Practical Science for Gardeners – Mary Pratt

What a Galapagos Island finch has to do with a dandelion may not be immediately apparent. But, in Mary Pratt’s excellent gardening/science book, they are both examples that validate the importance of the Linnean binomial system.  Practical Science for Gardeners is a marvel of scholarship and science trivia that treats the war between the Ladybirds and the aphids as a perfect example of the balance of nature. Parasites and predators–create lacewing hotels for your wintering insect police. Order nematodes from the organic gardening catalog to take care of the slugs. Tomato fertilizer will cause plants to flower. Too much self-pollination will cause a plant to develop “inbreeding depression.”

It’s autumn, the season when we lament the lack of a garden that means we have to buy a pumpkin at the grocer’s, not wait for the perfect moment to pick it from our homegrown patch.  And if we had a sunflower house, we would soon need to shake the dried seeds from the pod into a paper bag, lay them out between layers of paper to dream away the winter, and prepare to plant the whole seedful paper in some nicely composted soil in spring. Perhaps during the waxing or full moon. Although the moon thing is scientifically unproven. Pratt does offer some practical reasons for the folklore that have to do with tides and soaking the soil for newly germinating seeds. But, as she astutely observes, “the life sciences are a bit fuzzy round the edges.”

At this point you are saying, “Ha! Another one of those mad English gardeners!” And I reply, “Yes! Thank heavens for them.” The English know how to really get inside a garden. Pratt isn’t some dotty dowager puttering around a National Trust estate, though. She is an Oxford-trained zoologist with a master’s degree in biology who worked for the Wildlife Trusts. And now she gardens in Devon. Lucky her. She recommends small bibles for frustrated pest-killers like The Little Slug Book and, thankfully, isn’t as hard as she might have been on rabbits.   There are sections on choosing trees, composting, mixing green and flowering plants, biodiversity, soil maintenance and more. Really, mindful gardening is science and the more science you know the better prepared you are to keep those nasty slugs out of your pepper plants. Or whatever they love to eat best.

Practical Science for Gardeners is a book to tuck next to the seed catalogs to peruse on long, dark winter nights.  And then you should ask for a pair of genuine Wellies for Christmas. Order some ladybugs. Check the lacewing hotel for December guests. And know how to mix your own compost tea in the spring so you can let it sit and weaken before it’s needed. Watch where you use it, though. Natural or premixed chemicals, nitrogen fertilizer will kill a wildflower meadow.

Practical Science for Gardeners   Mary Pratt | Timber Press   2005

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