Books on growing: ’Our world is a garden, and plants are the gardeners’

I collected many books for review in 2021, but time passed and this has been a year for choices, so just seven have made the cut. The writers, committed and knowledgeable, feel like old friends, even the ones I hadn’t read before. The first two books are not newly published - but they were new to me and when I read them earlier this year it was as if a jigsaw puzzle had fallen into place - the bits and pieces of knowledge I’d assembled so far on my gardening journey placed in a new and exciting context.

The Life of Plants - A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia (Paperback 121 pp French edition 2016 English edition 2019 Polity Press $27.95).

“We barely speak of them and their names escape us,” philosopher / biologist Emanuele Coccia writes. “Philosophy has always overlooked them, more out of contempt than neglect. They are the cosmic ornament, the inessential and multicoloured accident that reigns in the margins of the cognitive field.

“The contemporary metropolis views them as superfluous trinkets of urban decoration. Outside the city walls, they are hosts - weeds - or objects of mass production.”

Prevailing wisdom and on-the-land practice place plants at the bottom of a hierarchy, humans at the top, drawing on biological classifications that purport to be rooted in science but are actually, Coccia points out, drawn from theological beliefs.

Plants can’t run, can’t fly, have no selective relation to what is around them. This means “plant life is life as complete exposure, in absolute continuity and total communion with the environment.” Plants are not just of our world - they are the world. All encompassing, they transform sunlight into chemical energy that we and other animals use and produce the oxygen which is essential to most living organisms. Without them we are nothing.

Recent discoveries about plant intelligence have prompted some to set aside the “animal chauvinism” to which we, as animals, are inclined. “When you ask, ‘what does it mean to be intelligent?’ in front of a plant, and not in front of an animal, the idea of intelligence changes,” Coccia explains in a Harvard University YouTube interview that is a helpful introduction to this work (which I found to be a challenging read).

“Our world is a garden,” he says. “But plants are not the content of the gardens, plants are the gardeners.” A wonderful thought, one that gives plants the agency they deserve.

But do we listen to the wisdom of plants? Indigenous cultures did and do, as did folk cultures in the lands of the colonizers. These cultures were trampled by imperialism and capitalism but now may be poised to return. Coccia calls on us to re-examine our cultural norms, by turning a critical eye on Western philosophy, particularly since the late nineteenth century when the industrialization of agriculture took hold.

Coccia, who teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has another book out. Metamorphoses explores the mystery of a creature that completely changes form, from caterpillar to butterfly, and moves from the terrestrial world to a world that’s quite different - the air - and yet is the same being.

Teaming with Microbes - The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis - 2010 hardback 220 pp Timber Press $30.50

Revealed: the world beneath our feet, an infinite complexity of life - from bacteria and fungi to arthropods, worms, larvae and so much more. We ignore it at our peril. And alas, peril is upon us in degraded soils, polluted runoff, poisoned waters, pests, disease and impoverished food.

Established gardening, farming and forestry practices have been profoundly disruptive to the sophisticated but fragile network that links the roots of trees and other plants. Digging is best avoided, rototilling is positively warned against, chemical fertilizers kill off beneficial organisms, so does machinery (by compacting the soil), and removing fallen leaves is a task that should be forgotten.

“All these human practices affect the soil food webs in your yard and garden,” explain Lowenfels and Lewis, both experienced garden writers based in Alaska. “Once a niche is destroyed, the soil food web begins to work imperfectly. Once a member of a niche is gone, the same thing happens… The gardener must step in to fill the gap, or the system completely fails. Rather than working against nature, the gardener had better co-operate with it.”

Wasps - Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm - 2021 hardback 416 pp - Pollination Press $49.95

This book delivers both as a work of art - photographs and presentation are wonderful - and as a thoroughly practical guide to identification. Five introductory chapters provide an overview of wasp behaviour, lifecycles, anatomy, diet, what they do for the world (“If all wasps were to disappear it would have catastrophic effect on several trophic levels of the food web”) and what we can do for them.

There are specific descriptions of 150 flower-visiting wasps from Eastern North America. I was excited to learn that an insect I found (dead) and put into a bottle last year is a pigeon tremex horntail, a primitive wasp in the suborder Symphyta.

I’m a fan of Heather’s work and have been selling two of her books for some time because they are not only terrific sources of information about bees and other pollinators, they also work really well for gardeners looking for the right plant for the right place. Wasps is a cut above, both in size, reach and price, but totally worth it, a gift for that special someone who is not going to say “Eeeeeuw, wasps!”

