TIME Jobs

A Leafy Office is a Happier Office, Study Finds

Desk with Plants
Getty Images

Green begets green

The world’s first study of the “long-term impacts of plants in an office environment” suggests that a simple arrangement of a few plants around the office can pay huge dividends.

Researchers measured a 15% increase in productivity after “lean offices”—or workplaces with a desert-like aesthetic—were spruced up with leafy, green plant life. Over the course of several weeks, workers in three commercial spaces in the U.K. and the Netherlands reported higher levels of air quality, improved powers of concentration and a general increase in workplace satisfaction.

“It appears that in part this is because a green office communicates to employees that their employer cares about them and their welfare,” said study author Alex Haslam, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland. “The findings suggest that investing in landscaping an office will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.”

Researchers also noted the findings contradicted a movement among interior designers towards severely stripped down and unadorned workspaces. “Sometimes less is just less,” Haslam concluded.

 

TIME Research

Study: Plants Can ‘Hear’ Their Attackers’ Approach

caterpillar eating a leaf
Close up of a monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, feeding on a milkweed leaf. Darlyne A. Murawski—Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Some plants can hear and react to enemy caterpillars

Some plants can hear caterpillars eating leaves and respond by emitting caterpillar-repelling chemicals, according to a new study published in the journal Oecologia.

Scientists have known that certain plants respond to sound vibrations—corn roots, for example, lean toward vibrations of a specific frequency—but until now it hasn’t been clear why they’re able to do so. In this experiment, researchers from University of Missouri exposed one set of plants to a recording of caterpillars eating plants and found they emitted more of the anti-caterpillar chemical and did it more quickly than the plants that weren’t exposed to the sound.

The researchers also found that background noise like wind or insects had no impact on the plants, indicating that the plants could distinguish the sound of their attackers.

Now the researchers are looking for the “ears” of the plants that allow them to hear, though they suspect they take the form of proteins known as “mechanoreceptors” found in plants and animals that respond to pressure.

MONEY Shopping

Smart Money Advice for Rookie Gardeners

Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK.
Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK. MBP-one—Alamy

Before you dig in with plans for a big garden project, or an entirely new garden, consider this brutally honest advice from some experts in the field.

When the clueless aspiring gardener heads down to the local garden-supply shop or home improvement store and randomly scoops up whatever looks good, two results are likely: He’ll blow a ton of money, and not much will grow as planned. Yes, to some extent, gardening is a matter of trial and error. But completely winging it, without doing much in the way of doing research or seeking sound, practical advice from folks with experience, will be an exercise in futility—and wasteful spending.

Sources such as This Old House and Southern Living’s Grumpy Gardener blog are undoubtedly trustworthy and worth exploring for recommendations and insights. I’ve also come to enjoy the advice, attitude, and outspoken and opinionated takes on gardening at Garden Rant, an independent group blog featuring the work of gardening writers around the country.

We asked a few of the Garden Ranters to name the best (and worst) ways to spend money when trying to get a garden growing. All agree that there are smart and not-so-smart ways to allocate one’s landscaping budget, and they promised not to pull punches, especially when it comes to anything they consider a total waste of money.

Best Way to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Here are some areas where it doesn’t pay to skimp. They may not be the sexiest or most eye-catching aspects of gardening—heck, they may not even be things that a newbie gardener thinks of for half a second—but they’ll help you lay the foundation for a beautiful yard, so they’re more valuable than even the prettiest plant.

Hardscape
According to Ranter Evelyn Hadden, the overall look of the garden can be defined by the stuff that doesn’t grow at all—namely, manmade structures like paths, patios, and walls. “Put in the right hardscape,” she says, “and the garden will feel comfortable and more finished even while the plants are small. Invest a little more in artistic paving and walls that will provide winter beauty.”

Structural Plants
Susan Harris, who recently launched DCGardens.com, a resource for gardeners and garden lovers in greater Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of basics such as shrubs, trees, and groundcover. Sure, they “may not ‘pop’ with floral display, but they’re the plants that make the garden in three years or so,” says Harris. Garden Rant colleague Elizabeth Licata is on the same page concerning the importance of structural plants. “Trees and shrubs also provide important habitat for birds and beneficial insects,” she says.

Trustworthy Gardening Books
Ivette Soler, the Ranter also known as The Germinatrix, advises against solely relying on the Internet for gardening information. “Buy the classic garden books for your climate and area of interest,” she says. “Many of the resources on Internet search engines are conflicting, confusing, or just give you a tiny bite of pertinent info. Go old-school and buy books. Look for the big, heavy books brimming with horticultural knowledge, and make sure the information is applicable to the area of the U.S. where you garden.”

