Resilient Plant Communities

In a recent column, I referred to a book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. Rainer and West present landscape design ideas that are worth applying in home gardens, and indeed in all kinds of gardens. Their ideas are intended to result in gardens that are “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

To review that recent column, visit ongardening.com, click on “Essays 2017” and then “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes.”

The ideas presented in this book ring true to nature and good sense, and require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.

This column cannot replace reading the authors’ thoughtful review of familiar landscaping practices and groundbreaking recommendations, but w can consider their essential messages.

Rainer and West indicate that good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.

The first of these relationships recalls the “right plant in the right place” axiom, which often refers to locating the plant where it will have the soil, exposure, and moisture that it needs to thrive. To these aspects of place the authors recommend locating plants in the grassland, woodland/shrubland, or forest environment that is their natural home. A garden, as a built environment, should look and function like a “distilled version” of one of those archetypical landscapes.

Consideration of the relationship of plants to people addresses the visual appeal of the landscape. The authors state that plant communities need not be limited to a naturalistic style and can exist within any other style. There are too many garden styles to list, but the basic idea is that the gardener can develop any preferred style and still maintain the plant’s relationships to place and other plants.

Rainer and West feature the relationship of plants to other plants and write about the “levels of sociability” of plants. In nature, some plants grow as individuals, or in groups of various sizes, or in large areas. For example, plants that tend to grow separately from other plants would be candidates for containers, and some plants propagate across vast numbers in large fields (see photographs of this year’s superbloom of wildflowers).

The authors recommend combining plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities. This approach allows plants to support each other, form a diverse and lush garden (as distinct from swaths of a single variety), and provide natural mulch that retains moisture and blocks entry of weeds and invasive plants. They categorize plants in four layers:

  • structural/framework plants — trees, shrubs, upright grasses and large leafed perennials that form the visual structure of the planting (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants — mid-height plants that dominate the scene when in bloom, and provide supporting companions to the structural plants when not in bloom (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants — low, shade-tolerant plants that cover the soil, control erosion and provide nectar (50%)
  • filler plants — short-lived species, e.g., annuals, that fill gaps and add short seasonal displays (5-10%)

The authors describe this plant community approach collectively as resilient gardening. The benefits include growing healthy plants, minimizing maintenance (always a popular objective), and providing a systematic approach to developing an attractive, full grouping of plants.

I have been vaguely dissatisfied with a garden that separates plants from other plants by mulch. Developing layered plant communities will require reviewing plants already in place, searching for new plants for the needed layers, and allowing time for growth. The authors have not provided tidy “recipes” for plant communities because there are too many possible variations, including personal preferences, to put in a book. Instead, they have left the design process to each interested gardener.

Enjoy your garden, and consider learning about—and developing—resilient plant communities for your garden.

Designing Naturalistic Landscapes

Landscape design has been analyzed, discussed, and written about by many people, and from several angles. Most treatments of this subject consider the built landscape as part of built environment, which contrasts with the natural environment. Generally, they describe landscapes as vignettes or vistas that please the beholder’s eye by combining forms or colors from an aesthetic perspective. Aesthetics determine whether a garden is Victorian, Italian, Japanese, modern, white, classical, etc. Often, this approach results in random groupings of favored plants, with the only design principle being “tall plants in back.”

There are more horticultural perspectives for thinking about landscapes. For example, we have the idea of companion planting, in which proximities affect plant vigor. Then, we have generic groupings, as with small or large collections of roses, cacti, irises, or some other plant genus. Another horticultural approach involves grouping plants with similar needs for moisture. Such “hydrozoning” responds to the horticultural needs of plants and incidentally organizes the gardener’s irrigation tasks. A tropical landscape focuses on plants with an exotic look and a continuing thirst (not a good choice in the land of persistent drought).

Moving further into horticultural considerations, we encounter climate-oriented landscaping, with emphasis on plants from the world’s Mediterranean or “summer dry” regions, which of course include the Monterey Bay area. This landscaping approach supports plant development and vigor and eases the gardener’s workload.

The attractive subset of summer-dry landscaping is landscaping with California native plants, which combines the climate-oriented approach with the ecological compatibility of flora and fauna.

