How plants work The science behind the amazing things plants do

Linda Chalker-Scott

Book - 2015

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2nd Floor 571.2/Chalker-Scott Due Jun 7, 2024
Portland : Timber Press 2015.
Main Author
Linda Chalker-Scott (-)
First edition
Item Description
Includes index.
Physical Description
235 pages
  • Introduction: From the Ground Up
  • 1. Under the Microscope
  • 2. The Underground Railroad
  • 3. What's Essential
  • 4. Transforming Sunlight into Sugar
  • 5. Why Leaves Can Turn Red Anytime, Anyplace
  • 6. How Plants Tell Time
  • 7. Night Shifts and Other Unexpected Movements
  • 8. Garden Care, Not Control
  • 9. Finding Love in a Sedentary World
  • Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Acknowledgments
  • Photo and Illustration Credits
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

GARDENERS HAVE ACTIVE fantasy lives to keep us going despite constant setbacks. Fifty shades of green don't begin to capture what's looping through our brains. Lucky is the gardener who can bring those fantasies to life - to the delight or comfort of family and strangers alike. In Charleston, S.C., David Rawle has created a beautifully tranquil public garden dedicated to the memory of his mother, Theodora, an avid gardener. Theodora Park features palmetto trees and camellias; a ceramic artist has created colorful tiles for a fountain. On the other coast, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, is sinking five billion shades of green into an Eden for his company's new California campus. Perhaps no one will ever be tempted to leave. This season, a few glorious new books are sure to ignite further desire. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has unlocked the gates to his earthly paradise with HIGHGROVE: An English Country Garden (Rizzoli, $50). The text, by Bunny Guinness, is warm and welcoming, as are the photographs. The 34-year-old garden has charm, imagination - and a lot going on. It has been tended, organically, with consideration for all the creatures that might chance upon it, whether legged or winged. After all, it's the property of a prince who, for his 50th birthday, gave his chickens their own house. Even though Prince Charles has a dovecote, delphiniums nearly as tall as his royal self, a Slovenian bee house, daffodil-yellow chairs set against hedges of deep green yew, and gates that blush rosily into herb and vegetable beds, what I covet is his marvelous Stumpery, which Guinness calls "an outlandish, otherworldly space." Over the years, this gnarly bit of garden goth, created by Julian and Isabel Bannerman, has grown to encompass temples, sculptures, a pond and a stone tower made of pieces "salvaged from Hereford Cathedral," with mighty plumes of gunnera heaving up from the center. Elsewhere in the garden, "the Temple of Worthies" is a memorial to the Queen Mother, Prince Charles's grandmother, who "was a keen gardener and a huge influence." Nearby, "the Wall of Gifts" is a clever way to display stone offerings sent from around the world, including apprentices' samples of masonry work. Gifts must challenge the princely gardener, as regifting is not an option. How to shoehorn in the 60 tree ferns donated in honor of a 60th birthday, when so much is already there? Yet H.R.H. graciously manages. Lest you think Prince Charles only waves a magic wand, Guinness notes that he personally planted his thyme walk "at weekends over a period of around three months." Only then did he send in the wizards with pruning shears to transform a blobby row of golden yews into eccentric topiaries. Highgrove is famous for its flower-studded meadow, blooming and buzzing through the spring and summer. Guinness reminds us that "in the U.K., just 1 percent of the wildflower-rich meadows of the 1940s have survived." In his introduction, Prince Charles writes about his dismay at the "carnage of fashionable vandalism" that has endangered many species of birds, insects and even farm animals. Highgrove, he adds, "represents one very small attempt to heal the appallingly shortsighted damage done to the soil, the landscape and to our own souls." When I despair of our ability to solve the urgent, enormous and complex crisis of global warming, I fantasize about a compassionate monarch able to simply wave a mighty scepter and heal the planet. Over in the French countryside, another Englishman who is mad for bugs and bees has taken a different approach to giving them sanctuary. While conservationists usually deploy images of "charismatic" animals like polar bears, pandas and tigers in their efforts to rouse the public, David Goulson, a professor of biological sciences, urges us to consider "the little creatures that live all around us" and "are absolutely vital to our survival and well-being," despite the fact that "we generally pay them little heed unless they annoy us." To remedy this situation, he has written an engrossing and surprisingly endearing book. A BUZZ IN THE MEADOW: The Natural History of a French Farm (Picador, $25) is his story of buying an old farmhouse in the Charente region of western France and doing just enough renovation to enjoy it with his wife and their children while letting the bugs have their way. If his delightful narrative doesn't cure your entomophobia, nothing will. I don't imagine insects have much time (or inclination) for fantasies; their sex lives are already fraught, to say the least. Fireflies and glow worms, Goulson tells us, "use light-emitting bacteria in their bottoms to attract a partner." Dragonflies, which have the largest eyes in the insect world, are primitive creatures that haven't changed much since 320 million years ago, "when they were the largest animals in the air." Males clasp onto females, sometimes stabbing them in the head, and they stay locked together for days; then