10 Tricks and Gadgets to Freshen Up Your Garden This Spring
By Brian Barth
Early spring is the time to dream big about your garden. This year, I'm going to grow 10 varieties of tomato — and I will not let a weed be among them! But any grand vision, if it is to be executed, must be matched with the right implementation plan and tools. Here are a few ideas to help you brainstorm.
1. Sheet Mulching
This low-tech method has garnered a cult-like following among those who have discovered it. Sheet mulching is a way to turn a patch of weeds or a grassy area into a garden. Simply lay down overlapping sheets of cardboard or newspaper and cover them with mulch (such as straw and wood chips). The vegetation underneath will become starved for light and die before it has a chance to push its way through this biodegradable barrier. After a few weeks, poke small holes through the mulch and plant into the soil below. The technique may also be used to smother weeds around existing plants.
2. Copper Slug and Snail Tape
Weirdly, copper interacts with slug and snail slime to produce an electrical charge that encourages the critters to slither elsewhere. Garden centers often sell copper tape that you can attach to the rims of pots and wooden raised beds as a barrier to keep these nighttime pests from attacking your precious plants.
3. Rapitest 4-Way Analyzer
There are plenty of soil testers, moisture meters and other such devices for monitoring garden conditions. These days, many of them involve an app. But this entirely unwired gadget might just beat them all. Simply stick it into the soil and it will immediately tell you the pH levels, moisture levels, light intensity and nutrient levels (including nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) and whether your garden falls within the optimum range of each one. This device is so simple, you don't even need batteries. Available at Amazon.com and elsewhere for about $30.
4. Flower Power Plant Sensor
For all the tech heads out there, here is the high-tech version of the garden monitor above. It does almost the exact same thing but allows you to monitor conditions from the comfort of your favorite armchair or a beach in Bali, all through an app on your phone. The other benefit is that it doesn't just tell you whether or not conditions are optimal for the average plant; it includes a database of more than 7,000 species, with optimal growing parameters for each. You can stick it in the ground and find out whether that spot is best suited for asparagus, zinnias or anything in between.
5. Hydroponic Tower
Hydroponic systems, which dispense with soil and instead circulate a nutrient-rich solution around the roots of plants, drastically reduce irrigation use and produce higher yields in smaller spaces. Hydroponic towers — a vertical configuration of the concept — do the same thing but with an even smaller footprint. The Internet abounds with plug-and-play variations on the theme. Hydroponic towers are especially useful if your only gardening area is a rooftop or patio. For the mechanically inclined, here are instructions for building your own.
6. Brinno GardenWatchCam
This gadget will have no bearing whatsoever on the health or productivity of your garden; it's more about geeking out and impressing your friends. The idea is to record the growth of a single plant or an entire garden with time-lapse photography so that later you can watch the leaves unfurl and the flowers blossom, condensing weeks or months of growth into minutes and seconds. Both still photography and video versions of the camera are available.
Turning a compost pile is essential for providing oxygen to all the microbes that do the dirty work. But it's a pain, which is why compost tumblers were invented. There are several designs, but all of them involve a large plastic compost bin mounted on a rack with a crank or some other means to rotate it. The increased aeration accelerates the process of decomposition tremendously. Plus, the tumbling process ensures that the myriad ingredients in your compost are evenly mixed, further aiding decomposition.
8. Flame Weeder
Rambo would love gardening if he got to use one of these. It's like a flamethrower for weeds. Instead of tediously pulling weeds by hand or, God forbid, spraying herbicide, simply singe the botanical invaders with this propane-powered tool. The catch is that you can't use it around plants you want to keep, as it will singe those, too, but you can use it to prepare planting areas that have become covered with weeds. It's also useful for eliminating weeds on paths and paved areas. It's environmentally friendly — as long as you don't start a forest fire, that is. It goes without saying that this is an extremely dangerous tool if used in the wrong circumstances.
9. Straw-Bale Gardening
This quick, no-dig method takes all the backbreaking labor out of gardening. Straw bales are an ideal rooting medium, but you have to prepare them by sprinkling them with water and fertilizer every two or three days for a couple of weeks. They will soon become a moist, fertile mess. Spread a thin layer of soil on top of the bales to sow seeds, or poke holes in the straw and add a little soil to plant seedlings. When done right, your crops will grow like a jungle. Besides saving your back, the beauty of straw-bale gardening is the ability to instantly create a fertile vegetable patch in almost any sunny location, whether on top of rock-hard soil, a lawn or a concrete surface.
10. GrowVeg Garden Planner
Planning the garden of your dreams can feel like detangling an endless web of variables, not just between the physical space you have available and its constraints (such as soil type, shade, slope, gophers, deer and digging dogs) but with time (such as blooming sequences, staggering the harvest and other seasonal considerations). You could hire an expensive garden consultant to figure it all out for you and come up with a plan that integrates your wants and needs in an elegant design. Or you could install this much cheaper software that guides you through the process step-by-step, with built-in databases on everything from vegetable varieties and irrigation systems to seed suppliers and crop rotations.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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