Plant Dynamism

April 8, 2011

It’s official: Spring has sprung with flowering of ‘invasives’

Outside my study window, the pecan tree is leafing. The old folks say that when that happens, the cold weather is gone.

The great cold front that passed through last weekend – with a skirmish line of thunderstorms from New Orleans to the Canada border – seems to have ushered in a cold snap that has everything turning green.

It, thankfully, washed away the yellow clouds of pine pollen, and now buttercups (yes, another “invasive,” but a beautiful one!) are covering the fields.

We’re preparing to plant our tomatoes, peppers, melons and other warm weather plants in the next couple of weeks.

•Plant dynamism: In a previous column, I noted that many of the common “weeds” in our gardens (e.g., dandelions, henbit, et al.) are not “natural” in that they are “invasives,” or immigrants from Europe and Asia. A wonderful article in The New York Times, however, points out that this is a pejorative – even elitist! – view (which many fellow organic growers also reject).

In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” Hugh Raffles (April 3: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/opinion/03Raffles.html?src=recg) writes: “Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary historical line based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers.”

It’s true that many of the immigrants are much desired, such as honeybees and apple trees, just as many are nuisances, such as tumbleweeds and nut grass. And, as I noted in the article, some insects prefer to munch on the imports over our cultivated plants, thus providing a welcome diversion in the organic grower’s garden to help beneficial insects defeat, outwit or overwhelm the undesirables.

So, like others, I suppose I should adopt a less pejorative term – “opportunistic” plants, perhaps. Long live diversity in the garden!

Reader Response: I would advise against using raw or even composted chicken litter in your garden. While using this poultry litter as a soil amendment is not prohibited by the National Organic Program (with some restrictions), there is growing concern about heavy metals – particularly arsenic – that are present from such concentrated animal feeding operations.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, arsenic from poultry litter can potentially leach into lakes or streams. It can build up in the soils with repeated applications; and rather than breaking down, composting concentrates it. (See: http://bit.ly/dSlx45.)

Food origins: Ever wonder where your grocery’s food comes from? A new organization is working to document all fruit and vegetable shipments, stating what, where, how and if any food alerts are issued. For more, see: http://www.harvestmark.com.

Only those growers who contract with harvestmark are included. But consumers can also read the little stickers on the food at the grocery to winnow some information.

If the number on the label begins with a 4, it is conventional produce and most likely has been sprayed with pesticides.

Genetically modified “food” will start with the number 8. Organic produce will begin with the number 9.

For the sake of food safety, stronger labeling should be required to protect consumers.

A New Ag: Agriculture is on the verge of a new age that, if successful, will leave all of the “modern” and “conventional” methods of relying on fossil fuels for production – insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, diesel and gasoline – obsolete.

As Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has pointed out, it was a mere accident that agriculture began with annual plants 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

As the Ice Age ended, pockets of fertility such as the Tigras and Euphrates Valley, emerged. The first foodstuffs readily available were cereal grains which sprouted as annuals (that is, must be planted ever year). Those seeds were readily available, abundant and were thus able to be transported to far-off regions.

But just as easily, our ancestors could have chosen perennials. Had they done so, the nature of agriculture would be far different, and easier on the environment.

That’s what The Land Institute is in the process of developing: natural seeds for perennial foodstuffs.

Imagine fields of grain that are not cut down, but picked; fruits that bear year after year from the same stalks; no more tilling the soil or spraying poisons, but planting “companion” plants that provide shade or nutrients to the soil that complement each other’s needs.

This is the future of agriculture: sustainability. Not chemicals that kill and poison, but life that complements, nurtures and produces. I hope I live to see it.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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