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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener, Interdependence and Integration

Updated on January 16, 2015

Study of a leaf

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Interdependence in the garden

Bill and I were discussing the interdependence and integration of organic biological systems in gardening and nature in general.

Bill asked: OK Professor, I see you wrote that nature is interdependent, interrelated, entwined, synergistic, unified, organized. What did you mean by that?

RN: These are all words we could use to describe the garden and the earth and the related organic systems that we very basically describe in the soils, but I could relate those all the way to how you sleep at night if you like.

Bill: No, that’s fine, John already warned me about that, let’s just stick to the garden, not the entire earth.

RN: Well, we are not thinking the earth is one giant organism or some bizarre abstraction like the Gaia Hypothesis, rather simply the concrete interdependency of the organisms on the system as a whole.

It is not only that each system can relate to other, but they are related to each other and nutrient cycles are a large part of that interrelatedness. They all depend on each other at one point of another, usually on various levels.

For nutrient cycles to occur, you need to have nutrient coming into the soil, not just leaving the soil. Harvest enough vegetables out of your garden without putting anything back into the soil and you will soon learn that lesson. The soil will lose its fertility, its vitality, and so will your plants.

Bill: Perhaps, but while I like the way your garden looks, it is too cluttered for my taste. I prefer a clean soil so leaves don’t blow around and make a mess.

RN: Do you remember in the Wizard of Oz, what the Wizard told the Scarecrow? “You are just a victim of disorganized thinking!”

Bill: Yes, but the disorganization seems to be your yard, not mine.

RN: It’s all according to how you look at it. I see dead leaves as sources of nutrients for the soil, you see them as a nuisance. Well, you simply need to rethink the way you look at things you are throwing away to see if you could not do better by your garden by keeping them a lot closer than the local dump. Is there a way to reuse these items in the garden as opposed to trashing them?

You just came back from Hawaii and were telling me how beautiful the forested areas where last week. Think about that wonderful forested area for a minute. What do you find there?

Bill: Plants everywhere, huge tropical green plants.

RN: Very well, what was under them?

Bill: That is what I am talking about, it’s a mess. Down at Waipio Valley the plants are literally falling all over the ground, it’s a mess!

RN: I like to think about Hawaii, but, since heat is out of fashion, let’s talk about the rain forests of the Washington State peninsula where it is a colder climate. You have a hot and cold cycle. The winter gets quite cold and the summer, fairly warm. This slowly breaks down rocks, and makes them crack into ever smaller pieces. You have rain, this seeps into the ground for use in the soil, in fact, it is one of the causes of the soil. It also forms small rivulets that join and become larger streams and then rivers. The rain wets the soil and creates vertical paths through the soils by dissolving minerals. This allows for more penetration by water if it rains heavier, or the next time it rains.

But there is more to it than that.

The dissolved minerals can be used by bacteria, fungi, and plants of all sized, but the water is also a solvent for many (not all) nutrients. The rain comes with its own nitrogen because the air it fell through is mostly nitrogen (78.08% as N2), and, if there is lightning, tons of nitrogen molecules are “fixed” into nitrogen containing molecules like nitrates (NO3) and nitrite (NO2). The other gaseous nitrogen that enters the soil can also be “fixed” by fungi, bacteria, and some larger organisms. It is then useful to plants and why everything greens up immediately after a rain. (Remember 78% of the air is nitrogen.) These gasses, along with CO2 can be, and are in fact, absorbed directly by plant leaves.

The rain also carries oxygen into the soil. Oxygen makes up 20.95% of the atmospheric gas. Oxygen and nitrogen, together, 99.03% of the atmospheric gasses, can be used by organisms to break down organic materials into usable nutrients. Some of these organisms break down very complex groups of molecules we will refer to as “humates.” In this sense, it really is a large number of different organic molecules, most of them slightly acidic, and therefore pick up minerals from the soil.

These humates carry these nutrients to root tips. Some of them help pass nutrients into the root, then some breaks down and enter the root tip, usually as carboxylic acids (CO2 dissolved in water in various combinations). Plants thrive in such an environment, and so grow.

