Gardens reap from the forces of nature


It’s April, and, weather-wise, anything can happen. Mainers know better than to put away our snow shovels, and not even the most optimistic gardener will be fooled by springlike days. Remember one April with three major snowstorms. Tomato-planting time is still far away.

Gardeners tend to be philosophical about weather events, partly because they’re beyond our control, and partly because there’s usually an upside to them.

Snow is a case in point. To a cold-climate gardener, a consistent snow cover that lasts all winter is nature’s mulch. It protects any perennial plant hardy enough to take the cold, without the heaving and breakage of plant roots that comes of alternating freezes and thaws.

On the other hand, freezing and thawing is great for the soil’s structure, opening up crevices that absorb water, nutrients and air.

Snow also is referred to by old-timers as the “poor man’s fertilizer.” That’s because both snow and rain absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and carry it to earth, adding as much as 10 pounds per acre of nitrogen in a form (nitrates) that plants can use.

Certain nodules on the roots of leguminous crops and, strangely, lightning strikes, perform a similar alchemy. Snow does it better than rain, since it seeps more slowly into the soil rather than washing away as runoff.

Unfortunately, air pollution now adds way more acidic nitrates to precipitation than that which would be there naturally, leading to algae blooms, damage to animals and plants, and other woes. So while a storm might make the air seem fresh and cleansed after it moves on, it may have brought some trouble with it at ground level.

An excess of water, whether from heavy rain or rapid snowmelt, can be good or bad depending on how your ecosystem is managed. Flooding can lead to the loss of precious soil if a gardener leaves it exposed, without the protection of nature’s catchment system of plant roots. In ancient Egypt the annual flooding of the River Nile was so beneficial to the fertile lands on either side, that the river was believed to embody the god Osiris. It’s all about giving water a right place to go.

Wind is another great force in which nature both giveth and taketh away. It’s annoying when it drifts snow onto the driveway, knocks over the corn, or rips the row covers off the broccoli. But a windy night lessens the chance of frost.

A windy day makes it harder for mosquitoes to fly. If you live by the ocean, sea breezes not only cool and refresh, they also carry a bit of the ocean with them. Seawater, in the form of windblown spray, delivers a healthy dose of trace elements that make garden plans thrive. No wonder seaweed fertilizers are so effective.

We all know by now that fire, despite the destruction it can cause when it runs wild, has its benefits too. Fires caused by lightning (as opposed to campfires and tossed cigarettes) are part of a forest’s natural cycle, in which too much brush and too much dry tinder is cleared out, giving what plants remain a healthier life.

The layer of burned plants adds nutrients to the soil. Open clearings in a wooded area increase diversity, and sustain plants and animals that don’t thrive in shade. A number of species will only grow after a fire, when their seeds are released by the extreme heat. All this renewal supports a greater diversity of animal life as well.

The sun, which drives the engine of life as our planet circles it in space, would get a 100 percent approval rating if it weren’t for sunburn, skin cancer, and environmental crimes traceable to ozone-depleting chemicals used in modern life. Like Osiris, the sun was a god to the ancient Egyptians, who called him Ra.

But what about tornadoes? There is no tornado god that I know of, though a large number of sports teams have adopted them as mascots. The best you can say about them is that they renew the landscape by ripping it to pieces. That they sometimes pick up seeds and re-sow them in another county. That they are amazing, monstrous, whirling towers of terrifying force, and we have no business asking any favors from them because nature is in charge, and all they owe us is a reminder of that.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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