Growing Camouflage

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

Lots of us will be familiar with organisms like decorator crabs that utilize bits and pieces of their environment, especially living sea anemones, as a form of camouflage and protection. Examples of terrestrial insects attaching bits and pieces of lichens to their body are not unheard of either. However, there are at least two groups of arthropods that take their camouflage to a whole new level by actively growing miniature gardens on their bodies.

Little is known about these garden-growing arthropods. To date, these miniature gardens have only been reported on a few species of weevil in the genus Gymnopholus as well as a species of millipede called Psammodesmus bryophorus. Coined epizoic symbiosis, it is thought that these gardens serve as a form of protection by camouflaging the gardeners against the backdrop of their environment.

Bryophytes on a  Psammodesmus bryophorus  male.

Bryophytes on a Psammodesmus bryophorus male.

Indeed, both groups of arthropods frequent exposed areas. What is most remarkable about this relationship is that these plants were not placed on the carapace from elsewhere in the environment. Instead, they have been actively growing there from the beginning. Closer inspection of the cuticle of these arthropods reveals unique structural adaptations like pits and hairs that provide favorable microclimates for spores to germinate and grow.

The plant communities largely consist of mosses and liverworts. At least 5 different liverwort families are represented and at least one family of moss. Even more remarkable is the fact that even these small botanical communities are enough to support a miniature ecosystem of their own. Researchers have found numerous algae such as diatoms, lichens, and a variety of fungi growing amidst the mosses and liverworts. These in turn support small communities of mites. It appears that an entire unknown ecosystem lives on the backs of these mysterious arthropods.

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma.  [SOURCE]

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma. [SOURCE]

There is still much to be learned about this symbiotic relationship. Although camouflage is the leading hypothesis, no work has been done to actually investigate the benefits these arthropods receive from actively growing these miniature gardens on their backs. Mysteries still abound. For instance, in the case of the millipede, gardens are found more frequently on the backs of males than on the backs of females. Could it be that males spend more time searching their environment and thus benefit from the added camouflage? Only further research will tell.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

The Benefits of Houseplants

I don't know about you, but I find indoor gardening to be just as satisfying and intellectually stimulating as any amount of outdoor gardening. Coming from a temperate climate, I don't think I would be able to survive the long winters if it were not for my houseplants. The benefits to keeping plants in the home as well as the office are numerous and range the spectrum from improving air quality to diminishing stress and aiding in healing.

Few would probably argue that a room with plants in it feels far more lived in and hospitable than an empty, sterile room. It makes sense. We evolved, like everything else on this planet, in a natural setting filled with seemingly endless varieties of different plant species. It should be no surprise that our minds would be more at ease the more natural any environment seems. Studies have shown that in an indoor work environment, offices that contained plants had statistically significant reductions in employee discomfort, stress, and an increase in their overall well being. It doesn't end at work either. Hospitals and other medical facilities also showed that overall well being improved both physically and mentally with their residents. In patients suffering from dementia, indoor plants are said to "stimulate residents’ senses, created positive emotions, and offered opportunity for rewarding activity."

Plants do so much more than just improve our moods and reduce stress, they also clean the air we breath. Many every-day household items off-gas some pretty nasty chemicals. Insulation, particle board, PVC and vinyl, carpets, flooring, even our own clothing, all of these things come with their own gaseous and particulate chemical cocktails. It has been shown time and time again that many species of commonly kept house plants help to remove these molecules from the home environment. Some species are better than others. For instance, spider plants (genus Chlorophytum), are exceptionally good at removing formaldehyde compounds in the air. A room full of plants also exhibits statistically significant reductions in particulate matter as well as a measurable increase in humidity levels.

Whether they make you feel at ease or because they clean the air you breath, having house plants is a good thing. There are many species that are available both in nurseries as well as online. Some of the best plants for the home are also the most sensibly priced. Get online and do some research. There are a lot of easy plants to care for out there if you don't necessarily have a green thumb.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Why You Should Never Buy Cypress Mulch

Gardening season is soon to be underway here in the northern hemisphere. This past weekend saw droves of people taking advantage of the nice weather by getting their hands dirty in the garden. A walk around the neighborhood brought with it a lot of smiles and a chance to reconnect with neighbors I haven't talked to in a while but it also brought with it something sinister. Lingering in the air was the scent of cypress mulch. Tons upon tons of it are being spread over gardens everywhere. One might ask "Whats the problem? Cypress mulch is more durable and more insect resistant than other mulches!"

