Saturday, July 30, 2016

When You've Got Your Herbs, You've Got Just About Everything

After a year, our reishi totem logs are bearing fruit. We cultivated reishi mushrooms (also known as the immortality mushroom or the panacea mushroom) strictly for medicinal purposes. With only six totems, we will probably need more to supply ourselves year-round with a daily dose of reishi tea, but if it wards off cancer, that would certainly be worth it. Reishi is so powerful because of the hundreds of different compounds it provides, specifically polysaccharides and triterpenoids, many of which are immunomodulators. These compounds mainly serve to stimulate macrophages, which activate production of natural killer cells, T-cells, and tumor-necrosis factors. Think of it as homeopathic chemotherapy. We normally carry cancer cells in our bodies, but that's no reason to let them have their way with us.

Though reishi mushrooms could be grown just as ornamental objects, what pleases the eye does little for the rest of the body. Likewise in the plant kingdom, not all ornamental or herbal garden plants are of known medicinal value, but many are. It's nice to feed bees and butterflies, but if I can derive some direct benefit from a plant, it would be wasteful to pass up those opportunities. Heretofore I have given no thought to many plants in my garden for their medicinal value and, consequently, have left them afield without accepting their gifts.

Forthwith, I pledge to preserve and administer herbs in my garden for their reputed medicinal purposes. In time, I hope to wean myself off prescription drugs or know of suitable substitutes if push comes to shove. Here's what I currently have to work with:

  • Garlic            Antibacterial, clears lung congestion, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, improves circulation, antihistamine.
  • Parsley          Relieves gas pain
  • Sage               Reduces fever, heals sores in mouth and throat, laryngitis treatment; slows Alzheimer's; long life
  • Thyme           Prevents colds and cold symptoms (sore throat, congestion); Cures athletes foot, ringworm; Antiseptic
  • Calendula      Relieves sore skin, heals skin and mucous membrane wounds
  • Chickweed     Relieves skin irritation (use fresh)
  • Red Clover    Alleviates skin irritations, coughs, sore throat
  • Dandelion      Leaves help cleanse skin; root aids the liver & are also chemotherapy substitute
  • Peppermint   For upset tummy 
  • Rosemary      Improve varicose veins, strengthen heart, prevent arteriosclerosis; stimulates circulation; sooth pulled muscles; relieves arthritis; digestive
  • Cayenne        Improves circulation in cold hands & feet; relieves arthritis; relieves sore throat
  • Borage           Antidepressant
I was planning to replenish my stock of campho-phenique today, but instead I think I'll start by picking calendula flowers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Herbs - Medicine for the Rest of Us

When I took up growing mushrooms, the thing that most attracted me to them was their potential health benefits, i.e. their medicinal value. My preferred delivery path is eating or drinking, often in combination with other tasty ingredients, rather than pill form.

Now that our reishi mushrooms are growing on log totems, I'm looking forward to drinking plenty of reishi tea. While I'm at it, dropping a green tea bag into the pot will be an easy way double the immunity boosting power of the brew and help ensure against prostate cancer. Drinking several cups a day will be easy in this climate.

After realizing the magic in mushrooms to cure and prevent major ailments, I also realized that I've foregone potentially significant benefits from herbs as well, merely because our FDA and medical establishment steers us down the prescription drug path. It would be great if my wife and I could cut our pharmacy bill by growing medicinal herbs and cook at least part of our medicine into meals we eat.
Photo by Eugene Birchall
There is a new continuing education class being offered by the College of Southern Maryland this October on using medicinal herbs. I'm hoping to enroll. You pay $100+ for lab fees, but get to take home maybe ten herbal potions that they help you to concoct.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Self Preservation

The University of Maryland Extension has me doing a lot these days. The little commitments you make to get into these volunteer roles turn out to require big allotments of time when you count all the self-directed projects and tasks that come from knowing how to do something. Even the free classes, given under the banner of "Garden Smarter," can alter your lifestyle by launching you into home-based activities you may have never undertaken otherwise.

In my case, it was the Garden Smarter series that acquainted me with the Master Gardener program and also taught me how to safely can produce. Prior to taking the free class on Home Food Preservation by our local extension educator, I was on pretty shaky ground with canning (though I still managed to win a blue ribbon in the Calvert County Fair for bread and butter pickles). Now, in our second year of canning per the Ball Blue Book (available at many hardware and farm goods stores), we are becoming somewhat proficient, having already canned homemade barbecue sauce, ketchup, tomato paste, and taco sauce using our bounty of biochar-farmed tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Even with all the canning, I've been picking more than enough to sell 15 lbs of heirloom tomatoes per week to a local restaurant. Our green beans are doing so well this year that, just to keep up with the harvest, we are freezing instead of canning them.