things get complicated. Female mantises often eat their mates during copulation, but even without their heads - usually the first body part to be eaten - the male mantis can initiate copulation. Remarkably, copulation can occur even when both parties have lost their heads. Literally. The affable professor writes about the death-watch beetles at his house, "slowly chewing through the timbers in the living-room ceiling," but he leaves them to it, as it will take a century to do serious harm. After reading this book, I'm putting out the welcome mat to every critter except the house fly, which even Goulson loathes, since "they have the most intensely annoying and deeply unhygienic habits," involving the intermingling of animal feces and human food, and are "the most incredibly efficient vectors of an appalling range of diseases." Goulson, whose previous book, "A Sting in the Tale," covers his life's work with bumblebees, here dives into a study of bees and C.C.D. (colony collapse disorder) and the role in that collapse of a class of neurotoxic insecticides called neonicotinoids. His research into their effects on bees' brains caused a stir in chemical, agricultural and political circles, and his research came under attack. Are neonics "so different" from DDT? he asks. Goulson strains to remain hopeful now that the European Union has temporarily restricted neonics. However, he emphasizes, a host of other factors are also contributing to the decline of the world's bee colonies. Scientists are deepening their understanding of the impact of climate change on species of all sizes as they devise ways to protect vulnerable populations. Goulson makes a compelling case for habitat corridors to increase colonization. But, he warns, "the sooner we stop ravaging the Earth, the less awful our future will be." To mark his 70th birthday, Piet Oudolf, the Dutch prince of a new, highly artistic style of planting, produced a handsome, lavishly photographed book, HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life (Monacelli, $50), a gift to all serious lovers of garden design. His farmhouse in Hummelo, a village in the eastern Netherlands, was the modest beginning of a nursery that eventually drew customers from around the world. Written by his frequent collaborator, Noel Kingsbury - they also worked together on the indispensable "Planting: A New Perspective" - "Hummelo" isn't a biography, but it does explain how the man who devised New York City's Battery and High Line gardens and Chicago's Lurie Garden did "so much to raise the profile of landscape designers as a group." It also sketches a fascinating history of modern Dutch gardening, largely unknown in the United States. Oudolf is master of a new style of perennial planting that expresses "a strong desire for a naturalistic aesthetic, sustainability, and a focus on creating a home for biodiversity." His beds are complex, yet they strike an easy balance. If we truly want to heal the land, this important work is a model. And, in their adventurous, arresting, multilayered density, Oudolf's compositions are stunningly beautiful. Kingsbury argues that Oudolf's work, as it matures, with plants intermingling rather than massed in blocks, is getting "wilder and wilder" - an enhanced nature, perhaps, befitting a 21st-century Eden. PARIS FEATURES PROMINENTLY in many of our fantasy lives, especially when we've been brooding too much about climate change. Like most European cities, it hides many of its charms behind towering walls and locked gates. IN AND OUT OF PARIS: Gardens of Secret Delights (Gibbs Smith, $50), by Zahid Sardar, an ambitious, meticulous and impressive tour of some of those places, is an oversize volume that features the vibrantly romantic photographs of Marion Brenner, who can make even a toad look chic. Nearly 25 years ago, the fashion designer Kenzo Takada bought a vacant warehouse filled with gardening equipment on some land near the Marais and had it transformed into a jewel of serenity, with carp pools, bamboo, pines and maples. On a rooftop, the landscape designer Camille Muller has created a sprawling utopia of trees, vines and even edible crops. "In and Out of Paris" also includes not-so-secret estates, revisiting the charming oasis of Giverny and the magnificent Renaissance water garden at Courances. Any woman (or man) who tires of floriferous France must be tired of life. After the depredations of a long, frigid winter in the Northeast, we can be forgiven our escapist fantasies. In my garden, the deer have left me almost nothing. Sometimes I don't know whether I'm gardening or simply doing yard work: picking up branches, raking mossy paths, moving rocks. This is when Ken Druse coaxes me into sylvan reveries - and persuades me to put up a deer fence. Druse has been a guru to many since his "The Natural Garden" was first published back in the late 1980s. Many books and many years later, THE NEW SHADE GARDEN: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40) is a worthy addition to any horticultural library. There's no escaping it: Thoughtful gardeners are deeply concerned about global warming, and they're seeing its impact in their own backyards. Druse's sanctuary in the northwest corner of New Jersey has been hit with rising temperatures, record snowfalls and pounding downpours. But "cleaning up," he writes, "softens the sadness of loss." Indeed. We should all live by Druse's mantra and simply "Proceed." Reading Druse is like talking to a generous old friend who knows exactly when you're about to give up and comes to the rescue. Go slow, he admonishes, and do your homework. Think of the layers in your outdoor space. His suggested plant combinations are enticing. Ferns return reliably in my woodland, and in spring I'm moved by the prayerful early nods of the fiddleheads, which botanists call crosiers. Richie Steffen