5 Ways To Honor Our Planet On Earth Day

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It’s been a half century now since Earth Day made its debut on April 22, 1970. I still remember the strangeness of being dismissed early from school to clean up litter. At the time, the idea seemed foreign to us, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our trash on the ground. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset.

WE’VE COME A LONG WAY

In the decades since, the world has made some progress in tackling pollution. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that Earth Day means more than picking up litter. Nowadays, I mark the day as a time of reflection. To that end, I meditate on Earth’s capacity to sustain life, man’s dependence on its resources, and just what my tiny role on our home planet can be.

Thinking about these things always fills me with gratitude. Recently, I’ve been working on becoming a better inhabitant. Here are five ways to honor our planet this Earth Day.

1. RECOGNIZE THAT WE EXIST BY EARTH’S CHOOSING

It should go without saying that the Earth exists separately from its inhabitants. Every bit as alive as we are, our planet provides everything that makes our life possible on its surface. We exist by its choosing, which is remarkable when you consider what we do to it. 

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On Earth Day, drink deeply of the natural beauty that surrounds you and give thanks for the benevolence of our planet.

2. WEAN YOURSELF OF CHEMICAL DEPENDENCY

Chemicals can make life easier. And they are hard to give up. The obvious culprits like herbicides and fertilizers are only part of the problem. Many of the products we have at home contain additives that are harmful to our planet. And let’s face it, buying “green” isn’t always so fun to do.

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On Earth Day, take stock of your bad habits and choose at least one offending product to cut from your life.

3. STOP EATING FOODS OUT OF SEASON

Eating foods out of season is bad for the planet. Why? Because food has a carbon footprint. Purchasing exotic, or out-of-season produce only contributes to long-distance transportation emissions. Moreover, foods modified for shipping are generally lower in flavor and nutrients.

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On Earth Day, reevaluate your choices and strive to realign with the natural flow of things. Support your area farmers and purchase food locally whenever you can. 

4. ACKNOWLEDGE WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER

It bears repeating that we are on this earth collectively, not individually. As a result, each individual’s behavior impacts the broader community. It is the sum of our combined actions that forms our human experience on Earth.

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On Earth Day, embrace your unique role in the world and take responsibility for the impact it has on the course of our planet.

5. GO BACK OUTSIDE

Although technology has broadened our horizons, it has also driven us indoors. Yet, Earth’s changing seasons, infinite weather forms and stunning natural beauty are all waiting to be experienced outside.

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On Earth Day,  rededicate yourself to going outdoors and celebrating the incredible planet that is our home.

Wishing you all a very Happy Earth Day.

 

Nurturing Wildlife Habitats: Five Ways To Save the Planet

For many of us, attracting wildlife to our gardens sounds good in theory but fails in practice. Especially when it comes to that four-legged pest the white–tailed deer. However, there are many sound reasons for enticing birds, insects, even small animals back into our yards. It’s not only good for our local ecosystem, but it also keeps our flowers blooming. And it just might be the right thing to do. Continue reading

Seasonal Eating: The Best ‘Warming’ Foods To Try This Winter

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Winter has its challenges if, like me, you’re looking for fresh produce. And that makes it hard to resist all those imported fruits and vegetables. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demo Garden when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. It looked pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed. And the ‘lanterns’ housed baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading

Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time. They’re living proof of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading

What Dirty Old Birds Can Teach Us About Air Pollution

Bird specimens at the Field Museum of Chicago

It couldn’t help but attract my attention; a neat row of old, preserved birds, their soft, feathery chests face-up: some were dark with soot, others by comparison, were clean. All came from an industrial area in the United States called the Rust Belt. That is key to the story. Continue reading

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

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Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week on why your trees may be failing. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading

Trending In Health: Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing. Continue reading

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Lack of water is becoming an increasing concern both for human and plant life throughout the world. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer under drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

The Study

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study that showed huge promise for thirsty plants of the future. Researchers revealed that they had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in certain species that sprang into action in times of water stress. By studying the pathway and the chain of chemical reactions within it, the scientists made a surprising discovery. They found they could induce greater drought tolerance in certain plants by growing them in vinegar.

Most of us are familiar with vinegar’s miraculous cleaning and anti-bacterial properties, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

A little plant named Arabidopsis

It all started with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, this genus of small flowering plants was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced. As a result, it is considered a model organism for studying plant biology.

Perhaps most interestingly, Arabidopsis is also known to exhibit strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6. Specifically, the mutation allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

HDA6 acts as a switch

Indeed, initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, which is also the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway is active. While most plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, Arabidopsis switches to this acetate-producing pathway.

Clearly there was something going on. To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, they measured the results. Surprisingly, 70 percent of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living. Conversely, all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

A link between acetate and drought performance

By measuring the amounts of acetate in the Arabidopsis, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate the plants produced and how well they performed under drought conditions. Even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and these species’ tolerance increased, too, when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

It goes without saying that the implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to other strategies like genetic engineering. Still, I’m not sure if vinegar will help my hydrangeas survive another scorching Maryland summer, but it’s worth a try. I’ll let you know.

 

 

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.

About Antoine Jacobsohn

So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from New Jersey. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles. And in 2008 he became director of the palace’s vegetable and fruit gardens commonly known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)

The Potager is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. As Jacobsohn puts it, the garden is surrounded by an “urban desert”. He finds this worrisome for the future. As city dwellers have increasingly less access to food, he believes we should rethink how we shape our gardens. And that means incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.

“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.

In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are experimenting, all while respecting the techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.

About the King’s Kitchen Garden

The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project. 

Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie

Quintinie’s first task was to take a swamp and turn it into a working garden. To accomplish this, he drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he enriched with manure from the King’s stables. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Versailles’ architect, designed the layout for the garden. The original plan called for 29 terraced garden squares grouped around a central fountain.

Original plan for le Potager du Roi

La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.

In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees.  Today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.

The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.

Today’s garden is rooted in discovery

‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)

From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.

Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?

To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.

The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden

Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.

“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”

Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française

Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.

Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française

Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.

For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.

“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”

Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.