In Praise of Plants
It’s time to pull out the picnic basket, slip into your favorite pair of shorts, roll down the windows of the car, and head out for the beach, the park, or a mountain hike (speaking of which, the generous volunteers at the Montecito Trails Foundation publish a detailed map of our local mountain trails).
This year we were able to gather for 4th of July BBQs, hold badminton or croquet tournaments (hopefully accompanied by a crisp Rosé wine), even take day trips to Santa Ynez or Ojai Valley. Maybe rent kayaks and paddle around Santa Cruz Island or take a gander at the Postal Memorial Rose Garden across from the Mission that’s in full bloom now – a must see. Or… simply relax and do absolutely nothing. It’s summertime, summertime, sum-sum, summertime, summertiiiimme . . .
In each of these four seasonal columns, I have been touting the virtues of nature. A few months ago, I wrote about how plants play to our five senses. That’s hardly a start of all they do for us. We can be thankful for the fact that trees and plants are the basis for all life on earth by exchanging carbon monoxide for oxygen. Flora and fauna have been on the planet for more than 420 million years. We, on the other hand, have been stumbling around terra firma for a mere four million years. That alone is due our respect. Trees and plants are the source of so many offerings which benefit us: of course, food, plus industry (timber, fossil fuels, biofuels), chemicals, medicines, science research, mythology, religion, tourism and, not to be overlooked, our love of gardening.
Trees don’t stop growing. Above ground their trunks grow in girth (replacing old bark with fresh layers). As they get taller and taller, they send out limbs with leaves reaching for sunlight (which, through photosynthesis, they convert into sugar as food).
Trees are also communal creatures. They communicate with nearby trees by emitting chemicals alerting the others to life-threatening diseases or pests. Those trees then alter their own chemistry to combat the invaders. Trees will open space to allow their children to receive needed sunlight. They share nutrients and water through their miraculous, fungus-fed root networks. Sometimes when I’m walking by a stand of oaks, I think they must be laughing their leaves off knowing how puny and self-serving my vascular system is compared to their system, which spreads across acres and acres to care for one another.
Richard Powers received a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Overstory, which opened my mind, heart, and gratitude to the plant world. It’s also a compelling mystery story that you might want to pick up for a summer’s read.
After compiling and analyzing a database of DNA from sites around the world, researchers estimate that there are a staggering 1 trillion species on Earth — that’s not even counting microorganisms. That’s more species than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. By the numbers, we humans are insignificant, yet we’re vital to our species’ survival. For billions of years, the planet has always adapted to global catastrophes. We’re the fragile ones.
To paraphrase Carl Sagan: Here we are on this exceptional blue planet, circling a rather small star, in a rather ordinary galaxy, in what may be one of many universes — what are the chances?
Summer Garden Tips
It doesn’t take a second to see the difference between a well-tended garden verses neglected ones. Garden maintenance is not “outdoor housekeeping.” While you might count the minutes on an exercise machine, no one counts the minutes in the garden. It can be your quiet time to look after those living beings you share your home with.
Insect pests, animal pests, plant diseases, weed control — it’s an ongoing struggle between using organic cures or chemical pesticides. My advice: Refer to the guide in Sunset Western Garden book — they’ve got it down. Sunset’s book will also advise you about which plants need summer fertilizer now, and which are to be left alone.
If you hurry it’s not too late to plant summer herbs, vegetables, and your cutting garden. Deadheading spent flowers make room for fresh shoots to set new flowers.