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.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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