The more naturalistic form of landscaping with California native plants is landscaping with California plant communities. There are various ways to define this state’s several plant communities but essentially, the coast, the mountains, and the deserts are different horticultural environments, and therefore support different plants. A very useful book on this topic has been provided by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).

The next level of appreciating the difference between built and natural landscapes can be found in the book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015). This book has been called “inspiring,” “masterful,” “groundbreaking,” and a “game-changer.” Reviewers have also praised it for “lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing” and “lavish” illustrations.

Planting in a Pot-Wild World - coverThe authors deplore the ways in which typical gardening and landscaping practices have ignored the ways in which plants thrive in natural combinations, and present A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design. They state, “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

The book (which we have just begun studying) advocates planting in interlocking layers of plants, which reflects the dynamic way plants grow together in nature. There is much to learn about this approach. The authors envision improved plant labels that provide more useful information about how a plant grows and recommend relevant resources as the http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/California Native Plant Society.

Both aesthetic and horticultural approaches to plant selection have significant impacts on the success of gardening and the amount of work involved in maintaining a garden. If your gardening involves mostly keeping plants alive, replacing plants that have died, combating weeds, and wanting the garden to look better, it could be time to give more attention to plant communities.

The Bold Dry Garden

Book Cover

It’s not often that we see a new book about a garden that’s both famous and near enough for a one-day visit. We now have The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden (Timber Press, 2016), written by Johanna Silver, with historic photographs and excellent new photographs,

This is a three-acre garden in a residential neighborhood, packed with over 2,000 cacti, succulents, trees and shrubs. Visiting is not a sprawling and overwhelming experience, with too much to take in without camping out, or an extended visit. Instead, it offers a relatively compact display of a wide variety of succulent plants.

The book begins with the garden’s history. Ruth Bancroft developed this garden at her home in Walnut Creek, beginning in the 1950s. Like all personal gardens, it began tentatively, with the purchase of few small plants, and grew slowly as the owner’s interest deepened and her vision broadened.

By the early 1970’s, Ruth was ready to map out her future garden. She brought in garden designer Lester Hawkins, to draw the setting for a dry garden, and to recommend plants to add to her growing collection. The initial planting was accomplished formally in 1972, although Ruth had already collected a significant number of plants.

The plants grew in number and size, and the collection grew in sophistication and beauty. It deeply impressed, Frank Cabot, a nationally prominent gardener from the Quebec area, who became concerned about preserving the garden into the future. In 1989, he founded the Garden Conservancy with the goal to preserve exceptional private gardens, with preservation of the Ruth Bancroft Garden as its first objective. By 1994, the Garden’s site was officially transferred to a non-profit corporation, Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc., dedicated to maintaining and improving the garden, and to make it available to the public.

Today, Ruth Bancroft is recognized as a dry gardening pioneer and innovator. She has reached the age of 107 and she maintains her love of her collection.

The longest chapter of The Bold Dry Garden, “Signature Plants of the Dry Garden,” describes and pictures garden’s diversity, organized in sections: The Smallest Players, Aeonium, Crassula, Echeveria, Haworthia, Sedum, Sempervivum, the Importance of Rock, Architectural Elements, Agave, Cactus, Yucca and Other Swords, Flowers and Foliage, Aloe, Euphorbia, Gasteria, Protea, Terrestrial Bromeliads, The Softer Side, California Natives, and Trees. Whew!

Reading this fine book can be a pleasant introduction to the world of succulent plants. Visiting this extraordinary garden is an opportunity to see many different forms of these plants, and to become inspired to develop your own collection…and to come again to the garden.

For more about this garden, and everything you need to prepare for a tour, visit the garden’s website.

The Garden Conservancy is both a preserver of private gardens and guide to seeing them through its Open Days program. Browse to the Conservancy’s website for more information.

The long-time curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Brian Kimble, is scheduled to speak at the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society on Sunday, March 19th. See the Society’s website for details.

The Bold Dry Garden is a good read for any gardener, excellent preparation for a visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden, and a fine addition to any library of garden books.

