Interactive Gardening

Our interactions with other persons or things can be among our most absorbing, challenging, satisfying—and occasionally most frustrating—activities. Examples include raising a child, working with colleagues, living with a spouse, cooking, and, yes, gardening.

Early uses of the term, “interaction,” dating from 1832, emphasize reciprocal action, i.e., the action or influence of persons or things on each other.

In this digital age, “interaction” often refers to the responses of computer software to a human operator’s inputs, e.g., keyboard entries, voice commands, or other forms of messaging. True human–computer interactions include the human’s responses to the computer’s output.

In this column, we are focused on gardening.

Interactive gardening means a gardener’s actions on a plant, the plant’s responses to those actions, and the influence of the plant’s responses on the gardener’s future actions.

Some gardener’s believe they can influence plant growth by talking to, or playing music to, the plant, but plant scientists tell us that while plants are very sensitive to their environment, they are unaware of their gardeners or sounds.

For a scientist’s analysis of the ways in which plants experience the world, read What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, by Daniel Chamovitz (Scientific American, 2012). The author reviews the research into what plants see, smell, feel, hear and remember, and how they know where they are.

Chamovitz shows that plants are aware—in highly evolved and surprising ways—of “external pressures that increase or decrease a plant’s chances for survival and reproductive success.”

For this reason, interactive gardening involves the gardener managing the plant’s environment, the plant responding to the environmental conditions, and the gardener noting the plant’s response and modifying his or her actions to achieve an intended response by the plant.

The gardener can affect all aspects of the plant’s environment, including the amount of light, heat, wind and moisture; the structure of the soil; the availability of natural or synthetic nutrients; and the presence of pests and diseases. Planting a seed involves modifying its environment.

The gardener also can interact directly with a plant, but only by touching or cutting the plant by pruning, dividing or transplanting.

For example, the Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica) responds to even a light touch by causing its leaves to fold or droop. This unusual response could be a defense against herbivores or insects that might be startled by the plant’s sudden movement.

As an aside, landscaping and flower arranging do not qualify as interactive gardening because the landscaper or arranger seeks to encourage responses from other humans, not from the plants.

When we consider gardening as an interaction between the gardener and the plant, we realize that the gardener’s success grows with his or her understanding of the plant’s responses to environmental conditions.

This encompasses simple responses, e.g., drooping from lack of moisture, less obvious responses, e.g., slow growth from lack of soil nutrients, and more complex responses, e.g., failure to set fruit from lack of seasonal chill.

Mastering the responses of plants to numerous environmental variables, and differences between plants from various native habitats, can be a lifelong study. Still, every gardener doesn’t need to study all plant’s cultivation preferences, or complete advanced studies of plant science. The gardener who wants to succeed and enjoy the experience should, however, learn about the needs of each plant in his or her garden.

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