Gardening is more than throwing seeds or plants in the ground and hoping everything works out.
Having a basic knowledge of plant biology and some idea of how your plants will react to changes you've made in the garden will save you time and future frustration.
The book How Plants Work - The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do is a must-read for those interested in improving their gardening skill.
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How Plants Work Book Review
Don't worry, this isn't a textbook, the content is easy to understand, and the processes are explained by using simple analogies.
The author, Linda Chalker-Scott, has a Ph.D. in horticulture from Oregon State University and is a professor at Washington State University. She has authored four books and writes for several of the leading horticulture magazines.
I love her writing style, she states her points, many contrary to current agricultural practices, in such a way that makes it commonsensical.
Below, I'm going to lay out the chapters in the book and talk about one or more points she makes in the section.
1. Under the Microscope
This chapter is more than plant anatomy and biology. I say this because she does a much better job explaining how the plant organelles work and interact than any textbook does.
The chapter also includes the secondary compounds, which she calls a plant's personal pharmacy. These include:
- The building blocks of the plants
- Environmental & disease protection compounds produced by plants
- Herbivore protection compounds
- Attraction compounds for pollination & seed dispersal
- Growth compounds
- Specialized plant tissue
My biggest take away from the chapter is how plants can send out gaseous signals when pests attack them to draw in beneficial predatory insects.
Furthermore, when the signals reach plants downwind, they pick-up on the cues too, and start building chemical defenses against pest attacks.
2. The Underground Railroad
This chapter on the root system and its interaction with the soil biota is the most valuable chapter in the book.
The chapter includes the following topics:
- How far roots spread & how deep they grow
- How water moves through plants (fascinating!)
- How you can tell when roots aren't the happiest
- Best way to plant new plants
- Fungal Alliances (my favorite!)
- How not to mess up a good thing
However, the best tips she provides are about how to and how not to amend the soil, the evils of landscape fabric, and how using sheet mulches might not be the best for your plants.
Any discontinuity in the soil, whether it be where the native soil ends and amended soil begins, layers of newspaper or cardboard, or fabric can have detrimental effects on plants and more importantly, in my mind, on the soil biota.
I'll save my comments on the sheet mulch. Actually, I can't wait to test the effects of sheet mulching in my garden to see if she's right, wrong, or if there's no effect at all.
The author's views are interesting and are in line with some no-dig proponents like Richard Perkins.
She also outlines why tilling and chemical fertilizers are damaging to plants and their subsurface allies.
Get Your Copy!
Click the link to Amazon and get your copy of How Plants Work - The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do.
How Plants Work is well worth the price for both vegetable gardeners and to manage the plants in your home landscape!
3. What's Essential
If Chapter 2 isn't the most important than Chapter 3 will be to you. Now that I look at it again, this chapter might be especially crucial to vegetable gardeners.
This chapter is all about plant nutrition. I learned a lot about amendments, what to add, and what not to add. Also, she talks about all the amendment misinformation in books and the internet.
I'm not going into depth on which elements and compounds do what, you'll have to read the book. Chapter 3 is a great reference to have handy in your library.
Let me list the topics:
- The big three
- The other three
- Cell wall strengtheners
- Chemical jugglers
- Water managers
- Mineral specialists
- Heavy metal
- Forewarned is forearmed
- Soil testing
- Fertilizer fun facts
- The problems with phosphate (this section is worth the price of the book)
- Green-washed fertilizers
- Tea? No thanks! (she makes good points on why compost teas aren't necessary depending on your gardening practices)
She advocates for soil testing (a lot!). Now the no-dig gurus, Richard Perkins, and Charles Dowding don't test their soil.
I think soil testing can be a good idea initially, to get some idea of what is in the soil. Even if it's not available to the plant at the time of testing, it might be later.
I also like testing for heavy metals and pesticides, especially if you're unsure of the previous land use, or what is or was up-gradient.
Anyway, it's a good idea to get all viewpoints on soil testing, using compost or worm tea on plants, and especially read the section on phosphate. The author advocates to not use it, any of it, phosphate is the most significant environmental problem in your garden and for the environment.
