As I have told you before, I have spent the last year trying to grow my own food. I thought all it took was going to be a piece of land, some seeds and a little bit of time ( maybe some water, in the rare non rainy days). I couldn’t have been more wrong! Many expert growers out there are probably laughing at my naivety right now... because yes, growing veggies takes a lot more.
One of the problems that I encountered and that was one of the most baffling was that plants would sprout and then start growing very very slowly - but very very thick. The latest thing that I obtained was some nearly unpalatable rainbow chards..
the thing is, that I didn’t understand- I thought I gave them plenty of nutrition and water, took care of removing neighbouring competing weeds..and yet, all I got was tiny thick plants, how could it be?
Then, my own research came to my mind : mussels are known to have a trade-off between growing and making thicker shells when are scared from predator odours.. could it be that my plants are also scared? I couldn’t help but getting excited about th thought that a scientific discipline so close to home might give me some help with my gardening ventures. And so I went on a literature quest..
And here is what I found:
Zust& Agrawal (2017) have written a very comprehensive review on plants trade off strategy. Reading through it, I have discovered the whole concept of ‘leaf economics’ which according to the paper ‘describes correlations among leaf physiological traits that govern resource investments by plants to determine strategies ranging from resource acquisitive (fast growing, short lived) to resource conservative (slow growing, long lived). And while this is mostly a difference between species (so between different types of veggies), there are also other strategies that influence the phenotype (so in a way, the aspect) of a plant when the plant is feeling that a herbivore is present (also called inducible defences). Plants can apply morphological features like waxes, trichomes and latices to make the feeding more difficult for herbivores such as insects (read more here). Those defences vary depending on the type of threat they perceive, for example whether from above- or below-ground consumers. And even if the roots are being attacked, the defences can manifest through to the leaves (via changes in chemical composition).
So much can be learnt, and likely different groups of plants will have different strategies. So, I would like to think that, similarly to what I do in my job (using ecology to maximise aquaculture and its sustainability), ecological theories can be applied to agricultural productions (on both the small allotment scale, but why not on the larger agricultural world?) to maximise sustainable production. How? For example, harnessing the power of inducible defenses to limit the amount of pesticides to be used in agriculture (perhaps ensuring that the plants are fed adequately, to remove the ‘trade-off' between defending and growing as much as possible). Or maybe, on a small scale like an allotment we want to avoid these responses and so we need to ensure that the whole plant is protected, from the root down. Perhaps enclosing the area with sub-soil mesh system? I will leave the idea playing in my head until i think of some solution to keep my next plants not only safe but also feeling safe.
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