Urban Agriculture

Gardening of edible plants occurs in many different circumstances. Home gardening will be most familiar to most people, including gardeners of edibles, gardeners of ornamental plants and those rare people who don’t garden at all.

Next most familiar might be farming. Residents of the Monterey Bay area will at least drive by acres of many kinds of edible plants, and a significant number of our neighbors have spent time in the fields.

Then we have community gardens. Some fortunate people have direct experience with managing a small allotment of space within a community garden, to grow a personal preference of vegetables or, in some cases, ornamental plants. These small parcels often are borrowed spaces within urban surroundings, making good but temporary uses of the soil for a few people to enjoy the cultivation of plants and benefit from bringing the produce to their own tables or the tables of friends.

Too often, we hear about such gardens in our communities when the landowner decides to build on the land and requires the gardeners to abandon the soil they have been improving, perhaps for years.

My early exposure to such events was in Berkeley, in May of 1969. During a work-related visit to that city, in a multistory building with oversight of what was called the People’s Park, I observed a confrontation between armed police officials and peaceful people who wanted to maintain their occupancy of a small parcel of land. Using helicopters and tear gas, the officials won that day, but today, part of that parcel contains community gardens. This history perhaps demonstrates the dedication and persistence of gardeners.

A more organized approach to making productive use of otherwise idle urban lands is being demonstrated in Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority recently awarded substantial grants to community organizations for projects with goals in selected areas:

  • Environmental Stewardship and Restoration
  • Parks, Trails, and Public Access
  • Environmental Education
  • Urban Agriculture/Food Systems

This program represents a positive move toward protecting the natural environment and humanizing the urban environment.

Some communities have adopted policies to encourage and support community gardens. Good examples can be found in the western cities of Washington and Oregon. In many areas, however, community gardens are authorized and managed ad hoc, without a long-term perspective. The status of local ordinances in the Monterey Bay area would be an interesting study.

Street Farm coverA recent book inspires interest in a constructive approach to community gardens. The book is Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, by Michael Abelman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016. 239 pages).

In this book, Abelman describes his several years of developing small farms (up to two acres) in urban areas in California and Vancouver, Canada. He and his colleagues managed to gain access to underutilized parcels in urban areas, often after considerable effort to secure permissions and meet local ordinances. The parcels typically were either paved parking lot or contaminated land, so these prospective farmers constructed raised beds to make agriculture possible.

Raised-bed gardening is a better strategy than attempting to improve native soils with an excess of clay or sand.

Abelman approached his street farming adventures by assembling crews of workers from the community’s homeless populations, including people who were distressed for various reasons. In this respect, his projects have a constructive social purpose as well as the goal of producing organic food of good quality for sale. Their sales were typically through farmers markets, but have also included direct sales to restaurants, including Alice Waters’ the highly regarded Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Abelman’s operating model generated enough income to pay his workers and meet the day-to-day expenses of urban farming. It also produced good will for the cooperating landowners and demonstrated the value of the persistent pursuit of a creative vision. Street Farm includes impressive photographs of highly productive farms in urban settings.

The stories in Street Farm culminate in Abelman’s “Urban Food Manifesto,” in which he expresses his visions, both “radical and terribly obvious,” of how we feed ourselves. He offers good and solid ideas that could be pursued in every community.

This book brings to mind Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, which will be a future topic.

Seasonal Events

 

At about this time each year, our thoughts drift to certain seasonal topics. For example, this is the time to plan a display of spring bulbs. I thought I should write about this activity (which can lead to adventuresome ideas), but I have already written before on this topic. To see earlier columns, browse to http://ongardening.com and search for “bulbs.”

Let us consider other aspects of seasonal gardening.

The annual Succulent Extravaganza is happening this weekend. This is a fine free event to learn about and become fascinated by succulent plants. If you are already collecting and landscaping with these interesting plants, the Extravaganza offers a selection of plants to add to your garden. For info, visit http://sgplants.com and click on ”Events.”

The next really big event for succulent gardeners is the Fall Show & Sale convened by the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. This event will happen on October 1st & 2nd, in nearby San Juan Batista, California. Nineteen members of the Society will offer a vast array of small succulent plants, many larger plants and some unique pots for sale. The selection is great, the prices are very good, and members of the group will be available to answer specific questions and share their enthusiastic for gardening with succulents. The display of exceptional plants is a “must-see” event in its own right. For info, visit http://mbsucculent.org .

