you wish to achieve (storm water runoff collection, food production, wildlife habitat, etc.) as well as how you are going to maintain it. You may decide to embrace minimal maintenance with a mass planting of a single species or mass plantings of a handful of species in sections called drifts. This can be very attractively done, but it also has the risk of a disease or pest wiping out a section of plants. A mass planting of ground covers acts as a living mulch and will eliminate the need to replenish non-living mulch. Hadden provides descriptions of a few styles of garden design, such as formal, naturalistic, cottage garden, and stroll garden, each with their virtues and limitations. Growing food is also an option in a hellstrip. If this is the option you choose, keep the bed looking full by intermixing flowers and crop plants, growing perennial crops, and staggering planting times. Ultimately the style of the garden is the preference of the gardener; however, the environmental conditions of the hellstrip must also be a consideration.

Choosing Plants

Because hellstrips are by nature public gardens, they are the ideal place for plants that appeal to the human senses – plants that invite interaction. Hadden calls these plants “friendly plants.” They are plants that are aromatic, have interesting textures and bold colors, “feel great underfoot,” have “aesthetically pleasing symmetry,” and have unusual flowers or unique foliage. Hadden asserts that, “plants that invite touching engender good will,” so consider the ways that your hellstrip might make you a better neighbor.

Their public nature also means that hellstrip gardens are not the place for rare and valuable plants, and instead are ideal for easily replaceable and self-repairing plants. This includes perennials that are easily divided, shrubs that reproduce by layering, creeping plants that send out runners, and plants with seeds that are easily collected and can be sown in bare spots. One option is to plant only annuals. This eliminates the loss of plants during the winter when snow, sand, and/or salt are deposited in the beds by road clearing equipment. Just be sure to protect the soil with mulch or a cover crop during the cold months of the year.

A hellstrip is also an ideal location for an alternative lawn. Traditional lawns require loads of water and fertilizer and regular mowing in order to stay looking good. There are lots of other grasses and ground covers available now that are drought tolerant, require little or no fertilizer, don’t need to be mowed often or at all, and are still very attractive. Hadden has a website all about lawn alternatives called Less Lawn.

The seed heads of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The seed heads of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), one of many attractive alternatives to traditional turfgrass. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

When selecting plants for your hellstrip garden, consider the conditions it will have to endure. Unless you want to make serious amendments in order to accommodate certain plants, it is probably best to choose plants that are already adapted to your site. One way to determine this is to observe sites similar to yours and see what is thriving there; particularly make note of plants that look like they have been there for a while. Also, feel free to ask local experts at garden centers and public gardens what they might recommend for your site.

Earthshaping

“Diverse topography makes a more visually interesting garden, and it adds microclimates, letting you grow more diverse plants.” Shaping a curbside bed can also serve other functions such as softening traffic noise, defining pathways, collecting runoff, and providing wildlife habitat. When building a large berm, first create a rocky base and then fill in the spaces between the rocks with sand and small gravel. After that, add topsoil and firmly pack it down with machinery or a rolling drum. Small berms can be formed by simply piling up excess soil or turning over sections of sod and piling them up. Maintain good plant coverage on berms in order to reduce erosion, and consider planting shrubs with extensive root systems like sumac (Rhus sp.) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.).

Hellstrips are ideal locations for rain gardens and bioswales since they are typically surrounded by impervious surfaces. Storm water can be directed from these surfaces into your rain garden, thereby reducing the amount of storm water runoff that must be handled elsewhere. Hadden provides a brief overview on how to construct a rain garden; the process is too detailed to go into here. If you are serious about building one, it is important to do your research beforehand to be sure that it is built properly. There are several great resources available; one that I would recommend is Washington State University Extension.

Partnering with Nature

Time spent managing and maintaining your hellstrip garden can be greatly reduced when it is well planned out, contains plants that are suited to the site, and has good soil health. Helping you achieve these things is essentially what Hadden’s book is all about. Watering properly and wisely is key to the success of your hellstrip garden. Hadden suggests organizing plants into “irrigation zones,” separating those that need little or no water from those that need frequent or regular watering. When you do water, water “thoroughly and infrequently to maximize deep root growth and drought resistance.” Consider installing a drip irrigation system, particularly one that will direct the water to the roots of the plants and deliver it slowly. Avoid watering areas where there are no plants, as this encourages weed growth.

