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Whenever I work the soil–Master Gardener lesson one: gardens are made of soil, not dirt–I think about the science fiction series Dune, which ends with the entire universe of the story existing within the soil of a rose garden.

In some ways this is an accurate image of soil: a different universe full of life. Soil is a living thing containing the minerals of the universe (Another scientific but scifi like connection: Carl Sagan wrote: “We are made of star stuff”), water, air, the detritus of life or humus, and microbial life. And like any living thing, soil can be killed by poison, starvation, suffocation, or drowning. Soil is the skin of the living planet Earth, and like our skin, other life lives on and within it.

Fungi on a pile of bark mulch looking like an alien species invading Earth.

As a gardener, the first thing I learned was respect for the soil, and rightly so, as a great deal of the world’s life is supported by what lives in soil. Only plants can produce their own food, all of us of us eat either plants or other animals to survive. I expect our society might be more peaceful if human bodies could manufacture their own food. Oops! Off topic. (Besides, on reflection, I realize plants are often at war with each other—doesn’t this sound like a scifi tile? War of the Plants.)

How much life is underground? It depends on the soil, its temperature, moisture, air content, mineral makeup, and condition. Within my soil I can see macro life such as worms and insects, even mammals like moles living in the depths, but by far the largest category of life is invisible to the naked eye: microflora and fauna like bacteria, mold, fungi, algae, protozoa and nematodes. If you’re lucky, your soil is full of life, or like me, you continually feed your soil with compost and mulch to make it healthy.

Here’s a fun fact to put this unseen life in perspective. Jeffrey Gordon, a professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine has stated that up to ninety percent of the cells in our bodies are non-human cells, from microflora and fauna similar to those found in the soil. So imagine a being as big as the world’s soil mass. What’s more, our lives need that non-human life living in and on us just as much as the soil in your garden does.

So there it is, Frank Herbert, Dune‘s author, was right, there are millions of alien species living on the trillions of mineral planet particles within our soil’s universe. Bet the next time you work the soil, you might hesitate about just what you’re sinking your hands into.

Update: National Geographic has the scope on dirt — #5 Soil is Alive — also some scary information on how humans abuse soil at great risk to themselves.

*This is from one of my older posts on sevennightwriters.blogspot.com*

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Are worms…that is at least what science claims. It seems the forests surrounding the Great Lakes developed without earthworms. Ten-thousand years ago native species disappeared during the glacier period. Since then, our trees and plants have evolved to live in a wormless soils. In this region, a thick layer of duff, the debris of trees and shrubs, lined the forest floor. Duff normally remained for years, slowly decayed by fungi, and providing a habitat for many ferns, delicate wild flowers, and small animals like salamanders.

Since settlers first moved here, earthworms like the red wriggler used in fishing and for composting, have been introduced into the forest lands. Gardeners usually think of worms as a desirable asset to soil. They eat decaying matter, aerate the soil and leave humus-rich worm castings behind as they burrow. In general they do good things for soil where garden plants grow.

In the forests, however, worms eat the duff in just a few years, lowering the soil’s acidity and making nutrients more available. The plants in our forests survived in the poor fertility and the high acidity of our soils. While this won’t necessarily harm the mature trees growing there, the duff’s absence affects the number of seedlings growing in an area. It also makes an advantageous situation for unwanted invasive species that couldn’t have grown in the original, more acidic soil.

As this debris layer disappeared, so did the habitat for plants like Trillium, lady slippers, Solomon’s seal, blue cohosh, sweet cicely, mayflowers, wild ginger, lady fern, bloodroot, bellworts, and the globlin fern. They adapted to germination and growth in the thick layer of duff. The duff layer provided them nutrients, moisture, protection from extremes in temperature and predators, and a habitat for microorganisms like fungi necessary for the plants’ survival.

It is also believed the loss of the duff effected the salamander population that fed on insects living in the debris. The salamanders in turn, provided food for snakes, shrews, thrushes, and screech owls, so the earthworm invasion effected a whole chain of living organisms.

We introduced worms from dumped fishing bait, on purchased plants’ soil balls. The tires on all of our motorized vehicles’ entering our forests often carry worm eggs, so the most severe invasions are usually near roads.

Once the earthworms infest an area, little can be done to remove them without more harm to the forest. We know many of the previously listed plants grow in worm-infested soil, because we grow them in our gardens, but a study in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota shows these species do not return to worm-infested forests.

Some ecologists hope the ecosystem of the forest may eventually come to a new balance. In the meantime don’t spread earthworms into wormless areas, don’t dump worm bait in forested lands, and keep your vehicles on roads and trails. Gardeners in wooded areas need to keep compost piles and worm contaminated soil from contaminating the woodlands. These may seem like small measures, but a little thing began this big change.

I’ve discussed the intelligence of plants and communicating with aliens. (I write scifi/fantasy so this has to interest me!) In our changing world, this is a skill we might have to learn and could start by practicing on plants.

Much to my amazement while reading The Week magazine, I discovered I’m not the only one who believes in plant intelligence. (Okay; I know this depends on your definition of intelligence, but this is also a matter of considering exactly what intelligence causes to happen. Do I know plants don’t write fiction or contemplate philosophy — yes, probably.) Investigations have shown certain evidence that plants might not only be able to talk to each other, but also wage high-tech chemical warfare.

Three have researched how plants use sound. Botanists in Australia, Britain, and Italy confirmed that the “young roots of corn made regular clicking sounds. They also found that young corn roots suspended in water leaned toward the source of a continuous sound emitted in the region of 220Hz, which is within the frequency range the same roots emitted themselves.” Though they don’t know how these sounds are made, or what they mean to the plants, they do acknowledge the plants respond.

This proves plants not only respond to light, react to volatile chemicals, but now to sound. All this without recognizable eyes, noses, ears, nervous systems, or brains. One of these researchers, Dr Monica Gagliano, from the University of Western Australia, said, “It is very likely that some form of sensitivity to sound and vibrations plays an important role in the life of plants.”

There is more, as I’ve found this old Internet article of 2007. Professor Stefano Mancuso is on a search for plant intelligence. He says, “If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us,” and … “Not only are they ‘smart’ in how they grow, adapt and thrive, they do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn’t only about having a brain.”

So, while searching the web, you might discover more facts besides the sonar leaves of the Cuban plant, Marcgravia eveni. For instance, when Giraffes eat the leaves of acacia trees, the leaves munched upon emit a volatile chemical that alters the chemical balance in other leaves that turns them poisonous and unpalatable. The Giraffes stop eating the leaves. Bracken fern, like the eucalyptus tree, have developed methods to survive wild fires, moreover they both also encourage those fires to get rid of their competition. How about some proof plants recognize their own species? Yep. Some seem to do so. And how about orchids that have altered their scent to that of the female sexual hormone of the pollinating insects? Yep. True. Smart? I think so, but there is so much more. So give a few snaps for those smarty-pants corn seedlings!

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