The Last Class

March 12, 2011

The morning started out all wrong today. Usually on my drive to Master Gardening class, I call my mom (she expects it now, you know) and we have a decent 20-minute chat on my way to the Farm Bureau.

She didn’t answer the phone.

Usually, I zip right along I-80 to Chicago Street. There may be a little slow down where the road goes from three lanes to two, but it’s hardly noticeable.

Today, I-80 was a parking lot for godknowswhatreason. I got off at Maple and using my GPS map, found an alternate route. I got back on at Briggs where it was now free and clear.

It had probably cleared up right after Maple.

So it turned out that I was walking in at 9:00, late for all intents and purposes. Nancy was already talking, the Autotrophettes had taken my usual seat and I had to sit in the same funky position I sat in the very first day. How uncomfortable.

I took a couple of deep cleansing breaths to shake out the bad vibes. It was Russ today, wrapping us up with Plant Pathology or, as he calls it, the Death and Destruction chapter.

Russ is by far the nattiest of the MG educators, in jacket and tie, with neatly trimmed professorial beard. He has the quietest approach and the driest sense of humor.

Being presented with something dead will do you no good, he stated. Homeowners need to give you living and dead, with hopefully something dying in between. That’s the only way anything can be diagnosed. He talks about all the things that can cause non-infectious diseases: too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, soil too acid, too alkaline, too moist, too arid, too compacted. He references genetic factors and then talks about the biggest problem, Stuff People Do. This includes the usual suspects such as air, water and soil pollution, but, he explains, a great deal of the damage that is done is done purposefully, through fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides.

Those homeowners haven’t had “The Label Is the Law” drilled into their little green thumbs.

He talked about infectious pathogens (I sound more and more like an Autotroph Woman ever day, don’t I?) such as fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic round white worms, ever present. There are good nematodes and bad nematodes and, Russ says, they know which is which and wage constant battle.

Do they wear little white or black cowboy hats to set themselves apart, or perhaps have atom-sized tattoos with nematode gang signs in red or blue ink? Do they sing about the Jets and the Sharks and tap dance through the soil?

Russ also talks about plants can go into decline, old age. Just like people begin to slow and fail, so do plants. He explains that vectors are the means by which disease is spread and these can include wind, rain, dew, squirrels, Damn Rabbits, insects by the dozens and of course that perennial favorite, human intervention.

The Asian Longhorn Beetle and the Emerald Ash Borer are just two of the horrific little critters people brought to the wrong place, to wreak environmental havoc. He mentioned Dutch Elm Disease coming over in firewood. Those native plants, who’ve evolved with these pathogens, are unaffected by them because they’ve built up a resistance over the years – the fittest, the most adapted, have survived. Our elms and ashes are unprotected from these dangerous creatures and don’t have the evolutionary safeguards of their distant cousins.

I think of my Ent and his thought that it’s all too complicated to be an accident. Seems like any truly Intelligent Designer would have taken all this havoc into account early in the planning stage. And if destroying literally thousands of ash trees is in the great design, why is the Ent trying to save them? Just makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Russ talks about powdery mildew and how there are literally thousands of strains. There are a great deal of questions about how to get rid of it and Russ answers; pruning, better air circulation, sunshine. I do not mention spraying milk on the plant; I’ve been in enough trouble about the blasted vinegar.

Fungi are the biggest problem – there are countless forms and strains and shapes and sizes, all around us every day. They are all host specific, meaning that one type of fungi that destroys a cucumber will do absolutely nothing to a neighboring rose bush.

So why, with all these ever-present pathogens whirling around madly through our environment, isn’t everything completely withered? How does anything, at all, ever survive?

Well, all the dominos have to line up and that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The host must be susceptible, stressed in some way or not genetically resistant. The pathogen that’s present must be specific to that host. There must be a favorable environment for that pathogen to thrive – wet or dry, hot or cold, dark or light. And the biggest issue – the mother of all the dominos – is time. There must be enough time for the pathogen to actually create a problem. If aphids are knocked from a leaf immediately, sooty mold will not have a chance to grow on their droppings. If the weather warms up a little faster, that anthracnose won’t have time to destroy that first batch of sycamore leaves. Time, it turns out, is really the driving force for all destruction.

After lunch, the lesson gets more and more confusing – I am heartily glad that this is just an overview and that wonderful MG manual will be by my side. Every photograph is of a brown, drying plant – withered leaf after withered leaf. Sometimes the diseased material is along the rib, sometimes it’s interveinal, but it’s always brown. Strangely enough, according to Russ, each of these nearly identical brown leaves were damaged by something different! My head is swimming.

The treatment is always very much the same – prune away the bad stuff, make sure the plant is in the proper site and is well taken care of. Aside for a very few truly nasty customers like crown gall and vericillium wilt (that stuff is like the bubonic plague of the plant world), there are really very few death sentences. Most of the removed material can be composted as the heat generated is hot enough to kill the pathogens (Thank goodness because I discovered I’ve been composting strawberries with botrytis blight for years).

Tomatoes that get blossom end rot need more calcium, which means eggshells should be integrated into the soil.

I think not just of plants, but of people. All of our millions and billions and trillions of cells constantly firing off and growing, breathing in viruses, bacteria, pollution, bumping and bruising, breaking and tearing. Wow – I think – it’s amazing how any of us survive.

And then I realize it’s due to our own intelligence. Antibiotics, medicines to thin or thicken the blood, attack that cancer, regulate that cholesterol, surgery, artificial organs and bones, lasers, exercises, therapies – what wonderful ways we have discovered to fight all those pathogens, to beat the dominos.

Russ talked of how some hostas are developed by taking the very first cells that are grown in a laboratory and putting them into another species to make them disease-resistant. Sounds like stem cell research to me.

At the end of the class, Nancy claps for all of us who’ve made it. We clap too. She talks of volunteer opportunities and pot luck lunches, of becoming a part of the MG family. There are many very nice women (and a handful of men) in this room, who love their gardens, love to share information, want others to discover how delicious it can be to see a garden grow – and how delicious a tomato can be right off the vine.

Our last class has ended, but I’m thinking that the really good stuff hasn’t even begun.

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