Thursday, March 28, 2013

Grass does make you high!

Once again, its my time to present another seminar at work and as always I'm working until the last minute to get ready for it.  This time my talk's about using native plants in the garden, a talk I've done a few times already.  I've always approached these seminars as a story telling presentation rather than a class, as more people tend to remember the key points if you wrap them up in an interesting journey.  This time I've stumbled upon some fascinating studies that gave me a great story to tell regarding America's obsession with grass (meaning the lawn)!

My first discovery helps back up the many reasons why we should including native plants in our gardens.  In a census done on 1st January 2012 it put the population of the United States of America at 312,780,968!  A pretty big number, but now compare that with how many square mile are in the United States,  3,794,083.  Divide these two numbers together and that leaves you with 82.5 people per square mile.  With such a high  demand on our shrinking land, our gardens may end up being a safe haven to protect our native plants  protection.

If the pressure of land wasn't already so great, the next piece of brow raising information comes from the Golf Course Superintendents of America group.  They estimated that golf courses in the US now take up 3,507 square miles.  If you take the equation from above, it only displaces 289,327.5 people from their allocated square mile so a few can hit a small white ball into an even smaller hole in the ground.  By the way, the 3,507 square miles of golf courses is equivalent in size to two Rhode Islands and the state of Delaware.  Now add in all the water, fertilizer and pesticides they consume to keep the grass green its no wonder there's growing concern over the environmental impact they cause.

But lets not forget the all the other 'greens'.  Its estimated that 80% of homes across the country have lawns surrounding it.  Our obsession with grass has fueled a $40 billion dollar a year business that requires 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides just to keep our lawns green and bug free.  Some clever person even figured out that we spend 3 billion hours a year pushing or riding a gas powered mower around to keep our grass at the perfect shag pile carpet height.  Just one gas powered mower can give off the equivalent of 11 cars worth of emissions!

However, what does any of this have to do with the title of the post?  Well, Australian Scientist have discovered the the smell of fresh cut grass reduces stress and provides a positive reaction in people. To skim over all the details of the study, a senior lecturer from University of Queensland's bio-medical school discovered that the hippo-campus (the part of our brain that in involved in emotions, learning and memory), remain healthier if exposed to the aroma of fresh cut grass, thus improving long-term memory.  So maybe, our desire to play golf or just to cut the grass every weekend is part of our unconscious desire to giving our brain 'a fix'!

But wait, there's more;  a German study looking to understand this fragrance discovered that it is actually a chemical compound released from distressed plants and to alert others of their attack.  Yep, plants do actually communicate with each other!  Those clever scientists discovered this while studying wild tobacco, which they noticed accelerated amounts volatile organic compounds released when a plant was under attack from caterpillars.  The compound actually worked like a pheromone, which attracted predatory 'Big Eyed Bugs' who regularly feed on the caterpillars.  So in reality, that smell of cut grass that we all love is literally a gas released before it hits the fan!

So, in summing up all of these findings we can draw the conclusion that humans get off on the smell of vegetative trauma.  So great is our need to get a high, we've sacrificed our land to grow even more of the sweet smelling stuff to aid our addiction.  Fortunately, because of our exposure to this secondhand gas, our long term memory has improved so much that we can reminisce about all the native plants that used to grow around us.

Now that's some good S#*t!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

An evening with Armitage

Allan Armitage - photo discovered while 
searching Google images for Crazy Gardeners!
Coincidence or fate. A week after I posted 'America's Most Influential Gardeners' I found out that one of my top nominee's was slated to be speaking nearby!  That person was Allan Armitage, a Perennial plant guru among other titles, and last Tuesday evening he lived up to his 'Most Influential' status!

'Crazy Plants for Crazy Gardeners' was the subject for the evenings presentation.  It was based around plants only a gardener would love.  His story of sitting in the garden at dusk with a bottle of wine, watching the blooms of an Evening Primrose to begin to pop open wasn't lost on me.  It's an event that any gardener can relate to, but to the uninitiated it sounds bizarre.  I've seen someone else doing the same with a bottle of Champagne and a night blooming Cactus, but I think she would of found the excuse to have a drink regardless of the event.

Lets face it, we gardeners are in fact a 'crazy' bunch.  We're fanatical, passionate and obsessed and often do the most bizarre things.  I've been known to garden during a full moon, not for some astrological significance but because the light of the moon allowed me to see outside and carry on gardening. I'm sure the neighbors all think I'm nuts digging in the dark, or maybe they think I'm up to something more menacing? Obsession can be a curse when it comes to lawns too.  We've all seen the signs not to walk on the lawn in fear that are shoes would cause it some harmed.  But, if you step back and detach yourself from the world of gardening, what other pastime recommends you to buy bags of poop to increase your enjoyment of the subject matter!