When you put so much work into growing your own food, you darn sure aren't going to let it go to waste. The reward comes when you get to savor all the real food flavor that the corn syrup laden commercial versions leave out. There is also the assurance that you are getting more nutrition and avoiding harmful chemicals with each mouthful. If you need convincing, I would encourage you to try home canned items bought from a farm stand, made yourself, or here at our place. We have a good year of eatin' to look forward to.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Nature Skills

I was pleased, yet dismayed, to come across someone's short-lived wildflower patch on the side of a less traveled road in my community. It inspired me to think that guerilla gardening like this could be done in many other places, with no permitting needed. I just wished that the native plants could have out-competed the countless weeds that had come to dominate. Perhaps, with the right soil preparation, the best plants for the location, and attention to plant spacing, it could have looked something like this without much follow-on maintenance. 
Photo by Richard Ashley
Even with the array of information easily available on numerous native plants to consider for various purposes, the art of garden design requires first-hand detailed knowledge of plant appearance and behavior. For example, I can see that a Great Blue Lobelia might be a lovely addition to a butterfly garden, but how well does it play with others in its root space? The answer is not easily found in documents, and is probably best discovered through consulting more experienced gardeners and naturalists.

Master Gardeners should be able to design gardens and use available online tools and references to make informed plant selections. Yet, it wasn't until I was trained as a Master Watershed Steward that I got exposed to enough of this material to feel confident in garden design. I have also come to realize that even both of these designations won't fit me to single-handedly design conservation landscapes or many other planting schemes. It's going to take collaboration.

Master Naturalists are skilled in wetland restoration, among other things, so they could be good resources for rain garden plant selection. There are many Master Gardeners who seem to have a good amount of native plant knowledge. +Kurt Reitz operates an outdoor native plant nursery at the Elms Environmental Education Center and would be one of the first people I'd ask, partly because he will give away plants for public gardens and restoration projects.

Let's face it. Most of us who take on these volunteer roles are amateurs. However, maybe one-third have had careers that make them extraordinarily valuable sources of information in their particular area of expertise. If you want to make your conservation landscaping or other restoration project have lasting value, asking enough of these kinds of folks until you find the expert on the matter in question could be critical to your project's longevity.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Healing the Land

Restoring habitat is not limited to wilderness preservation. Significantly more biodiversity can also be had by improving landscapes around our built environments. Many private residences are prime opportunities for owners to boldly transform lawns and lots into small wonderlands teeming with beneficial and beautiful beings. Conservation landscaping is a discipline that encourages such transformations and offers tools and guidelines to empower practitioners.
Photo by Jayscratch

The suburban living experiment has left occupants with half-finished properties. Having met human needs for shelter and infrastructure, builders leave restoration of the remaining devastated environment largely to homeowners. Planting turf is but a temporary salve on a bare wound. The soil under turf will not be anywhere near as healthy as it once was or could be again if covered with deep-rooted plants.

Turf, as much trouble as it can be to maintain, can also be very comely. More often, unfortunately, lawns are a less attractive mixture of weeds and uneven patches of turfgrass. Conservation landscaping doesn't call for eradication of lawns, but discourages their dominance on a property. Over time, homeowners are encouraged to transform the less fecund areas of their property with plantings that can supply many functions such as insectary, water infiltration, and curb appeal.

For those living in the Chesapeake Bay region, some tools that are available to make garden design and plant selection fast and fun are the Conservation Landscape Design Tool of the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy, or for a more step-by-step design approach, try the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's version (also available through the Chesapeake Native Plant Center). I did a design, and wanting a more comprehensive set of native plants to select from, alternated between the tool's suggestions and those plants that met my more precise specifications at the Ladybird Johnson Native Plant Database. If nothing else, the exercise has helped me recognize a few more native plants.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Habitat for Non-Humanity

Where do we start in preserving biodiversity? Over half our world's lands have lost enough species to jeopardize the future of life on earth. Life includes plants that we cultivate. It should not surprise us, then, that agriculture, rather than urbanization, is the human activity behind most of the species losses.

Even as a gardener, I would like to eliminate some members of certain species, such as the groundhog who doesn't respect my fences or the deer who don't appreciate the beauty of my roses. Unlike the animal lovers who volunteer at my neighborhood's Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center, I chase deer away and endeavor to kill varmints that steal the fruits of my labor. Perhaps they need to rescue orphaned wildlife because of the likes of me, but first they are going to have to rescue their organization against allegations of animal cruelty, e.g. attempting to save creatures that should have been euthanized.