WRONG!

Anymore today, these ideas are leftovers of a long gone era. Back when old growth cypress forests were still a thing, these centuries old trees did impart rot and pest resistance into their wood. Today, this is not the case. Because logging has taken most of the old growth cypress from places like Florida and Louisiana, mulch companies have had to resort to cutting down and mulching young, second and third growth cypress stands. Barely given the time to grow into the towering specimens their parents and grandparents once were, these young trees have not yet imparted the centuries worth of compounds into their wood that keep them from rotting and deter insect predators.

The saddest part of the cypress mulch industry is that they are destroying valuable and irreplaceable habitat for the myriad lifeforms that rely on cypress swamps for their existence. To add insult to injury, recovery of cypress trees is almost negligible anymore today due to the way we have managed our waterways. Cypress seedlings require inundation by freshwater and regular silt deposition in order to successfully germinate. A century of flood control, inundation by brackish water, as well as dam and ship canal building have completely upset this dynamic. Now, instead of building new habitat for cypress swamps, these sediments are washed away, far out into the Gulf of Mexico.

What staggeringly few people seem to care to realize is that cypress swamps are our first line of defense against hurricanes. Cypress swamps can cut the force of a storm surge by 90%. It has been estimated that the cypress swamps in Louisiana alone are worth a staggering $6.7 billion in storm protection every year. That is a lot of cash, people!

As with any other industry, the cypress mulch companies are driven by consumer demand. The simple act of individuals, communities, and local governments not purchasing this nasty product is all it will take to lessen the blow to these precious habitats. At the rate cypress is being cut, it will not take long for us to exhaust the resource entirely. As you are looking to do some gardening this year, and many years into the future, please keep these great trees in mind and stop buying cypress mulch. In lieu of wood and bark mulches, you should consider using shredded leaves from your property instead. They make excellent mulch and being locally sourced, the reduce the chances of introducing disease and other pests to your landscape. In the words of Captain Planet, "the power is yours!"

Photo Credit: Jesse Reeder (http://bit.ly/1wmQpn8)

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]






 

Leaf Them Be

Thinking of raking your leaves? I urge you to reconsider. 

In temperate regions around the world, fallen leaves are a hallmark of autumn. It may be tempting or even required to rid your property of their cover but in doing so you are removing a very important natural process.

Leaves are nature's compost. The decomposition process is an important part of the natural cycle. It returns vital nutrients and not to mention vast amounts of carbon to the soil. In areas without earthworms, layers upon layers of fallen leaves create favorable microclimates for myriad lifeforms. 

Our senseless and relentless obsession with the "perfect lawn" means people around the globe are devoting countless hours to raking, blowing, and shipping away a problem that shouldn't be a problem in the first place. Leaves make excellent and FREE mulch. They have the added benefit of fertilizing your gardens as they decompose. Considering the price (and often the carbon footprint) of some mulches, using leaves is a no brainer. 

Removing leaves is not only removing nutrients, it is destroying habitat. Many organisms rely on fallen leaves in order to find food as well as a home. Fallen leaves provide animals like chipmunks, salamanders, turtles, and insects with shelter for the coming winter. This is not lost on other animals as they take advantage of ample foraging opportunities. Countless insect species lay eggs and pupate in fallen leaves only to emerge the following spring. 

When you rake away your leaves, you are raking away these animals. Think about all of the hungry birds returning from a long spring migration. They rely on the spring insect bounty to regain their strength and feed their chicks. When you remove leaves from your yard, you are removing their food. 

Now I realize that many of you are probably bound to some sort of home owner agreement. Fear not! There are plenty of alternatives to getting rid of your leaves entirely. For starters, you can use them to create compost. As mentioned, you can also use them as mulch in your garden beds. By keeping them on your property, you are preserving some semblance of a natural cycle. 

Photo Credit: www.forestwanderer.com

The Truth About Peat

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Peat moss is not a sustainable option for gardening on any level.

