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 across the planet. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them adapt to drought stress. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for my 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, Arabidopsis switches to this acetate-producing pathway to endure long periods when there is no water at all. 

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 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.

 

Trade In Your Lawn For A Low-Maintenance Meadow Garden

meadow1

A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The meadow garden can offer a solution to this problem. Continue reading

Bridging the Gap: DC To Build First Elevated Park On 11th Street Bridge

Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing

There’s a movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a garden on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is the best known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation, the 11th Street Bridge Park. Soon, the city’s first elevated park will be perched high atop the Anacostia River. Continue reading

Now There’s Proof: Bumblebees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better. Continue reading

New Study Reveals Ants Know How To Grow Plants

fiji-ant

“Even the sharpest ear cannot hear an ant singing” -Sudanese Proverb

(Red ant on Fijian palm leaf)

Just when you thought you’d heard it all, this week comes the revelation that a certain species of Fijiian ants has been growing plants for millennia.  And they’ve been doing so for far longer than humans. The ants have been growing crops and establishing their colonies within them all while tending their own teeny tiny community gardens. Continue reading

Is the Self-Healing House the Garden of the Future?

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-12-25-16-pm

Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading

Scientists Uncover Key To Helping Plants Cope With Drought

drought-cover

Have you ever driven by a cornfield during a prolonged period of drought and asked yourself ‘How do these plants survive?’ Well it turns out scientists have uncovered a protein in plants that holds the key to why some survive and others don’t. It’s called ABA INSENSITIVE GROWTH 1 (ABIG1) and it may determine the future of plant growth in an increasingly waterless world.

Continue reading

The Return of the Purple Martin

pm.cover

As all gardeners know, working in the garden is not just about plants. Being outside with your hands in the soil makes you keenly aware of animal life, too. Over the years, I’ve gardened in tandem with a majestic blue heron, a band of three crows and a playful red fox. Now, with the arrival of warmer weather, I’m looking forward to the return of the purple martins.

Aside from being able to identify their houses (virtual mansions of the ornithological kind), I didn’t know much about these amazing birds until recently, when my garden club hosted two members of a local purple martin society. Ever since, I’ve been scanning the skies for the colorful species. That’s because, according to the experts, the first wave of arrivals are due to be hitting my area soon.

pm. mansion

Purple martin house

PURPLE MARTINS HEAD NORTH IN THEIR WINTER

Of the eight swallow species, purple martins are the largest. The dark bluish-black birds arrive en masse to North America each spring, soaring on the jet stream from their native southern Brazil. It takes them about five weeks to fly the 10,000 miles, which is quite a feat for a bird that weighs only about 2 ½ ounces.

pm.female in flight

Female purple martin in flight

Like many neotropical birds, purple martins travel north to the United States and Canada to breed. The birds arrive at the height of the insect season, establishing themselves in colonies located close to water where there is the greatest food supply. In total, the migration can take up to 2 to 3 months to complete.

Meanwhile back in Brazil, they’re considered a public nuisance, mainly due to their large numbers and preference for roosting in trees around central plazas. As a result, some municipalities have gone so far as to install sirens and other devices to chase the birds away.

ONLY MAN-MADE HOUSING WILL DO

In the United States, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Here, the purple martin colonies return each year to establish neighborhoods in man-made housing only, usually large, multi-room houses or hollowed-out hanging gourds. In fact, they are the only bird species that is totally dependent on human-supplied housing. In other words, not only are they friendly towards people, but they actually prefer living in close proximity. 

Purple Martin Birdhouse Community

As a species, purple martins favor locations in wide-open terrain, usually pole-mounted martin houses or gourds. This keeps them out of reach of predators like owls and hawks that dwell in cavities in trees. Consequently, they’ll generally bypass congested suburban areas for broad open areas like meadows or fields located near lakes or other bodies of water.

Typically only one male and one female live together in a room or a gourd. However, the highly sociable birds house together in colonies, where they interact as a unit, sharing food and singing to each other. In fact, a group of houses or gourds can often host as many as 60 to 70 birds over a 2-month period.

pm.pair

Purple martin pair

THEY SEND SCOUTS

Now is the time of year when the first scouts (who are the oldest birds) begin arriving from Brazil to check out their nesting sites from the previous year. The scouts pave the way for the rest of the flock, which arrives 4 to 6 weeks later. Built like a glider, the birds can travel at speeds greater than 40 miles per hour.

THEY ONLY FEED ON THE FLY

Moreover, purple martins bring a whole new meaning to eating ‘on the fly.’ According to Mike Dickson of the Purple Martin Society of Frederick, Maryland, they only recognize food that is in flight, meaning that they primarily snatch insects in midair. Adept in performing complex aerial acrobatics, the birds even drink in the air. They accomplish this by flying low over lakes or ponds while scooping up water with their bills.

pm.female in flight 2

A female in flight

Indeed, you’ll never find purple martins foraging for food on the ground, or eating seed from a feeder. People who choose to feed the friendly birds will discover they’re quite open to the idea, but only if the food is flung to them. On occasion this is necessary since the birds are highly susceptible to bad weather. Prolonged periods of cold or rain can spell death to entire colonies when there are no insects available.

THEY SING REALLY WELL

One of only a few colony birds that love to sing, purple martins’ throaty chirps can be heard May through June during the breeding season. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, males make a croaking song during courtship that can last up to 4 seconds. People say that once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.

pm.male standing on post in British columbia

Males perform the dawn song

Purple martins sing in a combination of gurgles, clicks and song. The loudest singing occurs before daylight. Males perform this dawn song, possibly to attract other birds to the nesting site. Click here to hear a few of their beautiful songs.

AN EARLY DEPARTURE

All too soon, by the end of July or first week in August, the birds prepare to leave for their migratory roost. Many purple martin lovers describe this time as a sad one, when they awake to find the birds gone and their houses empty. It’s as if suddenly, the countryside has fallen silent.

pm.female3

Female purple martin

Once airborne, the birds fly south towards a prescribed spot to roost by the tens of thousands. The largest roosting colony on record was estimated to have 700,000 birds at one time. Usually located by water, groups of colonies will gather there over a few days, before heading on back to Brazil. There can be thousands of purple martins in the sky at one time, so many that they often show up on Doppler radar as giant rings.

Interested in attracting purple martins? Here’s a great article from the Purple Martin Conservation Association in Edinboro, PA, a non-profit conservation organization.

 

 

Bee ID: How To Make Sense Of The Buzz In Your Garden

cover.bumble bee

Aren’t they cute?

One of the many things I love about gardening is working alongside my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Dutifully arriving on the job each morning, the bees hover beside me, yielding as one mass each time I shift position in the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to touch one of the downy creatures, and they’ve allowed me to stroke them. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industriousness never ceases to amaze me. Continue reading