Saturday, January 28, 2012

Time for Gardening -- Finally!!

Practical Science for Gardeners
Mary Pratt
Timber Press, Oregon, 2005
ISBN 0-88192-718-X
Available from Timber Press

I have to admit it.  I'm a garden junkie.  Not that I have the best garden (far from it), not that I know all there is to know about gardening (although I'm really good at raising little seedlings), not even that I relish hours spent weeding in the hot sun (I don't), but once Xmas is over, and we get past the solstice, and the days start getting longer, I've already got the seed orders in, the little pots and trays have been dug out of the shed waiting for the seeds to arrive, and I'm ready to sit and dream about all the great things that will happen in my garden.  This year, I have discovered a really good tool that I didn't have before, and I'm reading and re-reading sections to get them solid in my mind as the garden season arrives. 

Writers and artists often talk about leaving something behind of value when they "shuffle off this mortal coil" and with "Practical Science for Gardeners"  Mary Pratt has certainly done just that.   She worked on the book even from her hospital bed, including the illustrations, and "died in December 2004, delighted to know that the book had been accepted without question for publication."

This is *nothing* like most of the gardening books you've ever read.  It's fully based in science, with the caveat that we understand that most science is provisional, true until something new is discovered, and then we readjust it to that reality.  For Mary Pratt, this book was clearly a labor of love, and a great deal of thought went into all of her explanations, connecting science to the garden without the ponderous explanations of a biology text.

In her preface, she says "Gardening is 'chemistry' -- but don't panic! ... we talk about the 'chemistry' of human relationships -- of feeling 'on net' with someone, of 'falling in love' or of experiencing irritation or antagonism.  In this sense, the proverbial green-fingered gardener is someone whose relationship with plants achieves the right 'chemistry' in an instinctive, 'seat-of-the -pants' sort of way.  But there is another sense in which it is chemistry -- for the growth of plants is all to do with the way in which chemical substances maintain and control life.  If we start with an understanding of this, we're well on the way to meeting the needs of plants and creating a flourishing, beautiful and productive garden."

Many of us were hardly A students when it came to Chemistry.  For me, the depth of understanding was so limited, my "take" on the topic went like this:  "so you put something in a test tube, and you swirl it around a bit with a few drops of something else, and it changes color -- big deal -- what will I ever need this for?"   I have since had many occasions to wish I'd done a better job of understanding chemistry, but never felt tempted to go back to study it.   But even with the apparent allergy I have developed for chemistry, this book is triggering a growing fascination for its application in the world of plants.  It puts things  that are science in direct relationship with the basic questions that every gardener has,  questions like: "What's the power source for plant growth?" "What triggers growth?" "How do shoots always bend toward light?" and "Is it possible to rely entirely on recycling?"  Suddenly I definitely see reasons for understanding how chemistry works in biological processes.

Practical Science for Gardeners deals with a huge number of issues (including Genetically Modified Organisms in a chapter titled "Genes, GM and the Brave New World of Designer Plants"), and covers everything from how photosynthesis is affected by heat, to differences in chemical and biological fertilizers, to pest control strategies for everything from bugs to critters.  This is a small book, only 171 pages (appx. 20 of which include appendices, glossary, and further reading), but for all its size, it is an incredibly compact reference book that I'd recommend to all gardeners.  Trial and error works very well, but knowing why things work can save some unnecessary side trips and false leads.

I've also been impressed with the objective discussion of many gardening topics that can be very emotionally laden (GMOs, pesticides, companion gardening etc.), with a real focus on what has been proven and what has not, what sounds plausible, but may not actually work, etc.   "Nature's Arms Race and How to Negotiate a Peace Deal"  is a great look at how to deal with the "undesirables" in the garden from many different angles, and I, for one, appreciate hearing all sides, and not just lobbying for one practice or another.

This book is available from Timber Press in Oregon, an outfit which I'm delighted to say offers a number of very interesting gardening titles that I'll probably revisit soon.  

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