Beauty surrounds you. Why do you understand beauty?

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All photos I use are from my home and garden.
All photos I use are from my home and garden.
All photos I use are from my home and garden.

Said Bill, "OK, but how do the nutrients get to the leaves?"

But how do the nutrients get up to the leaf?

They get to the leaf by transvaporation, also called transevaporation. As water evaporates from the leaf, the tubes supplying water which reach all the way to the roots pass along the next molecules and whatever it is transporting to the leaf. What the leaf needs most is water and carbon to make sugars.

This transvaporation is why excess salts in the soil burn leaves. When the water evaporates, they are left in the leaf but cannot be used by the leaf.

What happens to the plants in the rain forests? They accumulate mosses and ferns. After all, this is a rain forest. They drop plant parts onto the forest floor, they are eaten by bugs, birds, and other animals. Eventually the plants die.

Those parts that fall on the floor decay with the help of soil flora and fauna, and animals and provide nutrient for the soils. All animals that eat plants process this into what is waste for them, but fertilizer for the next plant. Large animals process the plants into fertilizer then trample that and other plant materials into the soils where they break down improving the soils. Rabbits dig into the soils allowing oxygen, and then they die leaving a hole into which other living things come to decay the rabbit returning it to the soils, the hole fills with leaf debris, and so on and so forth.

Do you see where we are going?

Bill: OK, I can see that, so, you facilitate that by allowing these processes to go on in your garden, recycling everything that is possible, including fireplace ash and leaves soaked in water, and I clean it up and have a nice neat, clean garden. Even if your bugs break down into fertilizer, I would rather not have the bugs in the first place.

RN: Yes, but you buy fertilizer which gives three of the primary nutrients, and I don’t, my garden has tens of thousands of nutrients, bugs, worms, fungi, but I digress, the same is true for all the other life forms in our forest. Nothing goes to waste, it is all recycled, even large animals. We had a rabbit for the kids as a pet. It dug holes which I filled with leaves and garbage, then soil. The rabbit died, we buried it. You enjoy the results of the natural way to do things when you go to Hawaii or to the Olympic Rain Forest, but you don’t give your own soils the same advantages. What you are doing, taken to extremes id desertification. My methods, taken to extremes is forestification. So why do you vacation in a place with posh plant life, but don't allow this in your own yard?

There is a lot of biomass, say, in Olympia, or Hawaii, isn't there? In fact, so much biomass is found there that the forest floor is thick with mulch and detritus, composted materials and plants both dead and alive, mosses, ferns, flowering plants, the plant mass and biomass is very large. They recycles millions of tons of carbon every day. Some released into the air for other plants, and some kept in literally tens of thousands of different organic molecules that eventually break down it into usable humates and acids and then are used by the roots to transport minerals and other organics, and then used by the plant in photosynthesis because there is not enough carbon in the air to "fix" for photosynthesis. Yes, not enough carbon.

You have to determine what you want your garden to look like, certainly, but even if you prefer a very clean look, that is, no mulch on top of the soil, you can still feed the soil and the organisms under it. Your garden will be better for it, the plants healthier.

Another friend prefers a desert cactus garden, another clean ground look but with gravels and sand areas and plants between them, other friend has, a clean flower bed, and mine, of course, a garden more like the forest, covered with mulch to reap the benefits of that decaying plant material. We have other friends who live in an area where they cannot have mulch because of fires, which could travel down in the dry matter and then burn their trees or house. They need to bury everything, but this is what keeps the soil alive.

Everyone with any side garden can still bury leaves, grass clippings, other waste, even food waste below that flat surface to keep the underground ecology working. You don't want mulch at the surface, so, bury your waste and help the belowground ecology, the fungi, bacteria, and various worms that keep the soil healthy.

Bill: OK, I see that you are saying. Is that how you got into Mensa?

RN: No, you do that through tests!

Pelargonium cotyledonis, the Geranium of St. Helena

"Old Man Life Forever" still exists in three to five locations on cliff faces on St. Helena.
"Old Man Life Forever" still exists in three to five locations on cliff faces on St. Helena.

What do you recycle into the soils?

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