Allan kicked off the evening with what seemed like a collection of thoughts.  Some geared towards the garden center, who was hosting the talk, and some for the group who was attending.  But, what resonated the most was his concern that ordinary people had developed a disconnect from the outside world, favoring instead a world of high-tech gadgetry.  I have written past posts regarding this subject in 'What happened to gardening', but to hear someone of his standing echo the same sentiments is alarming.

Legends in the Garden
One way he suggested we might change peoples opinions about gardening is to tell them the stories connected to the plants we use.  Many of the plants in our gardens have remarkable stories that have changed history, whilst others have gone as far to of built empires.  If you get someone to see that plant are more than just some pretty flowers in a pot, they'll have a greater appreciation of what that plant really means.  Many fascinating stories can be found in the book 'Legends of the Garden, Who in the World is Nellie Stevens', that Allan coauthored with Linda Copeland.  A well recommend read for anyone interested to learn more.

A side effect of gardening, that any don't think about is how it affects are health.   Allan remarked how you'll never find an old gardener.  You'll find broke gardeners, sore gardeners, good and bad gardeners but never old gardeners.  Why not?  Because a gardener is always looking towards the future in anticipation.   Gardeners are the optimist of the world, never letting one years failures hold us back.  Instead, we build on our experiences each year and look forward to see what the next year will bring.

No hair out of place
The term 'crazy' is a little misleading as its our passion for growing gardens that makes us this way.  This perception could be one of the reasons people get turned off from gardening.  Let face it were not exactly 'Hip' or 'Cool', but the deep sense of connection I have with my environment far transcends the fashionable tags we put on things.

For my two year old, watching the bees was captivating 
Maybe the answer could be found in Allan's last photo of the evening.  It showed a young child in his garden running off with his famous Tilley hat in hand.  My interpretation of this picture as gardens were not just for growing flowers but future gardeners too.  Encouraging children to explore the garden gets them interested early.  I excepted that my children will decorate mud pies with flowers they pick from the plants I've nurtured, or that when a plant gets crushed in a game of tag it will grow back.  To see how easily they become mesmerized by the wonders of gardening gives me joy beyond the anticipation of that Paper Bush beginning to bloom.  Thanks to Allan's talk my daughter is now obsessed with wanting to grow a Giant Jack Bean this summer and I'm sure my son would love a dinosaur gourd too. We all need to embrace this awe they have for nature because if we don't they grow up only cultivating their Facebook status instead of their own small piece of this planet.

But that's just all 'crazy' talk......or is it?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Old faithful plants - Winter Flowering Jasmine

Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum is a flowering hero of the winter landscape.   The long period of soft yellow blooms begin to appear from late December all the way through March.  Though not a show stopper like Forsythia that blooms all at once, it can be an unexpected surprise to stumble upon its cheerful flowers during a drab time of year.  The succession of blooms acts like a countdown, that reminds you of what Spring will soon herald.

Jasmine in full flower -, Conuropsis

During the growing season, Winter Jasmine plays a ground covering role with long arching stems covered in pinnate or feather like dark green leaves.  It is deciduous in the fall, losing its leaves, but the dark green stems provide the illusion of cover from a distance.  In fact, 'nudiflorum' means naked flowers that appear before the foliage emerges.  Maroon-red flower buds open to solitary, six petaled flowers that are bright yellow, softening in color with age., Katrin Hagel
Winter Jasmine was just one of many plants collected and brought back from China by the famed explorer, Robert Fortune in 1843.  Like all explorers of the time, they collected stories as well as plants.  Fortune had his fair share of stories, avoiding pirates and mobs but also disguising himself as a Mandarin merchant. Shaving his head to leave a ponytail and dressing in regional clothing permitted him to travel into parts of China that were forbidden.  Fortunes biggest accomplishment from his trips to China was the successful smuggling of tea from China into the Darjeeling region of India, an action forbidden at the time.  Though many of his 20,000 plants and seedlings perished on the first attempt, some plants grew and his actions ended the Chinese dominance on tea production.

One of the easiest plants to cultivate, Winter Jasmine isn't fussy where it grows.  Happy in full sun to part shade, it will spread out and wonder,  rooting readily whenever its stems touch moist ground.  Pruning should be done in spring immediately after flowering to prevent bare patches from appearing.  Old, established plants welcome heavy cutting back by removing one third of the oldest growth to the ground to rejuvenate its vigor.  Plants left unpruned tend to become woody and congested with dead stems.  Winter Jasmine can be trained vertically on fences or walls using support wires to fan the stems, or traditionally allowed to trail across the ground.  The best applications I've seen is spilling down steep slopes or cascading over high retaining walls, softening the harshness of the materials.

Cascading over a wall -, Hardy Tropical
Though not a plant for tight spaces,  Winter Jasmine packs the most punch when allowed to gain some spread.  I love its defiant spirit of flowering during the winter when most plants go dormant.  On a dull day it sprinkles the landscape with splashes of sunlight, that provides hope that the gardening season is not long away!