Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, NC, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week on the reasons why trees fail. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading →
Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing. Continue reading →
After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN
Lack of water is becoming an increasing concern both for human and plant life across the planet. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them adapt to drought stress. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for my white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.
Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study that showed huge promise for thirsty plants of the future. Researchers revealed that they had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in certain species that sprang into action in times of water stress. By studying the pathway and the chain of chemical reactions within it, the scientists made a surprising discovery. They found they could induce greater drought tolerance in certain plants by growing them in vinegar.
Most of us are familiar with vinegar’s miraculous cleaning and anti-bacterial properties, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.
My hydrangea showing signs of water stress
A little plant named Arabidopsis
It all started with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, this genus of small flowering plants was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced. As a result, it is considered a model organism for studying plant biology.
Perhaps most interestingly, Arabidopsis is also known to exhibit strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6. Specifically, the mutation allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.
Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress
HDA6 acts as a switch
Indeed, initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, which is also the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway is active. While most plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, Arabidopsis switches to this acetate-producing pathway to endure long periods when there is no water at all.
Clearly there was something going on. To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, they measured the results. Surprisingly, 70 percent of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living. Conversely, all of the other plants had died.
Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata
A link between acetate and drought performance
By measuring the amounts of acetate in the Arabidopsis, the team discovered there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate the plants produced and how well they performed under drought conditions. Even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and these species’ tolerance increased, too, when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.
Close-up of rice plant
It goes without saying that the implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to other strategies like genetic engineering. Still, I’m not sure if vinegar will help my hydrangeas survive another scorching Maryland summer, but it’s worth a try. I’ll let you know.
Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles
What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.
About Antoine Jacobsohn
So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from New Jersey. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles. And in 2008 he became director of the palace’s vegetable and fruit gardens commonly known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)
The Potager is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. As Jacobsohn puts it, the garden is surrounded by an “urban desert”. He finds this worrisome for the future. As city dwellers have increasingly less access to food, he believes we should rethink how we shape our gardens. And that means incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.
“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.
In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are experimenting, all while respecting the techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.
About the King’s Kitchen Garden
The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project.
Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie
Quintinie’s first task was to take a swamp and turn it into a working garden. To accomplish this, he drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he enriched with manure from the King’s stables. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Versailles’ architect, designed the layout for the garden. The original plan called for 29 terraced garden squares grouped around a central fountain.
Original plan for le Potager du Roi
La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.
In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees. Today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.
The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.
Today’s garden is rooted in discovery
‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)
From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.
Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?
To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.
The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden
Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.
“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”
Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française
Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.
Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française
Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.
For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.
“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”
Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.
A suburban meadow can free you from tiresome yard work
These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. Luckily, there’s a solution to the problem. Sustainable and chemical-free, it’s called the suburban meadow garden. Continue reading →
Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing
There’s a movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a garden on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is the best known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation, the 11th Street Bridge Park. Soon, the city’s first elevated park will be perched high atop the Anacostia River. Continue reading →
Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)
There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better. Continue reading →
“Even the sharpest ear cannot hear an ant singing” -Sudanese Proverb
(Red ant on Fijian palm leaf)
Just when you thought you’d heard it all, this week comes the revelation that a certain species of Fijiian ants has been growing plants for millennia. And they’ve been doing so for far longer than humans. The ants have been growing crops and establishing their colonies within them all while tending their own teeny tiny community gardens. Continue reading →
There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading →
Have you ever driven by a cornfield during a prolonged period of drought and asked yourself ‘How do these plants survive?’ Well it turns out scientists have uncovered a protein in plants that holds the key to why some survive and others don’t. It’s called ABA INSENSITIVE GROWTH 1 (ABIG1) and it may determine the future of plant growth in an increasingly waterless world.