I have to be able to garden in order to maintain my sanity. It is a lot why we bought a house when I started my graduate program at Kansas State. I probably spend as much time gardening as I do on my graduate work (that’s just because I spend a ton of time gardening). It relieves stress, but as someone that studies plants formally, it is a great backdrop for thought. I see how plants respond to their environment and I see the same plants from day to day so that I know what they do through the seasons. I dig things up and learn how they’re structured below ground, and I know when their seeds germinate, what types of consumers visit them and when, and what they look like in winter. When I read that, based on isotopic work, Amorpha canescens gets most of its water near the surface, I knew, in part from gardening, that this was a paradox, because this is a plant with no fine roots anywhere near the surface (I have held it by its roots…and also seen its unbranched root dangling tens of feet from an eroded bank in the Loess Hills), and it is also a plant with a range that extends to where there is no surface water to be had when it does most of its growing and flowering in May and June (N. New Mexico). It was also one of the only green plants along the road cuts (in the midst of drought approaching parity with the dust bowl) in Central Kansas on my drive down to Taos yesterday, it is still flourishing in my home garden as other native vegetation goes dormant. Anyway, deep roots, green plants, but shallow water signature–these raise questions (an updated note, I actually went back to the paper, Nippert & Knapp 2007 in Oecologia, and, while most of the time they found a shallow water signature, during the driest period they sampled, A. canescens did show an isotopic signature for deep water, so it isn’t so surprising that it is still green–I had forgotten the exception to the general pattern). As another example–Liatris aspera has corms that contain rings that reflect their age (at least up to seven years), which I know, because I have plants of known age in my garden.
It amazes me how plant ecologists sometimes will characterize plants without detailed attention to their natural history–or even, in some cases, their morphology. Those things are so fundamental. Gardening is one of the ways I maintain familiarity with the plants I work with. It was the plants themselves, their amazing diversity of form, that first captured my imagination growing up, so when I look at a landscape, I start with the plants–what is at my feet, and I go from there.
The above is an image from June, 2010 showing the process of installing buffalo grass in the front yard (it is filled in now and still green despite drought), a strip of Liatris aspera running along the sidewalk up the house, Tradescantia bracteata, Oenothera macrocarpa, Penstemon cobaea, Opuntia humifosa, and other young plants, including oddities for Kansas like Artemisia tridentata (which is thriving). These plants make for great butterfly, moth, bee, and hummingbird shows from the porch. I didn’t plant the row of ornamental dogwoods, and they take a lot of water. Below are some other pictures of of “native” plants growing in my garden.
Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) is an under-appreciated by people but not Coleopterans. I like its early leaves, which emerge with a reddish tint in early spring.
This stunning Tradescantia is a garden hybrid between T. bracteata and T. tharpii.