A tip: I had a paper wasp building a nest in my greenhouse last year. She was diligent! In a morning, the nest went from the size of a walnut to the size of an orange. Nearby, I hung a full size decoy nest, available from hardware stores. She departed, to build somewhere else.

Finding the Mother Tree - Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard - 2021 hardback 368 pp Penguin Radom House $35.40

There’s going to be a movie! Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard has revolutionized the way we think about the plant kingdom, with her findings of how life in the forest is not one of competition, but of co-operation. This, her first book, is a memoir that starts with being raised in the forests of British Columbia, continues through her work as a commercial forester, and carries on to her years as an academic in the outdoor laboratory of the forest, meticulously researching her theories about why tree seedlings planted with no “competing” vegetation fail to thrive, and how trees communicate, exchange and share nutrients and resources.

Along the way, much heartbreak, both personal and for the forests she loves, and much marginalization. “Are you an environmentalist?” a colleague asks suspiciously early in her career as they went out to mark a clear-cut. “On this day, I was to play the role of executioner,” she writes sadly, describing the “dead-forest-standing,” the eldest and largest trees in the deepest hollows, young trees clustered nearby “like chicks clustered around a mother ptarmigan. The grooves of their bark housed tufts of wolf lichen, easy for the deer to nibble in winter. Buffaloberry and soapberry shrubs grew between rocks. Bright-red Indian paintbrushes, purple silky lupines, pale-pink Calypso fairy slippers and candy-striped coralroot traced the roots fanning out from the tree boles. None of these herbs would thrive after a clear-cut. What the hell was I doing here?”

A decade or more later, in 1997, Nature magazine published her work on the subterranean mycorrhizal fungal connections that support a forest and the term wood-wide web was coined. Within the forestry industry, she was ridiculed. She persisted. Further research zeroed in on the crucial role played by the Mother Trees - the ones with memory of surviving good times and bad, with capacity to provide food for an entire soil web of life, and with high quality genetics in their seed. Now, she’s a cultural icon: a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams is in the works, and references to her work inspire or pop up in contemporary film, tv and literature.  

But still, if we look at the forestry industry in Canada today, our precious rain and boreal forests continue to be clear-cut, chemically sprayed and controlled against competition - despite evidence that this makes no sense, environmentally or economically. And here in Springwater Township, Simcoe County, looking for a place for a waste facility, argues that planting genetically unrelated trees in a non-contiguous site can make up for the clearing, fragmentation and degrading of a forest. It can’t. Just as the plants are the gardeners, so the trees are the foresters and we cannot do what they do - over decades and centuries - to make a community above and below ground that far exceeds our comprehension.

Worth noting: Tree Trust is an Ontario organization that identifies and protects legacy trees. Its Town of the Blue Mountains chapter has stepped in on a municipal plan to take out 141 mature trees in Thornbury for an infrastructure project. Tree Trust TBM argues that many can be saved if tree protection/preservation is factored into the design and construction specification process. Team lead Betty Buise will be making a deputation to the town's December 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The Nature of Oaks - The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees by Douglas W. Tallamy - 2021 hardback 197 pp Timber Press $34.18

I think Doug Tallamy, entomology professor at the University of Delaware, is one of the ecosystem gardening movement’s greatest ambassadors. His last book, Nature’s Best Hope, explained how we gardeners can save the planet if we all turn our outdoor spaces into ecological niches with native plants (70 per cent native is the rule if you want to ensure birds can raise a brood in your yard). Homegrown national park, he called it.

This book is about his love for one particular genus - Quercus, the oak. You have to read this book. Quite apart from anything else, it feels good in the hand. Well-bound, good paper, pleasing typeface, excellent photographic reproduction. And, it opens a window on what makes a tree great. Namely, good hosting - for more than 500 caterpillar species. “No other tree genus supports so much life.” What is a caterpillar? A walking leaf, in which the energy of the sun has been converted into protein for use by birds and other creatures up the food chain. And also, a future butterfly, which will delight us, or a moth, delightful and often puzzling. Don’t like caterpillars? Read page 79 on the harm of spraying.

Another greatness factor: oak leaf litter is the best, for supporting the decomposers that are a vital component of the underground web of life, for fighting invasives (because oak litter decays so slowly) and for improving water filtration (for the same reason).

