Gardening: The Sun Shines on Everyone

By Betty Harris

Solar power in our minds used to mean large, heavy panels mounted on a roof or spread across a field. But the sun shines on us all and solar panel costs have dropped to the point that in NYC you can get a sandwich at a solar powered food cart, eat it at a solar powered bus stop while charging your cell phone with a solar powered jacket. But one thing we do not seem to think about is the fact that leaves are solar panels.

Leaves turn sunlight into carbon sugars that feed the plants, and the plant exchanges these sugars with fungi and soil animals in exchange for the minerals and nutrients that the plants need. It’s like a barter system.

This system works wonderfully and has for probably a few million years, but we humans have been messing up the works since the development of agriculture. Which, by the way, I’m convinced was a practice started by women. Think about it. You and your “tribe” are nomads, following the herds of wild animals. The men kill animals when they can, but it is not always possible since their weapons are primitive. So the women, while hauling a kid on one hip and trying to keep up with another 2 or so, walk around gathering fruits, roots, and seeds to keep the bellies fed while they wait for the men to drag some dead beast home. Imagine that you are the woman and a wild animal comes along that you have to avoid by running, etc., and your pouch of grain seeds gets dropped on the ground as you drag the kids and whatever else you are carrying to safety. You would remember this incident and where it happened.

You go back after the animal has given up and gone on to hunt smaller game. You find your grain pouch torn up by the beast and your seeds scattered. You gather as many as you can because you’ve already spent so much energy accumulating them. Sadly you move on to safety and leave a bunch of them on the ground.

Next season your tribe comes through the same area and there where your torn pouch lays is a mass of plants growing that look just like the wheat or grain that you had gathered. Then light comes on in your brain and you discuss it with all the other females of the tribe and an idea forms.

Well, that was a fun foray into the imagination – but back to the solar panels. Since leaves and plants have developed to produce carbon sugars from sunlight, water, etc., what happens if we get overly enthusiastic with trimming our plants and bushes? We prune and trim some things for proper purposes, like pruning an apple tree to keep limbs from crossing and rubbing which then allows disease to enter the tree. We sometimes prune things because we don’t like the “look” or shape. Some trim bushes to make them look like animals, etc. But what does this do to the plant itself?

Too much pruning can sap the plants strength and weaken it. Such as cutting off the tops of tulips after the blooms are spent and before the plant’s leaves have had enough time to store carbon sugars in the bulbs. Such as cutting off the tops of iris plants when they have finished blooming, which makes them look like odd green fans. Since those leaves are solar panels we are robbing them of the nutrients needed to survive and bloom more gloriously next year.

So let’s also assume that you do prune at the right time and just the right amount. If you bag that in plastic and give it to the trash man, then you are throwing away part of the plants that contain nutrients that nature intended to be recycled. So to save money and the environment, do what Eric Toensmeier calls “Chop and Drop”. By cutting up the branches and leaves into smaller pieces you can drop them at the base of the plant that grew them just as nature intends those solar panels to be used. First they feed the plant and then when they decompose and the worms eat them they feed the plant again.

Unfortunately for we humans, we’ve been taught that flower beds should be bare of “litter” and weeds and only covered with wood chips we buy in a bag at the garden shop. By so doing, we waste money and water since the soil dries out and we’re left with a piece of trash. Save the money, save the environment, save the planet. Keep the solar panels on plants unless there is a valid reason to cut them off. Mulch with the same solar panels around the base of the plants and keep the soil covered with mulch that doesn’t come in a plastic bag. Once you learn to do this, you’ll find you will have a lot of worms in your soil, in your flower beds, in your garden. And you won’t have to spend money on fertilizers. Those of us who see ourselves as stewards of this great planet know that fertilizer wasn’t intended to come in a plastic bag.

Appreciate those solar panels. Cutting them off would be like putting solar panels on your house and covering them with a tarp. We are wiser than that.

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