Mostly likely you will be doing some amount of trimming and pruning in your hellstrip. Consider how you will handle this plant material. You may choose to cut it up into fine pieces and leave it as mulch; or maybe you have a compost pile to add to. Large woody materials can be placed in a section of your property set aside for wildlife habitat. Choosing plants that will not outgrow the space will reduce the amount of pruning you will need to do.

As much as Hadden is an advocate for alternatives to conventional lawns, she is also an advocate for reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Nobody enjoys hearing the clamor of a smelly, polluting leaf blower echoing through the neighborhood, so be a good neighbor and use a broom or rake instead. You will probably enjoy the task more as you listen to nature, get some exercise, and revel in your garden.

Continued focus on building healthy soil is paramount to the ongoing success of your curbside garden. Continue to add organic matter by letting some of the plant litter lie and decompose. Plant nitrogen fixing species like lupines (Lupinus sp.) and false indigos (Baptisia sp.). As much as possible avoid compacting the soil, especially when it is wet, and keep tilling and digging to a minimum once the garden is planted.

Partidge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil health. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), an annual plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). One of many nitrogen fixing plants that can help improve soil fertility. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Again, this is only a fraction of what Hadden discusses in this section of her book. Consult the book for more of her wisdom. The final section of Hellstrip Gardening is a long list of plants that are “curbside-worthy” complete with photos and descriptions. Next week’s post will be all about a particular type of hellstrip garden that employs a subsection of those plants.

Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part two

Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn J. Hadden is a book intended to help transform roadside beds (or any neglected or hard to garden spot) into a verdant and productive green space. A “paradise,” if you will. Last week, I introduced the concept of hellstrips and briefly discussed the first section of Hadden’s book. This week we are looking at the second section, which is all about the unique challenges and obstacles that hellstrip gardening entails. Hadden has divided this section into 8 main areas of focus. She provides a ton of great information that is sure to be incredibly useful for anyone seriously engaged in improving a hellstrip. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend referring to the book. For simplicity’s sake, this post will include a quick overview of each of the main themes, detailing a few of the things that stood out to me.

Working with Trees

Trees offer many benefits to urban and suburban areas; however, it is not uncommon to see hellstrips with trees that are much too large for the space. Hellstrips are often surrounded by paved surfaces and are heavily trafficked. This leads to soil compaction which results in roots being starved of oxygen and water. Where there are power lines overhead, oversized trees must be heavily pruned to make room for them. Consider planting small or medium sized trees in these spaces. Make sure the soil is well aerated and that there is enough space for the roots to expand out beyond the canopy. Hadden advises avoiding growing turfgrass below trees because it is shallow rooted and uses up much of the available water and oxygen; instead plant deep rooted perennials that naturally grow in wooded environments.

Working with Water

Depending on where you are located, your hellstrip is either going to be water limited or water abundant. Water availability also varies depending on the time of year. If you are mostly water limited, include plants that can tolerate drought conditions. Avoid planting them too close to each other so that they aren’t competing for water. Increase your soil’s water holding capacity by adding organic matter and mulching bare ground. Strategically placed boulders can create cool, moist microclimates where plants can endure hot, dry stretches. If you are dealing with too much water, you can “increase the absorption power” of your property by ensuring that your soil is well aerated and high in organic matter. Plant high water use perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees with extensive root systems. Replace impermeable surfaces with ground covers and permeable pathways to reduce runoff, and reshape beds so that they collect, hold, and absorb excess runoff.

Working with Poor Soil

Curbside beds in urban areas are notorious for having soil that is compacted, contaminated, and depleted of nutrients. This issue can be addressed by removing and replacing the soil altogether or by heavily amending it. Another solution is to only include plants that can tolerate these harsh conditions. Most likely you will do something in between these two extremes. Adding organic matter seems like the best way to improve soil structure and fertility. Because contaminants from paved surfaces are regularly introduced to curbside gardens, there is a good chance that the soil may contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals. It is a good idea to test the soil before planting edibles. Contaminated soils can be remediated by growing certain plants like annual sunflowers, which take up heavy metals into their tissues. These plants must then be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soils. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soil (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Working with Laws and Covenants

Regulations and restrictions may prohibit you from creating the hellstrip garden you dream of having. Start by informing yourself of your areas laws and covenants. Some restrictions may be based on public safety (such as restrictions on street trees) while others may be based on outdated ways of thinking. Hadden advises not to assume that a regulation can’t be reversed; however, first you must prepare a well reasoned argument based on facts and evidence. Will your landscape design conserve resources, provide ecological services, improve property values, enhance the neighborhood in some way? Perhaps “your property can model a new landscaping strategy.” Prepare to state your case respectfully, intelligently, and convincingly, and you might just find yourself at the forefront of a new movement.

