Do You Speak “Plant”?

For much of the 20th century, there was a belief that a benefit for one side, was a benefit for all participants. You know — if it was good for me, baby — then it must have been good for you! Thousands — no, millions of people — believed that what was ‘good for GM is good for the country’, and that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. The idea was extended to teaching, medicine and horticulture. We see the results in children being bused long distances to big schools, sick patients travelling to the doctor rather than the other way around, and in horticulture — techniques that a human needs in a controlled experiment — applied to plants in the field.

photo of witch hazel seeds on a branch
Ready to leave home!

In contrast, the wild world must balance the needs of all participants, which leads to a different way of doing things. In nature, a mother plant scatters her seeds widely, knowing that some will be eaten, and most will land in unpropitious spots, where other plants more suited will dominate. The baby seeds must then last the winter, and have enough common sense to sprout at the best time in the spring.

Like mothers everywhere, plants devise all kinds of strategies to ensure the welfare of their children. Most famously are the seeds like lavender, which like to be lightly roasted in fire before sprouting. In a world of forest fires, this ensures that lavender seedlings will be born into a world of sunlight and ash; in other words, an abundance of two of the three best plant foods. (The third of course, is water.)

Many seeds on this side of the continent — where there are less forest fires — rely on the other side of the scale. Think of it this way: plant mothers warn their seeds, as the seeds leave home, to wait for Mr Right. In this case, Mr Right is a warm spell that will not be followed by a killing frost. This is why so many seed packets include the instructions ‘cold stratify for — days’, the exact time depending on the specific seed, of course. This maternal advice works perfectly when seeds are planted outdoors in the fall and allowed to winter in the same way as all their ancestors. When we bring these plants inside, we must try to replicate winter with our freezers before growing these plants.

sunrise behind cedars
The beginning of spring? Or more winter to come?

Now we turn to the perspective of the mid-century scientist in a lab. He has cold-stratified his seeds, and has been given the task of comparing two different hybrids for better market characteristics. He has limited space, limited time, and probably not enough funding. Accordingly, he sets his seeds in solitary confinement, fed at regularly timed and measured intervals. Additionally, he begins his measurements at a time when there is something visible to measure; which is to say, when the seed sprouts in the spring. It is important to remember that what our scientist did, was done for the purposes of the lab and those who fund the lab. Unlike in a lab, where as many variables as possible are controlled, growth in nature is a complex alchemy between soil, moisture, light, and stressors, such as road and foot traffic, animal and insect predation, and pollution.

maple leaves turning yellow in the autumn
Do we find autumn leaves beautiful, as a sign of a healthy ecosystem?

One way nature handles balancing these competing interests, is to give everyone a turn. Fall and winter are a pulling down and in. Trees pull the chlorophyll from their leaves into their roots, and set wastes in the leaf, and discard the leaves and trash at once. This is the plant equivalent of putting shutters on the house before a hurricane, and it is done for the same reason, to stop the snow from snapping off branches, and the cold from breaking tender parts. For people who prefer information visually, it looks like nothing is happening. However, if we place our hands on the bark, in the fall and winter, we can feel the tree quietly humming and thrumming. There is a lot going on, even though it looks like nothing! The cold of winter puts a brake on predators of all kinds, at a time when low light and cold means the plants are not growing anyway.

Knowing that plants are active participants in the changes of fall and winter, it makes sense to do fall planting. This gives the plants time to settle in to the new neighbourhood, find out where the light and water are, learn who lives nearby, before the big expansion scheduled for the spring.

Of course, working with nature in this way means giving up some of the control that the scientist in his lab expects. In economic terms, by maximizing his labour costs, a scientist maximizes the germination rate of each seed. Scientists, of course, are funded, which (in economic terms) means they do not have to make a profit with their planting. This means that in a ‘free-market’ planting world where labour costs are the most expensive input, following the advice of scientists may not be the best strategy.

As a side note, again in economic terms, chemical applications are a displacement of labour costs. This means that the labour of weeding or maintaining the fertility of the soil, has been shifted from the field to the truck driver, packager, chemical mixer, accountant, sales person and marketer.

When we look at our planting holistically, balancing the needs of the plants with the the amount of work one person can do, the loss of some plants begins to take on a different aspect. Nature selects which plants thrive in which locations according to a complicated balancing of needs. Does this hollow have more water, and cool feet for a plant? Five feet to the left has well-drained soil and plenty of heat? Respecting the needs of the plants, wasting seed, allowing nature express which grows where, means that the plants that do grow will be well-rooted, strong and filled with vigour! In other words, by planting in the fall, and by accepting variations to the human plan, we are guaranteed many strong, pest-resistant plants in the spring.

Photo of a trillium flower
The trillium seeds sat over the winter, to bloom at exactly the right time and place, no human input needed!