Dudleya brittonii - cu

Dudleya brittonii — a California native succulent plant

Toward the end of October, an event for gardeners is the annual apple tasting, organized by the California Rare Fruit Growers, Monterey Bay Chapter. This will be included in the Wilder Ranch Heritage Harvest Festival, which is on October 15th. It will be a unique opportunity to learn which apple tree you want to plant in your garden. The Festival also includes other interesting activities. Info: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26413.

The UCSC Arboretum’s annual Fall Plant Sale will be on Saturday, October 15th. It will be open to members of the Friends of the Arboretum from 10-12, and to the public from 12-4. Just before the sale, you could join the Friends. There are year-round benefits to belonging to the Friends, in addition to gaining early access to the Sale, which offers a great selection of plants from California, Australia, and South Africa. The California Native Plant Society will have a concurrent sale, at the same location: the Arboretum’s Eucalyptus Grove, which is accessible from High Street, near the intersection of Western Drive. Info: http:// http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/.

The Friends of the University of California, Santa Cruz Arboretum held its annual meeting —called the “AR-B-Q” — on Sunday, September 18th, in the Australian Garden. This was a fine, convivial event, as always, with many volunteers enjoying the company and the warm weather. The meeting included thanks to retiring board members (including this writer), the election of board members, and the announcement of officers for the coming year.

Several readers of this column have expressed interest in our recent column about the book, The Invention of Nature, about the extraordinary Alexander von Humboldt 1769-1859. On October 19th, the Garden Conservancy will sponsor a visit of the book’s author, Andrea Wulf, at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley to discuss the influence of Humboldt’s vision, and how he helped shape our understanding of nature today. Wulf ‘s very readable book reflects her thorough research and inspires interest in her other highly regarded books about gardeners:

This Other Eden Seven Great Gardens and Three Hundred Years of English History

The Brother Gardeners. Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

The Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation and the Shaping of the American Nation

For info on WUlf’s talk at UC Bekjeley, visit the Garden Conservancy website:

The gardening world is very lively, as always. Enjoy your garden!

***

Tom Karwin is past president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, president of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and a Lifetime UC Master Gardener (Certified 1999–2009). Visit ongardening.com for links to information on this subject, and send comments or questions to gardening@karwin.com.

The Invention of Nature

California’s Board of Education has included five environmental principles for the curriculum:

  • People depend on natural systems.
  • People influence natural systems.
  • Natural systems change in ways that people benefit from and can influence.
  • There are no permanent or impermeable boundaries that prevent matter from flowing between systems.
  • Decisions affecting resources and natural systems are complex and involve many factors.

These very basic ideas certainly are important in learning about the environment.

These principles are an updated version of ideas that were expressed in the early 1800s by Alexander von Humboldt (1969–1859), who presented his views of how the forces of nature interact with one another and about the unity of nature.

At the time, Humboldt’s ideas were the leading edge of leading scientists’ understanding of natural systems. He developed these ideas by traveling extensively through South America and Central America, closely observing nature, and, significantly, learning from the wise practices of native populations.

Humboldt was one of the great polymaths of history. He was the earliest geobotanist, studying the geographic distribution of plants (also called phytogeography), but also made important contributions to meteorology, and geology. His greatest contributions are in the area called terrestrial physics, which deals with the dynamic interconnections that comprise natural systems.

A new book by Andrea Wulf describes Humboldt’s momentous journey through life in impressive and readable detail: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2016). The book is organized chronologically, in five parts.

Humboldt shared his extensive knowledge and advanced ideas through extensive publications, correspondence, and public lectures. His major work was Cosmos. Sketch for a Physical Description of the Universe. This five-volume work, was widely read and highly regarded, and added to his reputation as the greatest scientists of his era.

Humboldt conversed with many prominent people of his day and directly or indirectly influenced a long list of scientists, authors, and political leaders, too many to list here.