No matter how good of a product it may be for anyone, the mining of peat moss is an incredibly destructive industry that is harming not only sensitive habitat but some of our largest carbon stores on the planet. Now, before you think I'm all up on my high horse about this subject, please note that I still use it in some of my gardening projects. It is hard not to. I am writing this post as a cry for help in order to get a conversation going about some sustainable and effective alternatives to this "blood soil."

Peat is the product of the natural processes that bogs go through. Sphagnum moss, the main species of a bog ecosystem, and other plant materials don't decompose in bogs. Instead they build up and compact to form what we know as peat moss. For centuries, this has been harvested and dried as a source of heat and energy for native peoples. Today, because of its moisture holding abilities and rather sterile, acidic nature, it is heavily mined for the horticultural trade. Most of the peat sold comes from Canada. Canadian companies mine their bog habitats for this product. The Canadian peat companies will tell you that it is a renewable resource and that mitigation offsets any damage being done. This is a bold faced lie. Bogs are incredibly sensitive habitats. They are the product of thousands of years of very particular natural processes. They hardly regenerate themselves if at all. Mitigation efforts are also pointless. Bogs that have been "mitigated" do not return to their fully functioning state ecologically.

To make matters worse, the industry loves to claim that there are no alternatives to peat moss out there. This is simply not true. I have researched some interesting sustainable alternatives to peat moss. One product is coconut coir "dust." This product comes from ground up coconut husks. From what I have read, it is also a much more sustainable option. Now, a few things must be said about the efficacy of this material. First off it is naturally high in salt. Most brands must be thoroughly washed before using. I have gotten around this issue by purchasing coconut coir used for amphibian and reptile bedding. It comes in compact bricks and it has the lowest salt levels on the market. Also, it is really low in nutrient value. I do some water gardening so I have a very mature fish tank running and using aquarium water seems to solve this issue for me. Adding coffee grounds can mitigate this as well. I have heard mixed reviews about coir and it is not necessarily the best choice for all types of seeds but it works quite well for me and in the last 4 growing seasons I have finally switched to using coir for germination.

By far my favorite media to use is good compost. Having ready access to a big pile goes a long way. Because compost can be very rich and heavy, I like to mix in wood chips and gravel. This not only weighs my pots down and keeps them from falling over, it increases the amount of roots my plants produce considerably. Every time a root comes into contact with a piece of gravel or wood chip, it branches off hundreds of tiny root hairs, thus increasing the surface area available for water and nutrient absorption. Since I switched over to mixing my own soil using compost, I have noticed my plants are more vigorous and are flowering more often. 

Another option I have come across is pine bark. I have not used this but some research papers rank it as good as peat moss in seed germination trials. Has anyone here tried this? If anyone has an opinion on this subject or better yet, first hand experience, PLEASE chime in. If we can't make growing plants a sustainable process then what good are we as a species? Finally, does it make sense to destroy one habitat to foster a handful of species in your back yard?

Further Reading: 

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090904165253.htm

http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/2/312.full.pdf+html

http://www.usu.edu/cpl/PDF/CoconutCoirPaper.pdf

http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~linda%20chalker-scott/horticultural%20myths_files/Myths/Horticultural%20%20peat.pdf

http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/Hort/Environmental/Media_Nutrition/COIR%20potential.htm

Growing Ferns

I am finally having some success intentionally growing ferns from spores. I collected and sowed spores from some interrupted ferns (Osmunda claytoniana) over the summer. They have been hanging out as gametophytes for months now and some are finally starting to grow sporophytes. Here is how it worked for me:

I kept my eye on a batch of adult plants this summer. Once their fertile fronds developed I would flick them every now and then to see if they were releasing spores. Once I saw that they were I shook the fronds over some paper to collect the spores. I then took some old potting soil and sterilized it with boiling distilled water. I use old takeout containers because they are small and have clear lids that form a seal which keeps the humidity high.

Once the soil was cool I sprinkled the spores over it and then placed it on a shelf where it gets a small amount of ambient light every day. The rest they did themselves. You just have to remember to check on them and keep the humidity quite high because they can dry out really fast. They seemed stuck as gametophytes for months. I just noticed the start of these sporophytes the other day.