Sunday, November 18, 2007


Dana Prom Smith (11/21/07)

Several years ago meine Überfrau and I had a shoot out at Thanksgiving over the gravy. She asked me to make the gravy and stuffing, writing out the steps for gravy making. I compressed a couple of steps. The gravy clotted with free-floating lumps. “I just knew it!” she said. “You’re always taking short cuts. You’ve just ruined the whole dinner.” A former first-class flight attendant during TWA’s days of glamour and glory, Gretchen likes things “just so.”

A tense time was had by all. The gathering was composed of people who ordinarily don’t sit down together for dinner. An inclusive dinner, we invited my mother-in-law and my former wife. My children, all adults at the time, not wanting their mother to be alone on Thanksgiving, asked us to invite her. We also invited two couples, a veganesque Wiccan priestess who ate all the mixed nuts and her husband, a hummingbird feeder salesman, and an Assyrian Orthodox deacon and his Sephardic Jewish wife from South Yemen. A malaise underlay the gathering until dispelled by Gretchen’s magnificent feast.

Some gardens suffer the same malaise, something is going on in the garden just below the surface, resulting in a garden that doesn’t thrive. As my mother used to say of my academic achievements, “The potential is there, but the actual isn’t.” The alpha and omega of successful gardening is soil, and soil is “what you make of it.”

The best guests for a soil dinner are those strangely-worded creatures called mycorrhizae which are not discreet entities like a rock or a gas tank, but fungal associations or symbiotic relationships between nutrients in the soil and the roots of a plant. Growing in the tips of plant roots, they are little strands of fungi that pass from just outside the root to inside it. Spooky looking, they resemble a diaphanous spider web or that gossamered stuff used at Halloween. Of course, they can’t be seen with the naked eye, lying well below our visual radar screens.

In corporate-speak mycorrhizae are facilitators and in psycho-babble enablers. Although, they can be bought, it isn’t necessary because they’re in the soil already, but to function effectively they need soil amended with organic matter, such as vintage cattle, horse, or chicken manure and compost.

Some mycorrhizae are good and some bad. The good ones are called mutualistic and the bad ones parasitic. If the soil isn’t composted and too much artificial fertilizer is used, especially heavy doses of phosphorous, the mycorrhizae sometimes turn bad or parasitic. Ironically, sometimes fertilizing a garden with artificial fertilizer withers the plants.

Indeed, as in life, good relationships mutually benefit everyone in the relationship. The plants take up the nutrients and release carbohydrates to the fungi all because of the mutualistic mycorrhizae. Everyone wins. The parasitic mycorrhizae suck nutrients out of the plant and don’t deliver carbohydrates to the fungi. Everyone loses. The mycorrhizae facilitate or enable the plant through its roots to take up nutrients from the soil.

As the middle men of a thriving garden, mutualistic mycorrhizae are the sine qua non of gardening. They improve nutrient and water uptake, root growth, and plant growth and yield. They also reduce transplant shock and drought stress.

Amending the soil with organic matter does something else. It helps save the planet, by replenishing the earth rather than consuming it, by cooling the planet through water conservation and foliage rather than heating it with concrete, asphalt, and gravel. It’s thinking globally by sustainable gardening locally. What better way to thank God at Thanksgiving than having a sumptuous feast of manure and compost for the earth!

The Sephardic woman from South Yemen and I got along swimmingly because we both spoke the same Sephardic dialect of Hebrew. She rescued the gravy, vigorously smoothing it out with a wire whisk. The stuffing turned out well. I had read and followed the directions. “For just once in your life, why don’t you do as you’re told?” The shrinks tell us that men often marry women like their mothers.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

No comments: