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7 Gardener-Approved Must-Haves to Grow Your Own Food

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7 Gardener-Approved Must-Haves to Grow Your Own Food
Christopher Porter / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Novella Carpenter

In uncertain times, a garden can feel like a sanctuary.


It doesn't matter if you have a windowsill planter, a plot in a community garden or a backyard orchard—growing your own organic fruits and vegetables is a small but tangible way to bypass Big Ag and create habitat for butterflies, bees and birds. Gardening also nurtures the gardener: Studies show that inhaling Mycobacterium vaccae, a common soil microbe, can ease depression.

Here are some tried-and-true tools to aid your earthly endeavors.

Made from naturally fallen coconut-palm branches, ULTIMATE INNOVATIONS' rustic-looking Ultimate Garden Broom is great for clearing leaves or straw off vegetable beds without disturbing your crops. It also works better than a rake for tidying up lawns. Made in Sri Lanka, this broom is FSC approved and compostable. $30, shopdepalma.com

All gardens have weeds. The quickest way to rid your beds of these nutrient stealers is to use a push-pull hoe. Its circular blades don't require the chopping motion of most hoes—you simply run this one in a back-and-forth motion, effectively weeding at the root level with each pass. $55, lehmans.com

The sturdy Worm Factory 360 is a marvelous home for soil's best friends: red wiggler worms. Add food scraps and newspaper to the first tray of worms; once that's full, add another tray. The worms migrate up through the trays' slats to eat new food, leaving behind castings, which, by any garden-soil standard, amount to pure gold. The "worm tea" this factory exudes is the best organic liquid fertilizer in the land. $109, groworganic.com

As wide as a standard garden bed, the broadfork from MEADOW CREATURE can turn prepping a bed for planting into an ergonomic workout. Simply stand on the bar, hold the handles on each side, and rock back and forth. This motion renders hard-packed soil loose and plantable, uproots weeds and—most critical—leaves the microbial community largely undisturbed. $185 to $215, meadowcreature.com

Bury a TERRITORIAL SEED COMPANY Olla—essentially an unglazed pot—in a garden bed to provide a slow underground source of water for plants. The rim stays exposed, so you can refill the pot with your garden hose as needed. Weeds need water at the surface of the soil to germinate—but with an olla, water slowly evaporates into the soil, next to your plants' roots. $22 and $43, territorialseed.com

A cross between a trowel and a knife, the stainless steel hori hori is a mighty hand tool. You can stab its serrated edge into the gnarliest of weed patches and emerge triumphant. Thanks to etched-on inch markings, you can even measure how deep you're digging. The Japanese-inspired model from BAREBONES LIVING comes with walnut and copper accents and a sheath. $28, barebonesliving.com

Starting your own seeds inside or on a window ledge is more cost-effective and ecofriendly than buying six-packs. Developed by organic farmer Eliot Coleman, JOHNNY'S SELECTED SEEDS' Hand-Held 4 Soil Blocker compacts potting soil into two-inch blocks, in which you can directly plant seeds. The air naturally prunes roots, meaning that once seeds have germinated, you can move them into the ground sans "transplant shock." $30, johnnyseeds.com

With their red handles and jaunty leather holsters, FELCO hand pruners are like the gardener's version of a banker's silk suit and tie. Swiss-made Felcos are durable, mostly because all the parts are replaceable and the blades can be removed and sharpened. They're also excellently calibrated and offer quick action—crucial for all manner of pruning. $18 to $170+, felco.com

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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