Today, Humboldt might not be known as well as some other early scientist. Author Andrea Wulf has commented that the truth of Humboldt’s views has become so widely accepted that the man himself has become less visible. Still, many admirers have honored him by attaching his name attached to more places and things than anyone else. These include a northern California county. An impressive list of these recognitions is available in Wikipedia’s entry for Alexander von Humboldt. (See also Wikipedia’s entry, “Humboldtian Science.”)

Andrea Wulf, who has also written about other historically important botanists, has provided a masterful, readable, and valuable account of the “formidable genius” Alexander von Humboldt. The New York Times named The Invention of Nature as one of the best books of 2015 and several additional reviewers recognized its quality, This book presents the fascinating story of a man who explained the natural context in which gardening is done.

Survey of Garden Customers

Your local garden center has a continuing interest in what its customers seek and will seek in the future. That information has much to do with the success of the business.

One important source of trends among gardening customers is the National Gardening Survey, a private company that conducts annual surveys of consumers of garden-related products. The NGS has recently released its 2015 survey.

The full survey is quite pricey, but in today’s column we summarize the available highlights with an emphasis on the gardening customer’s perspective.

The bottom line of the survey findings has been summed up as “a bold, exciting future for garden retail!!” That’s good news for your local garden center because it reflects growing interest among gardeners.

The NGS estimates that 75% of all U.S. households are undertaking some level of gardening. That works out to 90 million households, an increase of six million households over 2014.

When analyzed by age, 5 million of the additional gardening households had participants in the 18–to–34-year-old range, the group often called the “Millennials.” Meanwhile, the number of households with participants in the 55+-year-old range reportedly remained steady. (This leaves an increase of 1 million households presumably with ages 35–to–54.)

So, gardening customers got a little younger, on average.

The average annual expenditure on gardening rose from $317 to $401 per household, a stunning 26% increase year–to–year, and about 10% over the average of the previous five years. This combination of more customers and more spending makes the lawn and garden industry optimistic.

The overall receipts of this industry total $36 billion, which is notably about three times the Hollywood box office receipts. Still, household spending for gardening products and services, when adjusted for inflation, remains well below the peak reached in 2003.

The NGS’s findings don’t reveal why the rate of spending for garden items lags below the historical peaks, but one plausible interpretation is that gardeners are getting smarter by using online information.

The NGS has concluded that garden customers are discovering the information they want through online research and then seeking validation at their local garden centers. This pattern contrasts with past practices in which customers asked garden center staff for basic information.

The NGS recommends that garden center should focus more as project success centers, rather than hand-holding discovery centers.

As your local garden center modifies its services in this way, you must find answers to your gardening questions on your own, using online resources, books and magazines, and fellow gardeners. Local garden societies can be important sources of basic gardening information.

This column often refers to online sources of gardening information, and will continue to include helpful web addresses. The success of any search for information begins with a thoughtful formulation of the question. Books have been written on strategies for asking the right question, which is central to critical thinking, but acquiring basic factual information about gardening need not be complicated. Many questions for such information can begin with “how” or “what,“ e.g., “how do I plant a tomato?” or “what is a good way to plant a tomato?”

When seeking such information online, many search engines can respond to natural language queries, but they are really oriented to keywords. You will get pretty much the same response by entering “tomato plant.”

The staff at your local garden center surely will continue to respond to your factual questions, but the Internet will be more readily available and will offer a deeper trove of information.

Continue reading

Book: The Art of Gardening

 

My short list of readings for avid gardeners has just become longer.

The book is The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, 2015).

Chanticleer is an exceptional thirty-five acre public garden, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes NW of Philadelphia. It was established a century ago at the home of the Rosengarten family, and became a public garden twenty years ago.

The book’s authors include R. William Thomas (Chanticleer’s executive director and head gardener) with fifteen members of the garden’s staff, including seven horticulturists. Rob Cabrillo created the photographs, a prominent feature of the book.

The Chanticleer garden reportedly continues the original layout created in the early 1900s by landscape architect Thomas Sears; most of the floral and garden development has been accomplished since 1990, when the owner passed.

