There are so many things about being a gardener that I love. Being a gardener is much more than a hobby or what you do, its about what you become. It shapes the way you look at life, it changes how you see time…you have to always be thinking about the next season. There are no instant results…you have to have patience…. It forces you to relinquish the illusion of control.
The world needs more gardeners
Being a gardener connects you to nature in ways that few things do today…I would love for everyone to unplug from their screens and their outrage and learn to be gardeners.
Another thing I love about being connected to nature, and to the changes all around you, is that you start to notice those little things, like which flowers and birds let you know when its going to rain… Which plants and animals are warning you about the changes in season. The crisp new green growth that says Spring has arrived!
No matter how much of a gardener you think you are, we’re all aware of these little signs all around us….here in SA, Jacaranda’s starting to bloom are a sign that you should begin studying for your end of year exams. An extremely hot day, usually precedes a cold front.
But what about one of the moments we’ve all noticed…those few minutes before a downpour when you can smell the earth almost literally opening up to receive the rain.
Believe it or not, what you are smelling at that point has a name - its called Petrichor. Petrichor comes from 2 greek words Petros or ‘rock’ and Ichor or ‘blood of the gods’. Petrichor is basically a combination of a group of fragrant chemical compounds produced by both plants as well as bacteria that live in the soil.
These bacteria or more specifically, Actinobacteria are some of the most important and ubiquitous organisms on our planet. They are literally found everywhere that there is life, or maybe a better way of looking at it, is that there is life everywhere that these organisms can be found. They are responsible for breaking down decaying organic matter and turning them into nutrients for plants to use.
The specific actinobacteria that produces the smell is called Streptomyces, and these are even a source of natural antibiotics - which is good news considering we have so idiotically over-used antibiotics to the point whereby they no longer have any effect.
But here’s what makes these Streptomyces even more incredible:
For decades we’ve wondered how plants seem to be able to talk to each other.
A tree’s natural protection mechanism would kick in by turning its leaves bitter as soon as an animal starts to eat its leaves. But within a very short time, trees on the other side of the forest would make their leaves bitter too. Scientists wondered how this was possible…
What we’ve eventually discovered is that there is an incredibly complex network of Mycelium below the surfaces, and plants have this beautiful symbiotic relationship with them. Swapping sugars and nutrients, using them as a fibre network to communicate, and even using them as a transport system, sharing resources between different trees…sometimes even from different species. This would be the equivalent of us giving an interest free loan to someone we don’t know that happens to be our neighbour. That’s almost unheard of in us kind, intelligent humans…there is so much we could learn from plants if we stop and pay attention.
But without Streptomyces, none of this would be possible. The health of entire ecosystems depend on these fungi-like bacteria.
But back to Petrichor - the stone-blood of the gods…what you are smelling is basically, that as these Streptomyces break down the organic matter in the soil, they release a chemical called Geosmin. After prolonged dry periods, the production of this Geosmin slows down. But just before it rains, the air becomes humid, triggering these Streptomyces to start producing Geosmin again, and that is what you can smell. We are so sensitive to it, that we can detect just a few parts of it per trillion in the air. Doesn’t knowing that just make you marvel at how complex the world is that we live in…and how little we understand? That’s why I love being a gardener!