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The underground life of plants
 
Like outer space, the depths of the ocean, or what’s on the other side of the hill, what’s beyond our vision can either be ignored or it can become a source of mystery and intrigue. Ever so close, what happens underfoot in our soils, is another world, and we at Vital Veggies think it’s been ignored and misunderstood for too long.
 
Consider  - one teaspoon of healthy soil (one gram) can contain five billion organisms.
 
These organisms make up a living food web in our soils, where lower ranked organisms are food for the higher, and life and death occurs on massive micro levels. Plant roots call this home.
 
The soil food web
 
According to Dr. Paul Syltie in How Soils Work,  â€œit is impossible to separate the plant from the soil, since each depends on the other.” Science has only recently discovered the extraordinary complexity of this symbiotic relationship and the intricacies of plant life underground.
The biology and fertility of a natural growing environment is fed by organic matter.  Expand the fecundity of this food chain and you expand the web of life and the propensity of plants within it to thrive.
 
A brief look at the diagram of the soil web of life will give you a clear idea of the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the soil and what thrives on what. 
 Relationships between soil food web, plants, organic matter, birds and mammals.
Courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MEDIA/nrcs142p2_049805.jpg


 Plant Structure and Function
 
Plants access what they need for growth within the “gurgling and rumbling away in the soil”.  This mechanical - chemical – biological process is analogous to digestion in a human gut: minerals are taken up and complex organic molecules broken down, feeding the plant’s metabolism.  In a biological growing system, death provides the organic matter and mineral complexes that allow the plant to survive and thrive.
 
Anatomy of a plant
Source: uic.edu
 
The plant root zone
 
In the same way we humans eat and extract nutrients from our food, within the soil there are mechanical, chemical and biological processes making nutrients and carbon complexes available to the plant.
The zone where the soil, its organisms, and the plant’s roots engage in an interplay of feeding processes is called the rhizosphere.  Within the soil, the filaments of fungi called mycorrhizae create a beneficial zone around the roots increasing root efficiency.
At a plants root tip, exudate acidifies around this root zone making minerals available to the plant.
Along the plants roots, cell wall membranes are continually slewing off cells, providing food for microbes, which in turn die and provide food for plants and other organisms further up the food web.
 
Driving all these processes are
  • the soils mineralisation and organic content
  • the sources of food for microorganisms and
  • the diversity of soil life which can “harvest” this bounty.
To say this is a complex system is an understatement. This understanding differs hugely from those who argue that basic NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) fertilisation is all that’s needed to nourish plants and soil.
 
Gardeners and farmers know the importance of feeding the soil, which in turn feeds the plant, rather than feeding the plant directly.
Feeding the soil (and improving plant health) involves
  • growing diverse plant communities
  • feeding the soil with broad spectrum inoculants of biology
  • ensuring plentiful soil carbon is available to expand this web of life.
 Roots with sensory intelligence
 
Plants within this “soup of digestive activity” sense and respond to what’s around them.
 
Michael Pollan in a New York Times article titled “The Intelligent Plant”, explains how plants have sensory capabilities underground. For example, plants can sense a rock and change direction before roots encounter the obstacle.
In an often overlooked book published more than two centuries ago, Charles Darwin, in The Power of Movement in Plants, says…
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the [plants root] radicle thus endowed [with sensitivity] and having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense-organs and directing the several movements.”
Darwin’s observational skills were superb and it has taken us another two centuries to verify his writings. In this video (approx. 9 minutes)... Stefano Mancuso draws the analogy between the movement of a root tip and a worm’s action.  

To give an insight into the depth of a plants sensory world, this quote from Stephen Harrod Buhner extends our view of how a plant is immersed within its ecorange, of which the soil is an integral part.
 
“Plants continually monitor every aspect of their environment: spatial orientation; presence, absence, and identity of neighbors; disturbance; competition; predation, whether microbial, insect, or animal; composition of atmosphere; composition of soil; water presence, location, and amount; degree of incoming light; propagation, protection, and support of offspring (yes, they recognize kin); communications from other plants in their ecorange; biological oscillations, including circadian; and not only their own health but the health of the ecorange in which they live. As Anthony Trewavas comments, this ‘continually and specifically changes the information spectrum’ to which the plants are attending.”
 
Roots with Consciousness
 
In a 03 December 2014 New Scientist article by Anil Ananthaswamy called Roots of Consciousness there is a summary of the scientific research on the topic of plant intelligence and even a suggestion that plants may have consciousness.
Once considered to have no purpose, the transition zone near the tip of each root may be a kind of brain.
Source: New Scientist magazine

 
The root transition zone is most interesting for its similarity of processes analogous to our human brain. The type of activity in the transition zone and its use of oxygen approximates what we see within a human brain.
The assemblage of roots could be considered similar to the aggregate of neural pathways in a brain. 
In a square metre of rye grass there is approximately 14,000 kilometres of root network. This network anchors the plants, and absorbs nutrients and water. The roots co-exist with a horde of hungry parasites, root chewing insects, and an array of soil bacteria and fungi. As they are transfixed they have responses to sensed threats, and release highly specific chemical weapons designed to keep attackers away.  
 
"In plants, almost every cell is able to produce and propagate electric signals. In roots, every single living cell is able to [send electrical signals]," says Mancuso, the scientist speaking in the TED video mentioned above.
 
In 2010, research by Ren Sen Zeng showed how the threads, called mycorrhizae (pronounced... mike-or-iz-a), which form symbiotic associative communities amongst a plants roots, take in carbon, water and minerals from the soil, and hand some over to the plant in exchange for nutrients. Now it seems plants use these to communicate. Zeng’s research indicated that plants use these fungal networks as a kind of internet for communications between each other. Similar outcomes were obtained from research done in a Canadian forest by Suzanne Simard, where trees were found to be connected and the ‘big trees’ were subsidizing the young ones through the fungal network, similar to neural and sensory networks. 
The networked beauty of forests.
 
To learn more about how the sensory world of plants is similar to our own, view this New Scientist article.
 
The boundaries of what we consider to be a plant are continually being extended, forcing us to revise how we interact with and treat plants.
 
Symbiotic gardening
 
What does this mean for you?
Understanding more about the amazing processes going on under your feet and in your veggie garden will endow you with an appreciation and sensitivity to plants that will change how you work in your garden.
This can only increase your success as a gardener as you begin sensing and working more intelligently with your seedlings and plants.
 
Give them the best start by using a high qualiaty soil with a balanced mineralisation.  Vital Veggies soil is scientifically blended to provide this balanced mineralisation.
Then adopt intelligent cultural practices in your garden such as rotating crops, companion planting, composting wastes for return to the soil, and regularly feeding the soil so the soil organisms can feast café style - small amounts and often.  We highly recommend Soil Catalyst for this.
 
By providing a rich and diverse soil in which to grow veggies and other plants, you’ll notice a vibrancy returning to your garden.
As the plant roots start to more easily take up and process the nutrients they need, their immune systems will strengthen and you’ll have less pests and diseases, more produce to harvest, and a symbiotic relationship will form between you and the plants, extending the soil web of life that will include you, the gardener. 
References
“The one straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka
“How Soils Work” by Paul Syltie
“Natural Farming” by Cho Han-kyu

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