30 March 2015

Course Review: What a Plant Knows

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of the book of the same name and have written quite a bit about it. Last year, I completed the course that's been made available by the folks at Coursera and delivered by none other than the author, Daniel Chamovitz.

The course is delivered over 7 weeks via videos, selected readings, and forum discussions. The website states that it take around 3-4 hours a week, but it took me no more than 2 hours a week.

It covers much of the same content as the book, such as how plants know up from down, whether they can hear music, and what sort of memory they have. Each week is completed with a short test of multiple answer questions that you can complete up to 100 times (if I remember correctly).

During one of the weeks, we also get a tour around Professor Chamovitz's laboratory.

I enjoyed reading the research papers presented as reading material throughout the course and learning some new things about the biology of plants. Importantly not all reading assignments are mandatory and a few are optional.

In this call you'll learn about plant biology, the scientific method and biological research, and how to question life in general and what senses we share with plants - and those that define us as humans.

I'd recommend this course, not just because it's free, but because it's interesting and while teaching us, allows us to question the definitions of senses and how far we've actually come in understanding plants and how they live.

The final test is much longer, can only be completed once, and is time restricted. So it's important that you feel confident that you can recall the course materials and the logic of plants before you begin it. However, saying that, I achieved 94.2% - showing that it's not that difficult.

If you'd like to find out more, please visit the course homepage. If you've already completed the course, I'd enjoy reading your comments about your experience.

25 March 2015

5th Blogiversary

Crocuses in our garden
This blog started on 25 March 2010 as a blog to document my camping journeys with my friends. After that first post, things just got busy and I didn't start blogging regularly until the following year. After that I came down with a mystery illness, now diagnosed as ME, so while I've had to leave camping behind, I didn't want to leave nature behind.

Not being able to spend much time in nature, gave me plenty of time to learn about it. So, in this blog I've written lots about the science behind plants and I've used the blog as a way to post photos and identifications of many species of plant, animal, and fungi. I also blog every now and then about Geocaching, outdoor swimming and the night sky.

I've never had a long term plan for this blog and I don't know where it will end up. But, I want to thank everyone that reads what I post, especially the long term readers.

All the best,

Partial Solar Eclipse (complete with cloud cover!), Wiltshire, 2015

16 March 2015

Film Review: Symphony of the Soil

This feature length documentary takes us on a journey through the soil and our relationship with it. We begin by learning that it's rare for a planet to have soil - something I've never considered, but ultimately true.

Not all soil is the same and we're told that of the 12 mentioned in the film, Mollisol and Alfisol are the most productive soils. It's the plants that make the soil productive and the roots that slough off provide food for some of the many members of this massive, but mainly microscopic ecosystem.

The artwork throughout the film make it really enjoyable to watch and is used effectively to visually show concepts explained. The film is a worldwide endeavour with scientists and farmers providing the narrative and real world examples of how feeding the soil can not only provide the same harvest as fertilised land - but much more. One farmer we meet is growing potatoes on his land, but also plants purely for wildlife, with 50% of the land going to each.

Legumes are used expensively to gather nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is then available for use by plants. A history of nitrogen fertiliser use is also covered.

One of the most interesting points of the film was a simple, but well done demonstration that showed the difference in water run-off and water supplying aquifers. The soils used were: conventional soil, organic soil, organic soil with compost, and organic soil with compost and a cover crop. There was lots of run-off from the conventional soil and no water supplying aquifers. With the other 3 soils there was less run-off, to close to none with organic soil with compost and a cover crop and a fair amount of water reaching the underground aquifers.

The film closes with a nice explanation of Adam and Eve. With Adam being the masculine of Adama, which means earth and Eve meaning life. So the writers of the bible knew that life came from the Earth. They lived in the garden of Eden, with Eden meaning delight. I hope we can get back to a place where the earth is a garden of life that we can delight in and be proud of our existence on it.

At 1 hour 44 minutes, this film proceeds at a pace that keeps interest, but allows time for the viewer to grasp the topics and concepts covered. You can rent the film to stream from Vimeo here and watch the trailer below:

I wrote this because I'm trying to learn more about soil as it's International Year of Soils.For more information about it, click here.