Living with Vehicles

A garden growing along a roadway is sure to be confronted by vehicles. Hadden suggests using “easily replaceable plants for vulnerable areas.” You can also protect your garden by installing a low fence or wall or by planting sturdy shrubs, prickly plants, or plants that are tall and/or brightly colored. If parking is a regular occurrence, leave room for people to exit their vehicles without trampling the garden. A garden surrounded by paved surfaces will be hotter than other areas on your property, so plant heat tolerant plants or shade the garden with trees and shrubs. A hedge, trellis, fence, or berm can act as a wind and dust break and can help reduce noise. Aromatic plants can help combat undesirable urban smells, and noise can be further masked by water features and plantings that attract songbirds.

Living with Wildlife

Wildlife can either be encouraged or discouraged depending on your preferences. Discouraging certain wildlife can be as simple as “learn[ing] what they need in terms of food and shelter, and then eliminat[ing] it.” A garden full of diverse plant life can help limit damage caused by leaf-eating insects. Encouraging birds and bats can also help control insects. Herbivory by mammals can be reduced by growing a wide array of plants and not over fertilizing or overwatering them. Conversely, encouraging wildlife entails discovering what they like and providing it. For example, to encourage large populations of pollinators, plant a diversity of plants that flower throughout the year and provide nesting sites such as patches of bare ground for ground nesting bees. Keep in mind that your property can be part of a wildlife corridor – a haven for migrating wildlife in an otherwise sea of uninhabitable urban space.

Living with Road Maintenance and Utilities

Curbsides gardens are unique in that they are directly affected by road maintenance and they often must accommodate public utility features like electrical boxes, fire hydrants, street signs, and telephone poles. In areas where salts are applied to roads to reduce ice, hellstrips can be planted with salt tolerant plants and can be deeply watered in order to flush salts down into the soil profile. In areas that receive heavy snowfall, avoid piling snow directly on top of plants. Always call utility companies before doing any major digging to find out where underground pipes and electrical cables are located. Utility features can be masked using shrubs, trellises, and vining plants (especially annual vines that are easily removed and replaced); just be sure to maintain access to them. If your hellstrip consists of “unsightly objects,” Hadden recommends “composing a riveting garden scene to divert attention from an uninspiring view.”

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Living with the Public

Your hellstrip is the most public part of your yard, so you are going to have to learn to share. In order to keep trampling to a minimum and contained to certain areas, make it obvious where pathways are and use berms to raise up the beds. Keep the paths clear of debris and avoid messy fruit and nut trees that can make pathways unfriendly to walk on. Avoid planting rare and valuable plants in your curbside garden. Remember that your hellstrip is typically the first part of your property that people see, so make a good first impression. Also, consider the potential that your public hellstrip garden has for building community and inspiring others.

There is so much more in this section; it is impossible to discuss it all here. Again, if you are serious about improving a hellstrip, get your hands on this book. All hellstrips are different and will have unique challenges. Hadden does a great job of touching on nearly any issue that may arise. Now that we’ve covered challenges and obstacles, next week we will look at designing, building, and managing hellstrip gardens.

Feeding the World with Microbes

Back in the mid 1900’s, after the tragic days of the Dust Bowl in North America, new agricultural techniques and technologies were developed and distributed in the name of food security. These developments included higher yielding plant varieties, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and advancements in irrigation and other management practices. This period in time was termed the Green Revolution, and it truly was a remarkable time. Agricultural advancements that came out of this period have helped us feed the world and stave of starvation for millions of people. Today, issues of hunger and starvation are political problems, not necessarily agricultural ones. However, the human population continues to grow, and today’s 7 billion people is projected to reach up to 10 billion (or more) in the coming decades. The world’s best farmland is either already in use, degraded, or being used for other things. This means that we must find a way to feed a growing population with the diminishing farmland that is available. We may be producing enough food now (despite the distribution problem), but will we be able to produce enough in the future? The hunt for the Green Revolution 2.0 is on.

“According to the [UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization], most of the growth in production…has to come from increasing yields from crops. Selective breeding doesn’t seem to be offering the types of dramatic yield increases seen in the past. Meanwhile, genetic engineering has yet to lead to any significant increase in yields. Now, many scientists are saying that we’ve been looking at the wrong set of genes.”

