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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener:  Icy Grip? Pass the Salt

Saturday, January 10, 2015

 

Winter’s icy grip fastens gardens into place. Bare bone stones, fences, arbors and passageways are in high relief. Naked stems, branches and vines are never more visible. Ever sensitive to sunlight, the window sills are full of potted begonias, cyclamen, and maybe a geranium or two from last summer. Dry houses demand attention to watering. All are now leaning towards the sun. Give each pot a quarter turn when watering and notice the plants eager reach for sunshine. Leaves have fallen off and new growth is apparent. Hope is not elusive. After the soak and quarter turn the plants lean off to sunny sides only a few days after the last watering. Their quest is eternal. Keep up with the turning and each potted plant will keep pleasing proportions. Perhaps your cane begonias, beloved for their lovely blooms, vigorous growth and endurance are clamoring upwards. Snip off the rampant meristem or primary stalks, dip in water, and roll in rootone, a root stimulating hormone essential to all gardeners’ tool kits. Pot in good potting soil. Water, rotate, whisper a prayer or two and hurrah, new growth will appear in a few weeks. Ancestral lore claims the cane begonia and Christmas cactus came from Nana. Born just after the Civil War, her city windows confirm the long desire of urbanites to keep green growing plants through depressions, wars, blizzards, hurricanes and all manner of plagues. Our windows save us. Winter’s icy grip is the firm handshake before spring. 

Winter is a fertile

Winter is a fertile season for urban gardeners. We keep pots of cyclamen, African violets and orchids in bloom as gentle reminders that growth is ever eager. Life prevails despite all else. Our imaginations are important. Peruse seed catalogs as meteorologists calculate wind chill factors. Kitchen tables in cities across the land support colorful images of old favorites and new varieties. Pluralism is most expressive among the many cultivars introduced to American gardens from other cultures and countries. Our melting pot citizenry is far more than the dry measurements of ethnicity, belief or origin. We have far more in common than not. Look a bit behind superficial differences and discover horticultural worlds. 

Botanical mecca

Asia is a vast botanical mecca. Americans have long imported plants from abroad in exchange for corn, squashes, beans, potatoes and tomatoes. Some imports are now ubiquitous in the urban landscape. Honeysuckle, brought from Canton, China in 1806 appears the quintessential New England fence post vine. Now long settled, honeysuckle responds very well to guidance. Give sunshine, modestly fertile well drained soil and it will reach for the stars. Offer support to your fragrant honeysuckle. Happy to over-come nearby cement sidewalks or wend its way beneath grapevines to emerge as evergreen leaves in autumn, honeysuckle quickly offers dense shade perfect for the pause that refreshes. The blooms come in an array of colors. The days of only two toned ivory and gold blooms are no longer. Scarlet, pink and yellow varieties request the same guidance and have the same needs. Inexpensive to buy, honeysuckle easily roots from cuttings and layering. Observe your honeysuckle in the cold. Snip away dead branches, broken stems and guide the deceptively strong vines into pleasing formation. Cuttings taken now, potted up and buried in the frost free cold frame will offer bright new leaves in spring. Remove after frost warnings, plant in new places or swop with fellow gardeners. No need to pile up compost or fertilizers for this hardy denizen of the margins. Indeed, honeysuckle, like lavender, is uncomfortable in heavily enriched soils. Not all plants originate in thick humus or loams. Their needs developed in response to limited opportunity. Save your composting efforts for the true heavy feeders such as tomatoes or Asian plants such as bok choi. 

Bundle up

Urban gardeners bundle up. Swathed in scarves, mittens and heavy coats we brave out onto streets and sidewalks. Crunching underfoot are liberal scatterings of salt and sand. We curse our crusty vestibules thick with stains and grit. Civic leaders stand or fall on clear streets. Schools open or close. What happens to all that salt? Where does the sand go? Walkways are thoroughly salted after each storm, freeze and thaw. Much more than simple sodium chloride, rock salt for roadways is mined from deposits formed eons ago in climates and environments far different from todays. Each location has many trace elements associated with the chemically active sodium chloride. Very soluble in water, salts ultimately leach into storm drains and sewers. Our rivers and fresh waterways eventually carry their salty burden to sea. Riverine systems are long stressed by urban development. 