09 March 2015

Trunk of the Month: March 2015: Betula ermanii

Well, I can't believe it's March already! In this post, we'll investigate the trunk of Erman's birch, named after Georg Adolf Erman (1806-1877), a German physicist, who collected it from one of the species native homes, Kamchatka in North East Asia.

This species is sometimes also called the gold birch, which must be due to the vivid colouring of the bark. The genus Betula is well known for its peeling bark, often used in bushcraft as a tinder material when starting camp fires, due to the thin papery properties of the peel. In the photo above, it can be seen that the bark peels in shreds quite naturally, there is also a blistered layer of bark that has peeled but not broken from the rest of the bark in the middle.

This tree can reach a height up to 20 metres and spread to around 8 metres, but it will take up to 50 years to reach full size. It seems to be a popular horticultural tree and has been bred into a few cultivars, with 'Grayswood Hill' having the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

What I find most fascinating with this birch are the elongated lenticels that provide such a striking effect.

Every plant that generated secondary growth (wood) has lenticels, some herbaceous plants have them too. They are a product of the periderm that is the protective covering, replacing the epidermis, in parts of the plant that has secondary growth.

Lenticels are more important than they appear to be. This is because the inner tissues of stems and roots are metabolically active. Because of this, they need to exchange gases with the environment. Lenticels are the structures that allow the stems and roots to perform the essential gas exchange.

If a plant is left in water logged soil, it will drown because the lenticels cannot exchange gases with the soil. Apart from plants such as mangrove tree that send up structures known as pneumatophores. These aerial roots are covers with lenticels and allow the plant to breathe in the constantly changing environment in which it lives.

Interestingly, some fruits and vegetable also have lenticels. They can be seen as small dots on the surface, as in the apple and potato, below. These allow the apple and potato to continue respiring after harvesting - however they can also be an area of disease.

Lenticel rot can be a real problem, especially in potatoes where dry, sunken, discoloured lesions surround the lenticels. This is caused by a bacteria know as Pectobacterium carotovorum subsp. carotovorum and, depending on storage conditions, can lead to the whole tuber decaying.

Until next time - happy trunk hunting.


Farrar, J., Nunez, J., & Davis, R. (2009). Losses due to lenticel rot are an increasing concern for Kern County potato growers California Agriculture, 63 (3), 127-130 DOI: 10.3733/ca.v063n03p127
Raven, Peter H., Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn. Raven Biology of Plants. 8 edition. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2012.
Coombes, Allen J. The A to Z of Plant Names: A Quick Reference Guide to 4000 Garden Plants. Timber Press, 2012.

02 March 2015

Gardening with ME: SMARTER Gardening

If you haven't heard of the SMART goal setting framework before, then I hope that this post will be really helpful for you. While I'm certainly no expert, I've been using this framework for a few years and find it very helpful in improving and adapting the goals I have for my garden and other parts of my life.

I've chosen the extended version, as I find that with ME performing the actual task can be very different from the plan. The ER, evaluation and review, are important steps to ensure that you improve and pace well when returning to complete the same, or similar, task in future.

In this post, I'll be using an example of my own SMARTER goal to show how the process works.

Some of the tools and equipment required for the job.

Being specific will not only hold you accountable, but it will help you know when you have achieved your goal. 
I want to remove our acer tree from the small pot it is in and re-pot it into a larger pot.

This allows you to state how much or how many of the specific item needs to be done before you have completed the goal. 
I am hoping to perform the re-potting in a single session. This will include removing the acer and pruning the roots. Removing the moss on the top of the current compost. Adding new compost. Watering the re-potted acer. I may have to rest at certain points to ensure that I don't over do it and will check this during the task.

Is the goal you have set realistic and attainable? If it isn't attainable at this stage, then perhaps you need to break your goal down into more specific steps. You should be able to write about how your goal will be achievable.
I will accomplish this because I know the steps to complete the task and have done this before. Lucy will be on hand if I need assistance.
To achieve this I will need to ensure I have all the tools and equipment ready. This includes a new pot, enough ericaceous compost, a trowel, a kneeler, a knife, a patio weeder.

