According to a certain popular legend that is found in a wide range of cultural traditions, the difference between heaven and hell has nothing to do with angels singing in one place and fire and brimstone burning in the other. Upon arrival in either place, you are fitted with wooden splints that run the length of your arms, so it is impossible to bend them at the elbow, and given a long spoon. In hell, populated by the uncharitable, everyone is always hungry. In heaven, home to the charitable, everyone is well nourished. What’s the explanation for this? In each place, there is a large pot of stew in the middle of the dining room. In hell, this is endlessly frustrating because it’s impossible to direct the stew into your mouth with locked elbows. In heaven, on the other hand, each soul directs spoonfuls of stew to the mouth of the one sitting opposite and, in this manner, all are fed.Plants, and especially, forest trees, demonstrate the heavenly attitude described above right here on earth. When radioactive carbon dioxide is applied to one tree, it is detected in surrounding trees with a Geiger counter. Carbon dioxide is as vital to plants as oxygen is to animals, but how does it move from one tree to another? The carrier that transfers carbon dioxide from tree to tree is mycorrhizae, fungal growth that lives either within root cells themselves (endomycorrhizae) or congregates around cell tips and may penetrate cell walls but no further (ectomycorrhizae). Large trees have been shown to transfer carbon dioxide to smaller or weaker trees, even of different species, through ectomycorrhizae, found in association with 10% of plant species. Instead of survival of the fittest, forest trees demonstrate that life of the community is all important. It has even been shown that when one tree is attacked by an insect pest it signals this attack somehow through mycorrhizae, enabling surrounding healthy trees to metabolize compounds that impart resistance to the pest.Endomicorrhizae, the ones that grow inside cells, are found in 85% of plant species, including most of those that grow in your garden. The best way to encourage their growth is through maintaining a 3-4 inch layer of mulch at all times and never tilling or turning the soil. The delicate mycorrhizae strands will be broken by the action of a hoe. A garden lacking in mycorrhizae is a tragedy because of all the benefits plants derive from mycorrhizae, including drought resistance, insect resistance, salinity resistance, filtration of toxic elements such as heavy metals, and assistance in making certain important minerals, especially phosphorus, available to plants. You will also have fewer soil fungus diseases since the presence of mycorrhizae fungi under your mulch will overwhelm the pathogenic fungi that would otherwise gain a foothold. In return, mycorrhizae receive the cabohydrate that sustains them from plants.
Ruth Stout was a storied advocate of the no-till, heavily mulched garden, recording her experiences in “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine from 1953 to 1971. Stout kept a constant layer of hay mulch in her vegetable garden and yielded superior crops year after year. No fertilizer was applied, watering was minimal, and neither pests nor diseases were a problem. She authored books such as “Gardening Without Work” and “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.” She would put down 8 inches of hay mulch in the fall and, by spring, the ground would be ready for seeding. Mycorrhizae, no doubt, thrived in her garden,Here’s a question for you? How can you tell if a squirrel or a rat is eating your oranges? If the damage is done by day, it’s a squirrel; by night, it’s a rat.“I have a squirrel problem big time. The critter eats my oranges and has now gone into denuding the tops of my creeping Charlie and donkey tail plants (unless you think the denuding is done by rats). I see the squirrels. I have trapped them in the past taking them to my parents’ rurally located cemetery in the hills. I am not being successful in trapping them. Can you help me?Jeralynn Langton, Mission HillsWe have a Mandarin orange about 45 years old which has been producing huge amounts of fruit twice a year. Two rears ago rats discovered the tree and have been eating the fruit before it ripens. We have little ground cover for nesting but neighbors have had problems with rats in their attic. We have tried using traps, getting a few of them, but not stopping the invasion. Can you offer any advice?Ed Staal, Redondo BeachTo both Ms. Langton and Mr. Staal, I would consider acquisition of a cat or dog. Neighborhoods with lots of these pets as well as indivduals with a single pet, as long as they are free to roam outdoors, have fewer rodent problems than neighborhoods or households lacking cats and dogs.Another option is a motion sprinkler. Just as a motion light goes on when there is motion nearby, a motion sprinkler delivers strong deterrent pulses of water when a critter scampers into its vicinity.Ms. Landgon, you must also make sure that there are no roofs, branches, or utility wires within 8 feet of your tree, which is the squirrels’ jumping distance. If utility wires cannot be moved, you can cover them with 1/2“ or 3/4“ plastic PVC pipe, creating a slippery surface that they cannot negotiate without falling off. After having the utility company turn off current to the line, make a long lengthwise cut on one side of the pipe with a hacksaw and fit it over the wire.You can also wrap the trunk of your tree in sheet metal. For squirrels, the sheet metal should be three feet wide and long enough to wrap around the tree at a height of 5-8 feet so they cannot jump over it. For rats, make a two foot wide strip of sheet metal and place it at a height of 3-5 feet. If you are not a do-it-your-selfer, hire a rodent control company to do this for you.Also, Ms. Langdon, it is possible that a rat is eating your succulent creeping Charlie and donkey tail plants. Observe your plants in late afternoon and again in early morning to see if any new damage has occurred during the night.Rat problems are easier to solve than squirrel problems since it it relatively simple to find where the offending rodents nest. Rats do not forage far from home and search for food no more than 300 feet from their nests. Ask your neighbors on all sides if they have a rat problem. If any of your neighbors have ivy, that would be a warning sign since rats are fond of nesting in that ground cover. Mr. Staal, you mention a neighbor with rats in his attic. He needs to be informed that his rat problem has now become yours as well.Tip of the Week: I receive a constant stream of email inquiring about recommendations for planting on slopes. One of these possibilities is blooming now and it’s known as Baja spurge (Euphorbia xanti). This is a fast-growing shrubby euphorbia with thin stems that are covered with white or pink flowers from winter to early spring. In its habitat, it is found growing on slopes and does a fine job of controlling erosion. It also has fragrant flowers, an atypical trait among euphorbias, but its real gift is its growth habit. Baja spurge spreads by means of rhizomes, tubers, and corms, and it also self-sows abundantly, which means it will occupy a large part of your slope in rapid fashion. For cloistered gardens, this is not an advisable selection since it will take over every open spot of ground and then some. Yet if you have a sunny back slope and just want something there, this may be the plant for you. It can grow up to ten feet tall but usually stays lower than that, depending on how much you irrigate. It will tolerate drought quite well but will grow much faster when watered during our long warm season.