4. Transforming Sunlight into Sugar
Photosynthesis is what makes plants unique. Taking energy from the sun and turning it into sugar and byproducts that plants can use.
The chapter explains photosynthesis in detail, how shade-loving plants get by with less sunlight, and what happens to plants when there's too much sun.
She talks about the differences between C3 and C4 plants and why the later always win in the summer heat.
5. Why Leaves Can Turn Red Anytime, Anyplace
Did you ever notice that leaves often turn red, or parts of leaves, especially around damaged areas, turn red?
It's because of a pigment called anthocyanin, a multi-purpose molecule that transports stuff to all parts of the plant. It's one of the most important compounds in plants.
Since anthocyanin is a red pigment, we can see where it is in the plant and deduce possible problems with plants by its location and condition of the surrounding tissue.
The pigment also helps protect the plant from heavy metals by binding to them and keeping them in place.
Obviously, anthocyanin is important for autumn colors and the transfer of sugars from the leaves to the root systems during colder weather.
Anthocyanin is also discussed in the next few chapters too.
6. How Plants Tell Time
I had no idea how plants knew when to bloom or shut down for the winter.
Chapter 6 gets into the details, and again, it's a pigment that changes form depending on the light wavelength. The topics tell the story.
- Phytochrome: A pigment for all seasons
- Seasonal Dormancy
- Sleeping beauties
- To bloom or not to bloom
- Sabotaging the clock
Not only does the chapter talk about how plants know what time of day and year it is, but she goes into a discussion on how you can trick some plants into doing what you want when you want.
7. Night Shifts and Other Unexpected Movements
In this chapter, the author explains the how's and why's of:
- How & why plants close their flowers during the evening
- Why leaves sometimes wilt for no apparent reason
- How water makes plants move
- How plants chase and grow toward the sun
- What is gravitropism, and how plants use it both below and above the soil
- What amyloplasts are and why they're essential to plant growth
- How plants manage to twist and turn and find objects to grasp
This chapter enlightened me on plant movement and behavior. The sensory ability of plants amazes me. From this chapter, I've learned how plants sense and can react to their environment.
8. Garden Care, Not Control
Some frequently asked questions are when and how to prune plants. This chapter answers all of these questions.
The chapter also discusses the proper way to stake trees and when to remove the anchoring devices.
Other topics in the chapter include why you shouldn't cover tree wounds, why your trees develop so many water sprouts and suckers, and how to deal with off-colored foliage.
Arborists and garden center employees often give you the wrong advice about pruning and covering tree wounds. This isn't intentional, only that they get their information from marketing material meant to sell products you don't need.
9. Finding Love in a Sedentary World
Yep, this chapter is about sex. How sedentary plants attract pollinators and disperse viable seeds.
Also included in the chapter are sections on bulbs, vegetative propagation methods, division, and root runners.
All you need to know to help your plants reproduce, or, stop them from spreading where you don't want them too.
How Plants Work Book Review
How Plants Work is a book, every gardener, whether you're a vegetable gardener or want a beautiful landscape around your home should own.
For a bit over $10, you'll have all the information you need to care for your plants at your fingertips.
Chalker-Scott reduces plant biology and physiology down to its roots (excuse the pun). She uses real examples and simplified drawings to show you the processes and outcomes.
When she uses analogies, they're relatable, easy to grasp, and they get the point across.
I'm pleased to have purchased How Plants Work The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do.
Not only is this book a useful reference, but by reading it, I also have a better understanding of why plants do what they do, both in the healthy state and when they need some attention.
My two favorite sections in this book, is the section about the root zone and the chapter on what is essential to plants. I also like the author's explanation of the visual cues and clues plants provide when they're diseased or not in ideal growing locations.
These cues and clues will help provide better care to plants.
Get Your Copy of the How Plants Work Book
Below are links to the How Plants Work book on Amazon. The book has a 4.6 out of 5 rating with almost 100 reviews at the time this article is published.
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