Chanticleer includes fifteen distinct areas. These are not enclosed, as “garden rooms” might be thought of, but well-defined small spaces within the sprawling property, separated in several cases by lawns. Each unique area has its own gardener who has freedom to manage the ever-evolving design of the landscape, while maintaining the integrity of the overall garden, the area’s relationship with other areas, and (quoting the book) “the union between plant and site. “

I am still working on this concept of “union” because all the plants in my garden are fully unified with their site, but never mind.

This arrangement of spaces and the relative autonomy of the gardeners makes Chanticleer an unusually rich resource for the home gardener. Each of the fifteen relatively small spaces displays design concepts and plant combinations that are ready for adoption or adaptation within the constraints of the typical home garden.

If Chanticleer were designed and managed by a single vision, it would be less interesting and less useful to the visitor.

The book has two major sections: Design and Plants. It also includes minor sections: introduction, afterword, suggested readings, index and a group photo of the several authors, with brief biographical notes.

The Design section (85 pages) describes the site, the arrangement of the fifteen smaller gardens, the use of built structures, the use of patterns to unify the overall garden, the evolutionary approach to garden design, uses of color, and specific examples of design concepts.

The much larger Plants section (205 pages), includes some bylines for the various writers, but likely was written mostly by the co-authors. This section includes observations about the uses and cultivation of individual plants, revealing the staff as a group of thoughtful plant lovers. They have the advantage over many home gardeners of careers in gardening and the opportunity to focus on their plants through annual cycles and over the years. (Speaking for myself, life’s many distractions interrupt the continuity of the gardening experience.)

Despite these multiple voices, the book reads easily, with consistent language throughout. This quality surely reflects the work of the editor.

The avid gardener would benefit from a few pleasant hours with The Art of Gardening, and from having it readily available on the bookshelf. A visit to this extraordinary garden should be included with a future opportunity to fly to the east coast.

As always with garden information from Other Lands, consider climatic and environmental differences with the Monterey Bay area.

Carbon Farming

Climate change has been described as the consequence of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced extensive burning of fossil fuels. This practice disrupts the natural balance of carbon in the soil, the atmosphere and the ocean. Plans to slow or reduce the process of climate often emphasize reducing uses of fossil fuels.

Recently, and all too briefly, we explored the relationship between gardening and climate change. We have learned that common agricultural practices generate about one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere, making commercial farming a substantial part of the climate change problem.

Prior to the development of modern agriculture, we had organic farming, which is generally compatible with natural processes. The practices we now call “conventional” farming include driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, and using fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Similarly, farm animals once were raised in pastures, where they grazed on grasses and other plants. Today, cows, pigs and chickens are raised in tight quarters, provided grains and other feed that they work hard to digest, and must be dosed with antibiotics to maintain basic health.

These contemporary, presumably efficient methods are depleting the carbon stores in the soil, and reducing the soil’s natural ability to support plant growth and store moisture.

Soil scientists and environmentalists have been discovering land management strategies that can reduce the rate of loss of soil carbon, and even improve the rate at which agriculture can convert atmospheric CO2 into plant material and soil organic matter. When thoughtfully applied, carbon methods can add significantly to the rate of soil carbon sequestration, and actually reverse the climate change process.

Dozens of specific practices are included in carbon farming; all look like historical organic farming and common sense. The principal methods are composting, grazing by hoofed animals (ungulates), maintaining high percentages of organic matter in the soil (to feed the microbiota), supporting biodiversity, rotating crops and discontinuing uses of synthetic chemicals. The most effective practices orchestrate multiple methods in plans designed for specific circumstances.

Carbon farming, also called regenerative agriculture, should be part of the global response to the threat of climate change, but reduced burning of fossil fuels will still be important.

These promising methods for the management of agricultural lands can have substantial impacts when applied on a large scale, but they also have value when applied in residential gardens. In this column, we have advocated organic methods as beneficial to our flora and fauna. We find now that these methods also have long-term benefits to the health of the soil and the natural balance of carbon in our environment.

For more about this important topic, read Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us (2014), (which a reader recommended to me), and search the web for “carbon farming” and “regenerative agriculture.”

If you are growing plants and raising animals on hundreds of acres, try carbon farming. If not, by all means, garden organically!

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.