Is this goal relevant and worthwhile to you? Is it in line with your values and requirements? If not, then this may not be the right time to attempt the task, or perhaps, you may not be the right person for the job.
Achieving this re-potting task will provide me with a confidence boost and will be a great way to get going with the gardening year. I enjoy gardening, so I know that this is relevant to me and as I enjoy caring for plants, this is in line with my values.

Not only should the goal be specific, but you should be able to give yourself a time frame to complete the task. This will help you focus on completing the goal.
I will aim to complete this task in the next month on the day/days that Lucy isn't working and the weather is amenable.

This is an important step because we can then understand how our goal is progressing or progressed. You don't have to wait until the end of the goal to work on this stage. For instance, if you find that you're struggling to meet a requirement, such as time-specific, you can evaluate why that is. Alternatively, if it's a long-term goal, say 6 months, then you could evaluate every 2 months.

The task went well and I accomplished the goal of re-potting the acer. Lucy was on hand to assist with the lifting. I had forgotten that the pot the acer was in had a lip going into the pot, this meant that I had to do some extra work in cutting away some soil before we could get the acer out of the original pot. Having the tools ready was very helpful, but I did forget a few things. I need to consider the job step by step to ensure I don't need to waste energy fetching things I've forgotten.

After the goal have been completed, you can look at ways to adapt or improve the goal based on any challenges that you have faced. For instance, you may find that doing the whole goal in a single session wore you out for the following 2 days, in which case you can look at where the task can be broken into additional sessions. Alternatively you may find that the goal was very painful, so you may look at different tools or ways of increasing your comfort levels - or even farming the goal out to someone who isn't ill if it's a recurring task.

While the task went well, I hadn't realised how much I needed Lucy for the lifting and removing of the tree from the pot. I need to make sure that I schedule tasks like this when Lucy isn't at work.
I also need to create an inventory of our pot plants as the plant was very root bound and I'm not sure how well it will recover. The inventory will help me keep on top of pot plant maintenance and I won't have to waste so much time and energy in cutting away sheets of roots.
The SMART portion of SMARTER will help you to create a statement of what your goal is and how you will achieve it:
I want to remove our acer tree from the small pot it is in and re-pot it into a larger pot. I want to do this in the next few weeks with the help of Lucy. I will do this in situ, as the acer is located near the house in the back garden.
To achieve this I will need to ensure I have all the tools and equipment ready. This includes a new pot, enough ericaceous compost, a trowel, a kneeler, a knife, a patio weeder.

  • There is a hierarchy of achievements which consist of: Objective (Make my garden look amazing), Aim (Ensure that all my potted plants are happy and healthy), Target (Re-pot, top up, and maintain any plants that are looking unhealthy), Goal (Re-pot my acer plant).
  • With this in mind, the SMARTER framework is for goals, which are the smallest measurement of achieving your overall objectives. When setting up a SMARTER, ensure that it is the smallest component and that you're not trying to to achieve larger tasks.
  • In time you probably won't need to write it all down. These days I don't often write down my gardening goals because I've been using SMARTER for a long time. However, I do often sit and think about how to improve and adapt - especially when the ME is trying to keep me down.
  • SMART and SMARTER may not be the tool for you. I'm sure you probably have a formal or informal method of managing activities. Whatever tool you use, as long as it works, is the best one for you.
  • Ensure that you don't breach your activity/energy baseline. If you don't have one yet, then it's worth taking a few weeks to log your current levels of activity, so you can understand how much you can do without any energy backlash or symptom relapse.
  • Enjoy the process! Even making a SMARTER goal is gardening - because you're thinking about your garden and how to make your time in it enjoyable. 
The end result. Pot to the left is the original pot.
Next time I'll be writing about choosing the correct tools to limit energy expenditure. Until then, have a read of the links below.

Important ME news:
Last week it was reported that a potential biomarker for diagnosing ME was found. Read what that means and why it's important: http://tanyamarlow.com/potential-biomarker-for-myalgic-encephalomyelitis-chronic-fatigue-syndrome/ 

Read Jullieanne's post on gardening in your head