MASTER GARDENERS: Thought-provoking research as gardening season approaches
The paltry amount of gardening one can do when snow is still so deep forces one's mind elsewhere. Research has again caught my attention. The news lately has touched on water quality in our state; the problem of nitrogen getting into our water supply is one of the many problems we face.
A former co-worker nearly lost a child due to the "blue baby" syndrome caused by it; the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by the build-up of excess nutrients from the fertilizer we use on our lawns, golf courses, and farm fields—not a trivial issue. A news item in the "American Gardener" suggests a possible solution.
Nitrogen is necessary for photosynthesis for plant growth. Although abundant in the atmosphere, plants can only utilize it from the soil after microorganisms have converted it to ammonia. Synthetic fertilizers have readily been available to stimulate plant growth, but they are expensive, can pollute groundwater and their manufacturing process creates greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming. If plants could utilize the nitrogen in the air, water quality would not be impacted and the problems associated with fertilizer manufacture and soil degradation would be eliminated. Some plants already do that. Legumes such as peas and beans "fix" nitrogen from the air through rhizobia bacteria that live in those little nodules on the roots and thus are self-fertile.
Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have put their finger on a set of genes that allow another bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen to its useable form. The American Society for Microbiology announced a study in June that added those nitrogen-fixing genes to an altogether different bacterium. Eureka! This one succeeded, only at a lower rate. Potentially, this could eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers; plants could convert the nitrogen in the air to this usable nutrient for growth. What potential this could be for soil health, water quality, as well as another tool in reducing global warming.
Another "American Gardener" article piqued my interest and raised more questions. Cutting electric costs and providing bright lighting in cities as well as in homes has led to the advent of LED lighting.
I love its brightness and the lower electrical usage and, thereby, lowering bills, but research is indicating that there are drawbacks to it, as well. University of California research scientists have discovered that certain light spectrums affect wildlife more than others. They found that blue and white spectrum LED light causes more problems than those in the yellow-green and amber colors. These lights affect moths and night-flying insects, interrupting pollination at night and causing both daytime and nighttime consequences on many creatures. I notice my own problems with sleeping when I work on the computer at night or read thrillers using a bright little LED until the book is done. I have always blamed the stimulation of the story, but maybe I am closer to moth than I realized. I hope I am more like a Cecropia or a Luna than one of those destructive and ugly grey-brown ones.
More horticulture stories could be in the news but are often missed with our penchant for headline news. Are you aware of the invasive, tiny, long-horned tick that reproduces asexually and has been found in three East Coast states? Another involves the decline of the urban tree canopy, the large increase in impermeable surfaces and the death of trees due to insect damage, fires and drought?
There is so much to learn; one forgets snow!
Please seek information from the University of Minnesota Extension website—www.extension.umn.edu—or ask a Master Gardener for horticultural help. Our Facebook page may also be of help to you: www.facebook.com/Beltramicountymastergardeners.