and Sue Olsen's THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO FERNS (Timber Press, $24.95), part of an excellent series published in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (which also includes new volumes on asters and tulips), will be a reliable companion this summer. Steffen and Olsen's book is sure to get you down on your hands and knees - if only to peer at a fern's exquisite details, like sori, the groups of spore-bearing structures on the underside of the frond that are one of the best ways to identify a fern's genus. Sally Gregson's THE PLANT LOVER'S GUIDE TO EPIMEDIUMS (Timber Press, $24.95) reminds US that they're excellent companions for ferns. I will not resist their balletic appeal - but neither, she warns, will the rabbits. Have we become helicopter gardeners, hovering over our plantings, fussing over every shoot, worrying about every tendril? A better understanding of HOW PLANTS WORK: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do (Timber Press, paper, $19.95), by Linda Chalker-Scott, should ease our minds and lighten our workloads. She does a terrific job with the science of cell structure and explains why sunflowers turn to the sun, why tulips close up at night and loads of other fascinating tidbits. Hence you believe her when she explains why you shouldn't bother with "geotextiles" - those black weed barriers that poke out of the ground in such an unseemly fashion. And she's equally dismissive of all that stuff we buy to mollycoddle our sprouts. Commercial compost teas? Unnecessary; "the ultimate green-washed product." Hydrogels? Don't bother. Soil amendments? Not always the smart choice. Here's a case for simply being a good-enough gardener. I have friends who plant entire orchards, and though I envy them, I could never survive such an enterprise. Hence my delight at the suggestion of keeping trees you can tend without a ladder. In GROW A LITTLE FRUIT TREE (storey, paper, $16.95) the California nurserywoman Ann Ralph demystifies the planting and pruning of apples, peaches, persimmons and figs - the aim is to keep the trees easy to maintain and the fruit within reach. "Pruning a small tree takes about 15 minutes," she explains. But "pruning a 12-foot tree probably requires professional help." Her instructions for cuts are presented in a reassuring manner, and she includes tips to combat stress - in the trees, not the gardener. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than losing a garden to deer is standing helplessly by as your houseplants succumb to slow, miserable deaths. As solace, Tovah Martin offers THE INDESTRUCTIBLE HOUSEPLANT: 200 Beautiful Plants That Everyone Can Grow (Timber Press, paper, $22.95; available in late June), featuring a host of stalwarts, most of them small enough to fit in a kitchen window. It would have been helpful if she had included charts showing what works in direct light and what can survive in an air shaft. Life is short: I want to avoid any more unrequited love. But Martin's prose is so confident, and the plants so seductively photographed, that I began to fantasize about building a conservatory. Let the deer press their noses to the glass while I frolic under the ficus! And yet there's always a serpent in any garden - to remind us that when we get what we want, we'll only want more. The Buddhists are probably right: Desire is the root of all suffering. And our garden fantasies aren't exempt. But desire is also the root of all pleasure. As we stroll down the garden path, we can't help tripping over another truth: All life is transitory. Let's enjoy it while we can. DOMINIQUE BROWNING is the senior director of Moms Clean Air Force. She blogs at

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 31, 2015]

From the Ground Up   My first house was in Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University, where my husband and I were working on our Ph.D. research in horticulture. Our tiny front yard had enough room for a single specimen tree, in this case a lovely 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple ( Acer palmatum var. atropurpureum ). We were eager to update the front entry, and we replaced the 1930s era concrete steps with a basket-weave brick entry and wooden deck. The design perfectly showcased our maple, and we were thrilled with the transformation. Well, until the next year. Suddenly, our maple tree didn't grow so well. Many of the branches died. Finally, it was in such dire straits that we dug it up and replaced it with a much smaller tree, which thrived. But what happened to the first tree? I asked one of my favorite professors at Oregon State about the sudden demise. Jim Green was our department's extension specialist and didn't teach any of my graduate classes. But he was knowledgeable, easy-going, and had a wicked sense of humor. The graduate students loved him. Imagine my shock, then, when he turned visibly angry as I explained our landscaping changes and subsequent tree death. "What in the world did you think would happen," he snapped, "when you disturbed seventy-five percent of the tree's root zone in the middle of summer?" Wow. I hadn't even though about that. We'd dug up the existing lawn and laid down bricks and deck timbers. I remember silently cursing the roots as we dug. And they were probably cursing us back. I felt stupid, not just because I had irked Jim, but because I hadn't foreseen these consequences myself. After all, I was getting a Ph.D. in horticultural plant physiology! In hindsight, I think this was a defining moment for me, though I didn't know it at the time. I do know that it was during this time I became more curious as to how plants responded to different environmental stresses (besides dying, of course). Over three decades I evolved from a laboratory plant physiologist (studying how plants function and interact with