Toronto Star column – published July 20, 2013
I am not much of a pack rat except when it comes to trivia. Garden trivia to be precise. I find it amazing how much stuff is going on in the world of horticulture that often impacts our daily lives and is generally not widely held knowledge.
This column is intended to change that, in some small way.
Did you, for instance, know that the largest botanical garden in the world, Kew Gardens in London, England, is home not only to the most extensive collection of genetic plant material but that they employ over 300 full time staff in a ‘medical research’ department? The idea of this massive undertaking is based on the fact that over 30% of the drugs that are in current use worldwide originally were derived from the world of plants. Today’s dandelion could be tomorrow’s solution to indigestion. Who knows?
As a footnote, this ‘medical mandate’ at Kew goes all the way back to the original charter of the place over 350 years ago. Another factoid: our own RoyalBotanical Garden in Burlington and the MontrealBotanical Garden have similar mandates, though smaller than Kew. The research staff at our botanical gardens collaborates with others in the field around the world.
Here is a little bit of news that you should share with your kids or grandkids, as all kids either love or hate earth worms. An earth worm consumes decomposing material equal to its body weight each day throughout the summer. What comes out the rear end of the worms are called ‘worm castings’. When applied to plants as a nutrient-rich fertilizer, worm castings help to dramatically reduce a plants susceptibility to aphids, whiteflies, and other bugs. The castings themselves are about seven times more phosphorous-rich, have five times more nitrogen, one-and-a-half times more calcium, and 1,000 times more beneficial bacteria packed than the stuff that they consume. Their digestive system, one could argue, is a miracle worker.
Speaking of fascinating facts: Organic Gardening magazine reports that the average fully detached home has about 2 tonnes of earth worms crawling through the soil in the yard. Sleep well in the knowledge…
Grow Your Own Food but How Much?
The increasing popularity of growing food plants to feed ourselves is not exclusively a Canadian phenomenon. Based on my own extensive reading on the subject, Europeans are ahead of us on this curve and the Americans are running neck in neck with us. Which raises the question, if you were to raise ALL of the food that you consume in your own yard, what size would it have to be to feed a family of four? Kevin Hartnett of the Boston Globe quoted “One Block-Off the Grid” when he stated, “to feed a family of four strictly on a home-grown diet of vegetables, you’d need 1.76 acres [0.71 Hectares]. Add meat, dairy, corn, and wheat to those vegetables and you’d need more land, but not much more – about two well-organised acres would be enough.” Ready for your move to the country?
Who ARE Gardeners?
I have argued in recent years that gardeners are not mutually exclusive from, say, birders, conservationists, environmentalists, or community activists. Very often they are the same people. I was pleased to read Nigel Colborn’s column in The Garden Magazine [Great Britain] wherein he explains, “Responsible garden owners are also wildlife conservators. The plight of bees and other pollinators is widely recognised but most wild species are in decline, largely because of habitat loss. Well-managed gardens can play a strong role in fostering diversity. Small adjustments to management, such as abandoning lawn herbicides or planting for pollinators, can result in dramatic increases in hundreds of species.” This shows how our garden activity contributes in a measurable way to the greater natural environment around us. Again, gardeners do not plant and nurture for their own benefit exclusively. We do it for the greater good of the whole neighbourhood.
Just in case you were looking for a reason to plant something this weekend: consider it a community service.
Coffee Improves the Memory in Bees.
Once again The Garden Magazine [my favourite by far] offers this tid-bit of juicy info: based on a recent study, bees may enjoy a caffeine boost just as much as humans, according to scientists at Newcastle University, U.K.
They found bees that feed on nectar containing caffeine – present in the flowers of Coffea [coffee] and Citrus species such as grapefruit and oranges – are three times more likely to remember the flower’s scent 24 hours later. Some bees remembered the scent for up to three days.
The team was studying caffeine as a defence compound, but found that flowers seem also to use it to influence the behaviour of their pollinators, encouraging them to prefer their plant type as they are better able to remember it is a good nectar source.
Based on this information I plan on increasing my caffeine intake as I approach my wedding anniversary and my wife’s birthday.
More Garden Trivia
There is more, of course: hummingbirds, weighing less than an ounce, fly as far south as Brazil each winter and as far north as the Boreal Forest each spring. How do they do that?
Monarch butterflies fly from Mexico to Canada each spring, spawning a new generation of young on their way up here. Those same youngsters arrive on the same grounds in Canada long after their parents arrive here. Ditto the return trip to Mexico. How is that? What kind of GPS do they have programmed into their DNA?
We love the look of rhododendrons while in bloom each spring but Scotland has declared war on Rhododendron ponticum, an invasive plant that is taking over some of the native forests there. The Forestry Commission in Scotland has set aside 15 million pounds sterling to rid the Commission’s forests of the ‘weed’. Who knew?
Cut flowers may be more cost effective than a shrink.
At HarvardUniversity “The Home Ecology of Flowers Study” examined the effects that fresh cut flowers have on people’s moods, feelings and energy levels. They determined that:
- Flowers affect compassion. After living with flowers for a week, participants felt an increase in feelings of compassion and kindness towards others.
- Flowers chase away anxieties at home.
- Living with flowers can provide a boost of energy, happiness, and enthusiasm at work.
Said faculty member Dr. Nancy Etcoff of the Harvard team, “As a psychologist, I’m particularly intrigued to find that people who live with flowers report fewer episodes of anxiety and depressed feelings. In all, our results suggest that flowers have a positive impact on our well being.”
Based on this I think that every corporate budget should include some money to invest in fresh flowers in the workplace and every doctor’s office waiting room should have some fresh flowers visible to all. The longer the wait, the bigger the bouquet!
Funny, my dentist has had a fresh flower arrangement at the front counter for as long as I remember. The key word: “fresh”. I think that makes a difference.
And there you have it. All of the horticultural trivia you need to get you through a summer weekend.
Question of the Week
Q/ My Jackmanii Clematis is overgrown and doesn’t bloom. How should I prune it?
A/ Jackmanii Clematis bloom on new wood. Prune them in very early spring while the plant is dormant. Cut all stems back to 12” tall. This will encourage a new flush of growth. This new growth will produce flower buds.