Suffer salts

Most plants suffer salts in moderation. Glacial soils, those remaining after the retreat of ice caps 10,000 years ago, are leached of soluble elements. Washed by miles thick layers of melting ice, all soluble minerals and salts were drained away to sea. Organic gardeners re-create the forested environments that preceded the ice caps. Humus based on top of glacial till is fine for gardens. The well drained gravels beneath whisk away rainfall. Humus is the nutrient rich top layer easily discerned by texture and color. Dark, full of life, nutrient rich humus supports the garden. Direct exposure to salts creates osmotic transfer of water from lesser to greater densities. Destruction of plant cells, especially the one cell thick root hairs essential to plant life, occurs as osmosis balances salt levels in water rich plant tissue. Modest amounts of salt are not harmful, large salt crystals and thick layers of this reactive mineral are hurdles and may kill off plants. Roman history recounts a terrible revenge against Hannibal’s Carthage. Scipio Africanis tore down Carthage’s buildings and his legionary troops salted the earth to end Carthage’s resurgence. Who has heard of Carthage today? 

Salt cycle

The salt cycle is fascinating. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) studies 1.2 pounds of salt precipitates per acre of land in rainfall each year in North America. Rain drops form high in the atmosphere around miniscule air borne particles. Salt is attached to water evaporated from the ocean’s surface as well as many other minerals, industrial by products and volcanic eruptions. Our planet constantly attracts inter stellar debris from the origins of the cosmos. Pure compounds in the laboratory, salts are complex molecules necessary for life. The highly reactive molecular exchange of sodium and chloride contains trace elements with distinctive regional characteristics. Sea salts are the residual minerals after seawater’s evaporation. Many are named, such as Dead Sea salts, for their distinctive colors and composition. Salt is necessary for life and intertwined with human development of agriculture. Salt randomly distributed in rainfall eventually percolates through soil and organisms and over eons returns to the sea and atmosphere.  Like fire, it is a useful servant and a terrible master. 

Some dismay

Urban gardeners may look with some dismay at the wholesale dumping of minerals on our streets. Is there a role for salt in the urban garden? Yes. Not in the fearful defense from slips and falls. Rather, to replace trace elements leached away by glacial floods and to accommodate plants that evolved in salt laden soils. Asparagus is a prime example.

Asparagus is native to the littoral or high water marks of North Western European estuaries. Its native habitat is the fascinating zone of coastal plant and animal life between open sea and dry land. Regularly inundated by storm tides and hundred year storms, asparagus evolved and thrives in this stressful narrow band of unique features. Gardeners have salted asparagus for generations. Small amounts of sea salt sprinkled over asparagus beds are beneficial. Very expensive by the ton, a pound of sea salt purchased in discount over stock stores is an affordable amendment often overlooked by urban gardeners. 

Green oasis

We conceive our green oasis as pure islands of life between dense crowds and buildings. Each oasis is deliberately free of toxins. All true. Yet don’t throw the baby out with the wash. Sea salt sprinkled over compost or asparagus moderates growth. Use rock salts with discretion and store salt in covered water tight containers. Sand is inert. Yet sand, added to pavements for traction has additional beneficial purposes. Its texture irritates delicate slugs. As a stable granule, sand improves drainage and retains a thin film of moisture for dry spells. The irregular surfaces of sand grains offer niches for air, water and microscopic organisms. Their complexity defies gravity to keep soil friable. I sweep sand off the roadside and sidewalks like other city dwellers. Later, I spread the sand on the lavender which much prefers a gritty soil over rich humus. Sand and salt have their place in the urban garden. Use your best judgment and discretion. Keep safe and warm. Wind chill? Inside, seed catalogs warm all.  

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree. 

 

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