their environment), to an applied urban horticulturist, and finally to an extension specialist at Washington State University. Though my career continued to change, my interest in how plants work only became more engrossing. I combed through articles on soil science, arboriculture, environmental horticulture, and restoration ecology as well as those in the more traditional botany and horticulture journals. While botany books describe leaves and roots in isolation from each other (and therefore have chapters called "The Leaf" or "The Root"), physiology is the study of systems. It's impossible to explain the physiology of a leaf or a root, because their functions are influenced by other plant parts. It would be like describing how a heart works without mentioning the lungs that provide the oxygen or the arteries and veins that deliver and return blood. Instead, plant physiology textbooks have chapters on photosynthesis, mineral uptake, and flowering. However, it can be difficult to make these conventional topics both accessible and interesting to the nonscientist. Current books on plant physiology are primarily focused on newer research at the molecular and genetic levels. The content is timely and important, but boy does it turn off your average gardener, who probably sees no practical connection between gene regulation in corn and the corn growing in the backyard vegetable garden. What we gardeners most want to know is how plants work so that we can have gardens and landscapes that are healthy, beautiful, and don't need constant additions of fertilizers and pesticides. So this book is structured a bit differently. Each chapter opens with a real-life situation, often something in my own garden that I invite you to explore with me. Then I integrate the science as needed to answer questions that gardeners invariably have. I've tried to include all of the practical topics that you would find in a textbook, with examples and illustrations to make the science useful and easily understandable. What kinds of things will you discover? We begin at the microscopic level and explore the basic machinery of plant cells, which is substantially different from that of our own cells. Next we explore a vital plant network hidden underground, the root system, which in conjunction with fungal partners seeks out water and nutrients. In chapter 3, we consider which minerals are essential for plant survival, growth, and reproduction and which can be detrimental to these processes. Plants have the unique ability to combine water and carbon dioxide in leaves to produce their own food, and photosynthesis is the topic of chapter 4. Many gardeners live in seasonal climates, and our deciduous trees put on a wonderful display of reds, oranges, and yellows in autumn. In chapter 5, we'll discover that the plant pigments behind these colorful displays also can help plants retain water, live in salty or contaminated soils, avoid freeze damage, and fight diseases. Yet another pigment is the focus of chapter 6, which describes how plants measure day length to determine when it's time to germinate, flower, drop their leaves, and close up shop for the winter. We think of plants as sedentary creatures, but in fact they move quite a bit. In chapter 7, we'll learn how plants move to follow the sun, avoid predators, and even capture food. Unfortunately, these movements sometimes put plants into places where we don't want them, so we grab the pruning shears. Chapter 8 explores how plants respond to pruning, staking, and other forms of manipulation that we try to impose on them. The final chapter investigates every plant's ultimate goal: leaving behind offspring to carry their genes forward. Plants produce an amazing array of pigments, fragrances, and seed structures that help them manipulate their environment and pollinators--including gardeners--to achieve this goal. Throughout the book, I've included advisory sidebars on which gardening products and practices work and which don't. You'll find that many of the products and practices you've sworn by for years are not only a waste of money, but may actually harm your plants and soil. Just so you know, I used to buy the same products and follow the same practices, even with my training in horticulture. For instance, did you know that phosphate fertilizer can make plants work unnecessarily to take up water and nutrients? Or that the biggest barrier to getting your new tree to establish is amending the backfill soil with organic material? Think that Epsom salts will nourish plant roots just like they do your feet? Better think again! Understanding how plants work will help you predict what garden products are worth a try and which are best left on the shelf. We often make gardening more of a chore than it needs to be, making decisions about plant care based on how we think plants will respond. Everything from watering to fertilizing to pruning or mowing is dictated by this mindset. Unfortunately, many gardeners make decisions that aren't just erroneous but may cause actual and long-lasting harm to plants, soils, and the surrounding environment. When you know how plants work, you'll understand how to use natural processes to your benefit. For instance, proper mulching drastically reduces weeds. Pruning at the right time and in the right place reduces explosions of unwanted growth that have to be pruned again. By using natural plant responses to nurture your garden or to outfox weeds, you'll have more time to spend watching and learning from your garden, rather than constantly fighting it. I hope you'll find yourself rereading this book as you explore your own garden with newfound curiosity and fascination. Let's get started! Excerpted from How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do by Linda Chalker-Scott All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.