If we let our hearts win out over or heads, saving mammals and other larger animals may be how we attempt to preserve wildlife. Yet, is it not natural to regard like creatures as competitors in the food chain, if not outright enemies to our species? The mistake we have made in horticulture is not only did we carry out armed conflict against nuisance mammals, but lesser phyla are treated with almost no care at all, save plants we wish to grow. Arthropods and microorganisms, for example, are so innumerable that industrial farmers don't mind applying pesticides that kill beneficial species more than the relatively few harmful ones.

Just as important as our poisoning of the environment is our elimination of natural habitat that supports biodiversity. Habitat is largely formed by physical structure, so insects become significantly more diverse in a canopied forest rather than a cultivated field. Likewise, soil biota flourishes in the fractally constructed caverns of a biochar particle. Nature enables wilderness to grow into rich structural forms at all trophic levels, providing habitats for a most diverse set of plants, animals, and fungi. Revered biologist E.O Wilson offers the prescription for our global biodiversity crisis that we should set aside half the planet as wilderness. He even tells us where we stand the best chances of success.
Photo by Pete Warner

Wilderness necessarily excludes development. We have many forests in Calvert County, Maryland that, if appropriately joined, could constitute wilderness to contribute to the half-Earth goal. Fostering more growth and development won't help. "Keeping Calvert Country" isn't about nostalgia. It's about supporting mankind's survival.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Losing Native Naivety

Our walk to the Elms Environmental Education Center's pond last week was preceded by a slide talk about the importance of using native plants in watershed protection projects. The point was made by +Kurt Reitz, our gracious host, that the reason we want native plants is for the insects.
Photo by Tim Hynes
It takes a while to pull that thread, but what it amounts to is that plants feed insects and insects feed animals and native plants are evolutionarily adapted to the food chain of their area.

I become a little indifferent to the native plant appeals when I recall that I have a food chain that currently doesn't rely on foraging and hunting. In the expectation that this could change rather quickly, I am endeavoring to establish a food forest around my home, but not strictly using natives. Planting natives is a very helpful environmental practice, but environmentmental restoration still takes a back-seat to survival. However, as our fossil-fueled supply chain falters, rejoining the local food chain may become essential to survival.

The more I garden, the more I take pleasure in growing ornamentals. Yet, future reliance on agroforestry for a multitude of resources that will no longer be derived from or made using fossil fuels deters me from planting lots of native ornamentals mainly for environmental preservation.

There are some edible natives, however, that deserve a place in my forest garden. These include: Paw-paw, persimmon, gooseberry, black raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, and elderberry. I already have everything but the first and last of these. They aren't all that I wish to grow in the way of edibles, so non-natives will be in the mix. Then there are the less edible plants that provide other key functions in support of cultivated trees, including the insectary role. The time it takes to harvest, preserve, and consume or distribute the perennial bounty will ultimately determine where my forest farming ends and ornamental gardening begins.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Oh, How the Phragmites Have Fallen

In our Watershed Stewards Academy class visit to Elms Environmental Education Center, our host, +Kurt Reitz showed us a freshwater pond that was walled in halfway around with deep stands of phragmites australis (the common reed), an invasive shoreline plant so tenacious that it requires herculean efforts to eradicate it. Typically, eradication requires cutting, spraying with glyphosate, burning the stubble, and repeat treatments a few years later. The toil and trouble associated with this regimen deters most attempts at restoration, so owners and environmentalists have essentially acceded to allowing phragmites to rob our ecosystems of their natural biodiversity.
These tenacious phragmites will weather this storm, no problem (Photo by Kurt Reitz)
The way phragmites dries up in the fall makes it a tempting target for conversion to biochar. Controlled open burns of phragmites risk turning into conflagrations that could touch off fires in surrounding areas. I wonder, though, if it may be feasible to avoid much of the cutting and spraying and make very hot fires out of phragmites stands by applying traditional charcoal-farming techniques.

Biochar could be made with phragmites similar to the Ankara system. One of the problems we have in the Chesapeake Bay area is that phragmites grows out of dredging deposits, but by using dredging spoils as the covering material for the Ankara-style burn, we would be able to kill the in situ phragmites and the seeds and rhizomes in the dredging material, as well. Open burning has been an ineffective way to eliminate phragmites since the deep rhizomes often survive and come back with a vengeance. With the Ankara approach, heat is concentrated and conducted down deeper into the soil, so there is a better chance that the rhizomes would be killed.

For phragmites, the way to apply this approach might involve cutting three-foot strips about every 12 feet, flattening the reeds in the 12 foot rows and adding the cut pieces, digging out the rhizome-filled soil from the cut areas and spreading it on the flattened reeds, adding dredging spoils (from nearby projects) to create a casing over the whole biomass, making vent holes at the ends and in the top of the ridge as necessary to maintain some air flow, lighting the biomass at both ends and keeping it going by opening or closing air vents while it cooks for several days. After it cools, it can be tilled and planted with winter hardy native plants.

