#AAASmtg Day 2: My inner agronomist + writing tips

Walking back into the Hynes Convention Center this morning, I felt prepared. I used the conference app to arrange my schedule for the day, I knew where to get free coffee, and I was wearing my most comfortable slacks. What I didn’t know was that career aspirations I had cultivated while studying agronomy at Iowa State University would come rushing back as Paul Ehrlich laid out his thoughts about the collapse our civilization. Yes, that is exactly what he did.

Thus, I spent my second day at AAAS swirling between science writers’ events and the global food security conversation at the meeting. I’ll spare you from the so-far-solutionless demise of the human race as articulated by Ehrlich and instead post a digest of advice from some of the best science journalists in the country. Below are highlights of luncheon panel discussion, including contributions by the likes of Carl Zimmer and Mariette DiChristina.



Advice from the winners: Continue reading


Wonders within wild watermelon

This post was first published as a special to Mongabay.com, see the original here


A hard, white, and bitter watermelon has plant geneticists licking their lips with anticipation.

The size of tennis balls, wild watermelons grow natively in southern and western Africa. Geneticists cracked open this small relative to the juicy, summertime treat to extract ancient genetic material. They are mining the fruit’s DNA for useful traits such as disease resistance that cultivated, or domesticated, watermelons have lost.  Continue reading

Soil in the headlines

The lastest dirt on your and my (or perhaps just my) favorite Earth element:

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

  • Rather than rotting on asphalt, Oregon’s roadkill meet a useful fate. The northwestern state composts animals smashed by cars into plant-ready nutrients. Turning dead deer into good soil (High Country News)
  • As land is developed, hydroponics move into urban Africa. A look at soil-less cultivation in West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire: The Miracle of Gardening Without Soil (All Africa)
  • The lauded rover samples Mars’ planetary skin and scientists excitedly search for evidence of organic compounds. Curiosity rover finds organic compounds, but are they from Mars? (NBC News)
  • Following a dry summer, Iowa’s soil is still dried out because the fall also failed to deliver moisture. This may set the state and its farmers up for a challenging spring, with soil trying to overcome a water debt. As winter nears, Iowa soil moisture low (Omaha World Herald)
  • Over-medicated livestock raise concerned eyebrows from those watching the residual antibiotics leave the farm and enter soil and water. One study suggests microorganisms break down antibiotics in the soil and that the population of antibiotic-eating microbes grows along with livestock operating scale. Antibiotic-eating bug unearthed in soil (American Society of Agronomy)

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

For peat’s sake

British policymakers are worried. They are stewards to 15% of the world’s peatland, a percentage that is shrinking because of domestic use. The New York Times cited the chair of a British governmental peat taskforce earlier this month as saying with current harvest rates the United Kingdom could exhaust their peat supply within decades.

To protect their soggy, boggy places, Parliament proposed a ban on all horticultural peat use, a move that has Britain’s gardeners abuzz. The suggested ban requires eliminating amateur gardener use of peat by 2020 and commercial horticultural use by 2030.

Why would the United Kingdom completely ban what is, for gardeners, partially-decomposed organic gold? For the same three reasons many natural resources become regulated: carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Peat! On a hike in Glendalough, Ireland.

Continue reading

The living dead

How can you tell when a plant is going extinct? Afterall, I have a heck of a time eradicating certain plants from my garden because the number of weed seeds in the soil is far greater than the number of weeds sprouting each year. If a plant’s mechanism for dispersing seeds is disrupted it may live on for years or decades because of the soil’s seed bank, but it is biding its time. If seeds aren’t dispersed, eventually the plant will cease to exist.

Some researchers think we are in the midst of a global seed dispersal crisis, that many plants have lost the ability to add their seeds to next year’s stock and are living on the borrowed time of previous dispersals. Continue reading

The Physiology of Garden Love

When the days begin to warm, the gardener bides her time. Once the soil is also warm and the frost promises to hold off until fall, a new growing season can begin. The gardener wasn’t idle while her soil was frozen and covered in snow. She pored over seed catalogs and diagrammed the most efficient use of space or most beautiful arrangement of ornamentals. When only a few weeks remain before soil fully thaws, the gardener peels open fresh packets of seeds and tucks them into potting soil where they’ll become seedlings before braving the outdoors.

Seeds have thick protective coats housing an embryo inside that will eventually sprout to become roots and foliage. That protective coat prevents water from entering or exiting the seed and also limits its interaction with gases in the air. For a seed to sprout, it must shed the seed coat.

Tomatoes, kale, eggplant, leeks, broccoli, basil. Tasty recipes emerge from the soil, unbending their first stem as though letting out a slow yawn. Slowly, leaves take on their unique shape, texture, and scent. The gardener has anticipated the scent of fresh basil since plucking the last withered herbs in October. A tomato’s velvet stem reminds her of the supple fruit it will yield in July.

Temperature is crucial in shedding a seed coat. It isn’t simply that seeds need to be warmed, many seeds require warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night. Holding a seed at a constantly warm temperature reduces germination rates and can lead to poor plant growth. Once a seed senses the proper temperature alternation, usually 5-10ºC difference between day and night, it sheds the seed coat and begins to interact with water, gases, and nutrients around it. Continue reading

The rough-skinned yam: a tale of roots

My hand scraped against Jimmy Hudson’s cracked skin as I introduced myself. Jimmy is a vender at Madison’s Northside Farmer’s Market. This morning, he stood behind long tables of crisp vegetables from his 13-acre farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. When I stopped to chat, he taught me the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. I also learned his leather palm wasn’t simply the result of a season’s weeding.

“I’ve been gardening since I was six years old,” he explained. And that was the least of it.

Jimmy grew up in Arkansas, picking cotton. You can’t pick cotton unless you were born picking cotton he told me. It’ll poke you and cut you. He started picking when he was 6. Cotton kept Jimmy out of school at times. His labor was useful for his family, both to bring in cash and to tend their kitchen garden.

“I was too hungry. My dad told me I had to stay out of school sometimes because I ate too much,” he said. “I would eat half a pan of corn bread and a skillet of food big enough for a whole family.” One time, he ate 100 peaches in one day. Continue reading