Last year was a mast year for red oaks in our local forests and I gathered acorns that I grew in pots. This fall, no acorns fell - that’s the way with oaks, a year on and one or two years off. I planted my seedlings out in a special spot nearby, in honour of Doug Tallamy. To get a good tree with a healthy root system, you have to plant young, he says. “The smaller the better.”

The Heartbeat of Trees - Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature by Peter Wohlleben - 2021 hardback 258 pp Greystone Books $32.95

German forester Peter Wohllenben introduced me to Suzanne Simard in his first book, the runaway bestseller Hidden Life of Trees, and he put me onto Emanuele Coccia in this book, with a hilarious description of the academic descending on his forest in suit and tie. That’s kind of the way with Wohllenben: he takes you to the sorts of people you need to meet.

Here he continues with the thesis that trees make decisions, favour their relatives, and consciously experience the world. There’s been a lot of criticism of Wohllenben out there, because he supposedly lacks scientific rigour. No, he’s not a scientist, he’s a forester, he writes of what he knows in a way that has connected his millions of readers back to those forests that are near to them. Just fine by me.

One of those he introduces us to this time is František Baluška, a biologist at the University of Bonn, who has long been a proponent of plants feeling pain - why else would they produce substances that suppress pain? Baluška discusses his new area of research: a South American vine (Boquila trifoliolata) that changes the shape of its leaves to faithfully mimic those of the tree or shrub it’s climbing on. The vine can see, Baluska argues, in fact, it’s conceivable that all plants can see.

Wohllenben writes from the front lines of forests under threat in Europe and, in one case, in Canada. He went to Kwiakah First Nation where we meet Chief Steven Dick and learn of the massive increase in timber harvesting in the nation’s territory in B.C. Clear-cuts were everywhere. The band wants selection cutting - a process called Plenterwälder in Germany, in which commercial forestry takes place around stands of old growth. This, the Kwiakah say, will protect the rivers from runoff that kills the salmon that are the basis of the food chain up to grizzly bears and bald eagles. (And fosters destructive wildfire and leads to mudslides.)

“Nowhere else on my journeys had I felt such strong ties between people and nature than I did when I was with the band,” Wohllenben writes. I emailed the band manager to find out how things are, three years after the visit. There is progress in the right direction, he replies, although a long way to go, and the threat from conventional logging continues.

Entangled Life - How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake - 2020 paperback 352 pp Random House $24

There’s a fungal thread running through these reviews. In Entangled Life, the fungi come to the fore in a myriad of shape-changing roles - from decomposers to mind alterers, to engineers and more. Sheldrake, an English biologist, is entertaining and illuminative.

Fun fact number 1: Fungi and their ilk are problem solvers. Slime molds released into petri dishes modelled on the Greater Tokyo area came up with the most efficient connecting routes, almost identical to the Tokyo rail network. The same occurred when a researcher modelled the British landmass, marking cities with blocks of wood colonized with a fungus - which expanded along a network that reproduced existing motorways. Slime moulds were even up to the challenge of finding the shortest path to the exit in an IKEA store.

Fun fact number 2: Mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, can emerge with explosive force. There’s a tale from the English town of Basingstoke where some months after a sidewalk was paved, an unevenness developed in the surface. And soon. some of the heaviest stones were lifted out of their beds by toadstools. One of the stones weighed 83 pounds. In Potawotomi, the force is called Puhpowee, Sheldrake says, quoting Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.

I’ll leave the last word to Sheldrake, who recently co-wrote this article about how mycorrhizal fungal networks, essential partners in our response to global warming, are being destroyed at an alarming rate. But there is hope - it will just take you and me and millions of others to stand up for the plants.
Sue Varmuza
- 4 December 2021 at 07:27pm

Loved fun fact #1 about slime molds finding the exit in IKEA.
While preparing my trees for winter, I was pleased to find a mushroom near the base of a newly planted maple; it meant there was activity underneath. Yay!
Domenic Filippone
- 6 February 2022 at 11:02pm

Thank you for you thoughts and your blog. The reviews of these books are great and will motivate me to source them out myself. I have turned into native plant promoter and getting totally immersed into everything around trees and native plants of all sorts since I moved to the Holland Marsh and will be asking my tenant farmer to leave next year and have plans to naturalize by 2 acre backyard. Nonetheless, I will be by this spring of 2022 to purchase some of your products. I have been working on the 1/2 acre around my home for the last 3 years and just keep wanting to add more.
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