These are the words of Cynthia Graber, author of an article that appeared last month on PBS Online’s NOVANext entitled, “The Next Green Revolution May Rely on Microbes.” In it she explores the argument that increasing future yields will depend on better understanding the soil’s microbial community and its complex interaction with the plant community. The big question: if microbes can be artificially bred – the same way virtually all agricultural plants have been – might they help us increase food production?

Microbial life in the soil is incredibly diverse. In one teaspoon of soil, there can be billions of individual microbes including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, and nematodes. Our current understanding of soil life is extremely limited, akin to our understanding of outer space and the depths of the oceans. That is because, as stated in Graber’s article, “perhaps 1% of all soil microbes can be grown in a petri dish, the conventional model for such research.” This limits our ability to study soil microbes and their interactions with other living things. We do, however, acknowledge that the interactions between the roots of plants and soil microbes is incredibly important.

Fruiting Body of an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus (photo credit: eol.org)

Fruiting Body of an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus (photo credit: eol.org)

One major player in these interactions is a group of fungi called mycorrhizae. “Mycorrhizal fungi cannot survive without plants, and most plants cannot thrive without mycorrhizal fungi.” It is a symbiotic relationship, in which the fungi offer plants greater access to water and nutrients, and plants feed sugars derived from photosynthesis to fungi. Recent advancements in genetics have allowed researchers to better analyze the genes in microbes like mychorrizal fungi and determine the functions of them. Through selective breeding, microbes can be produced that will offer even greater benefits to plants, thereby increasing yields. For example, some microbes help plants tolerate heat and drought. Isolating the genes that give microbes these abilities, and then breeding these genes into other microbes might allow for a wider palette of plants to receive this kind of assistance.

In researching this article, Graber followed a Swiss researcher to Colombia where he was testing lines of mychorrhizal fungi on cassava. The fungi were specifically selected to increase a plant’s access to phosphorous. This is one of many experiments that are now under way or in the works looking at specially bred microbes in agricultural production. It’s an exciting new movement, and rather than spoil too much more of Graber’s article, I implore you to read it for yourself. Share any comments you may have in the comment section below, and expect more posts about plant and microbe interactions in the future.

Cynthia Graber appeared at the beginning of a recent episode of Inquiring Minds podcast to talk about her article. I recommend listening to that as well.

Growing Plants on the Moon

You’ve heard about gardening by the moon – an ancient approach to gardening based in folklore and superstition in which planting times are scheduled according to moon phases and astrological signs. Now, how about gardening on the moon! No pseudoscience necessary here. NASA scientists are currently on a mission to determine what it will take to grow plants on the moon in anticipation of setting up a permanent lunar base. After all, if we plan on sending people to the moon to live for long periods of time, we will need to figure out how to grow some food for them up there, right?

The first phase of the study will examine seed germination in a lunar environment and will observe seedlings during the first week or so of their lives. The seeds of cress, basil, and turnip have been selected as the first to be grown on the moon. However, these seeds will experience an environment that seeds of their kind (or any other kind for that matter) have never experienced before, because, unlike the earth, the moon has no atmosphere. Gravity on the moon is one sixth of what it is on earth; solar radiation is intense and direct; and fluctuations in temperature are extreme to put it lightly (about 150°F during the day to -150°F during the night). Oh, and there is one other important limitation: moon soil is dead. To start with, it’s virtually moisture-free. It also has no organic matter content, and it is void of life (compared to a tablespoon of earth soil, which is said to harbor about 50 billion microbes, many of which help sustain plant life).

NASA scientists have considered these limitations. That is why the first seeds on the moon will be grown in a lunar plant growth chamber. This growth chamber is designed to regulate temperature and light and will contain a filter paper inoculated with plant nutrients. Water will be stored inside the growth chamber and released when the chamber reaches the moon. There will be just enough water to induce germination and allow the plants to grow for 5-10 days. Plant growth will be monitored with an onboard camera and then compared to plants grown in a similar growth chamber on earth. Scientists will be observing how well the seeds germinate and grow in a low gravity, high radiation environment.

The first lunar plant growth chamber is scheduled to head for the moon in late 2015. It will be hitching a ride with the winners of the Google Lunar X-prize competition. Based on the results of the first phase of the experiment, following phases will observe sexual reproduction in a lunar environment. If sexual reproduction occurs, what effect will high levels of radiation have on subsequent generations? Only time will tell, so this will be an exciting project to monitor for years to come.

moon

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Do you want to help design future lunar plant growth chambers? Go here.