Potential advantages of this approach are its economy, rapidity, sequestering of carbon, creation of a biochar nutrient filter along the shoreline, and improved soil properties for replanting.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bay Burps

Laura Lapham, et. al., authors of the paper referenced in my previous post state that the methane bubbles suspected to be lurking under the pycnocline are 85% oxidized by the time the layers of the Chesapeake Bay mix in autumn. This leaves 15% of the methane free to circulate into the atmosphere when the final mixing occurs.

Termed "fall turnover," this mixing sometimes occurs as quickly as overnight when air temperatures drop and wind increases wave action. A quick fall turnover, like a tropical storm surge, can result in sudden bursts of methane from the bay. At 15% of the inventory, the amount available is only about half of the hypothetical storm release noted previously. That is only 23 Aliso Canyon incidents spread around the bay, happening overnight (vice 100 days).

Turnover usually does not occur all at once everywhere in the bay, so chances of this much of a release are small, but with wild weather swings from climate change, it is more likely that all the local turnovers will still add up to something close to turnover en masse.

Measurements of surface methane releases showed that there is significant flux into the atmosphere from the bay even when there is no major storm or turnover. What my educated guess adds up to is about (23 + 47) = 70 Aliso Canyon equivalents every 3 years or, on average, 7/3 Tg = 2.33 Tg CH4 annually contributed by the Chesapeake Bay, which is about 6 times the amount spewed annually from the city of Los Angeles.

We've long known that estuaries emit methane disproportionately more than their relative geographic extents, but the inclusion of heretofore unnoticed sub-pycnocline burps makes the Chesapeake Bay, and other polluted water bodies with similar methane-storing mechanisms, even larger concerns in the fight against global warming.
Photo by Jason R. Berg

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Saving the Bay = Saving the Planet

In addition to sequestering carbon, biochar's capacity for reducing nutrient leaching from cultivated land makes it an especially valuable weapon against global warming around estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay. Other measures are necessary, but in terms of longevity, they are band-aids compared to biochar.  Biochar can throw global warming a one-two punch when prodigiously applied in the Chesapeake's watershed. The carbon sequestration aspect is pretty straightforward, but the nutrient leaching/global warming connection needs more explanation.

In spring and summer, the Chesapeake Bay, due to seasonal changes in its upper and lower water density profiles, is a storehouse of methane-generating detritus in its cold, dense, oxygen-starved lower strata. As hurricane season swings into full gear in mid-summer, a strong storm can bring about the phenomenon know as wind set-up which pushes water level higher on the western shore of the bay and an upwelling of water from the lower layer, pulling methane from the underneath the pycnocline and bringing it to the surface.
From Chesapeake Bay: Introduction to an Ecosystem, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 1995.
Research by Laura Lapham, Lauren Gelesh, Kathleen Marshall, and +William Boicourt published in February under the title "Methane concentrations increase in bottom waters during summertime anoxia in the highly eutrophic estuary, Chesapeake Bay, U.S.A.", hypothesizes that the methane in the sediment begins to escape into the water and collects under the pycnocline where conditions are anoxic enough to prevent it from oxidizing into more benign substances. When a storm comes through before the methane has a chance to mix with upper layers in the cooling autumn, the sudden upwelling of this methane sends a portion of it into the atmosphere.

We already know that estuaries throughout the world contribute something like 3% of total methane to the atmosphere without the large pulses just described. In such an event, however, the Chesapeake Bay (the U.S.A.'s largest estuary) could almost double that figure, were all the sub-pycnocline gas bubbles to escape. Hurricanes and tropical storms have impacted my Maryland home near the Bay about once every three years, of late. It is worth considering that major storms in late summer, when methane buildup is at its peak, may cause methane bursts of this magnitude.

To grasp the magnitude of such an event, let's say just one-third of the Bay's methane inventory were to bubble out during a major storm in mid-August. That would be 47 times the amount released over a 100 day period in the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak!  (Aliso Canyon incident emitted 0.1 Tg. - the largest such leak ever in the U.S.  Based on annual total worldwide CH4 emissions of 469 Tg, a 1% increase from Chesapeake Bay would be 4.7 Tg.)

We cannot shift the burden of climate change to ocean estuaries and blame the Chesapeake Bay for emitting all these greenhouse gases. These episodes would not occur if the Chesapeake Bay were in a healthy condition in which the lower strata maintained adequate oxygen year-round. This is anthropogenic and the cause is mainly excess nutrients and uncontrolled runoff. The tendency of storm intensity to increase as global temperatures warm also gives this punishing sequence of events a positive feedback quality. To stop it, we need to not only think about how to reduce the concentration of atmospheric CO2, but also how to clean up the water draining into our major estuaries.

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