For people living in the West, for instance, the Sunset Western Garden Book comes heavily recommended. No matter where you live, America’s Garden Book, featuring the input of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s staff, and Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, are worthwhile classics.

Design Help
Even if you always imagined a garden as a purely DIY project, it’s wise to consult a professional landscape designer. (You can find them in your area listed here.) Using a pro to help with your overall garden design may save years of failure. “Good designers know the right places for the right plants,” says Harris. Licata points out that a designer can provide the equivalent of a handsome frame, which the artist—i.e., you—can fill with a changing palette of color and texture.

Hired Muscle
For hardscape installation and big yard cleanup jobs, don’t be a hero. Harris and Licata, among others, say that they save their backs for the fun stuff, and they never regret paying a crew of landscapers for a hard day’s work.

Worst Ways to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Alongside your home itself, a garden can easily turn into a money pit. Stay away from the following traps that snag too many rookie gardeners.

Fancy Overpriced Plants
The kinds of books recommended above should clue you in as to what kinds of plants do well in your neck of the woods, as will a rudimentary look around at what’s flourishing in your neighbor’s yards. On the other hand, be wary of obscure and unproven plants, even if they are gorgeous in the store.

Licata cautions against the fancy hybrids of tried-and-true perennials: “Those glow-in-the-dark, double Echinacea (coneflower) may look great for one season, but they are not as hardy and reliable as the original pink varieties.” The biggest difference between the hybrids and their native forebears, she ways, is in price.

“And beware of those big, fat perennials,” adds Allen Bush, who works at wholesale producer and seller Jelitto Seeds. “They look tempting, but the smaller sizes soon catch up in size, and they’re cheaper and easier to plant, too.”

Seed Starting Kits
“If you’re not detail-oriented, save yourself some headaches and spring for the little plants,” Hadden advises. “Or start with easy seeds like sunflowers and peas that you plant directly in the ground.” Licata notes that in areas with short summers such as New England, seed-starters must emulate greenhouse conditions in order to be successful. That’s just beyond the capabilities of many home gardeners.

Commercial Pesticides and Fertilizers
Landscaping companies constantly mail out fliers to homeowners or call up out of the blue to give the sales pitch for special garden or lawn treatments. The Ranters say that homeowners should pass. “Not only are these expensive, most of the chemicals literally flow down the drain, polluting our waterways,” says Licata. “Even home applications of the store-bought potions can be expensive. And they often don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Instead, she suggests that gardeners make their own compost and simply spread shredded leaves as a natural mulch. An organic garden creates its own protection against pests. Weeds in an organic lawn can be tolerated under the “mow what grows” policy, says Harris. And in perennial gardens, tight planting of healthy plants make weeding minimal or nonexistent.

Mass-Produced Garden “Art”
Soler is emphatic on this. “Just say no to tchotchkes!” she declares. “Let flowers, foliage, and hummingbirds be the art in your garden, plus a few high-quality pots.”

TIME plants

Talking Tomatoes: Sick Plants Warn Their Neighbors

Chatterbox: tomato plants have a lot more to say than you'd think
Chatterbox: tomato plants have a lot more to say than you'd think John Burke; Getty Images

Chemical signaling allows healthy plants to defend themselves when a single neighbor is under attack—a result of communication among species that were always thought to be entirely mute

We tend to think of plants as basically inert—the furniture of the natural world. They don’t move, they don’t make sounds, they don’t seem to respond to anything—at least not very quickly. Grass doesn’t cry when you cut it, flowers don’t scream when they’re picked. But as is often the case, our human-centric view of the world misses quite a lot. Plants are talking to each other all the time. And the language is chemical.

Over the last few decades, a growing stream of papers has reported that different types of plants, from trees to tomatoes, release volatile compounds into the air for the benefit of neighboring plants. These chemical smoke signals come in many varieties, but their purpose seems to be to spread information about one plant’s disease or infestation so other plants can defend themselves. That’s been the general idea anyway, but exactly how plants receive and act on many of these signals is still mysterious. In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in Japan offer some explanations, announcing that they’ve identified one such chemical message and traced it all the way from emission to action.

The experimenters looked at tomato plants infested by a common pest, the cutworm caterpillar. To start out, they grew plants in two plastic chambers connected by a tube, with an infested plant in the upwind chamber and an uninfested one downwind. When those downwind plants were later exposed to the cutworm pest, they defended themselves against it better than tomato plants that had not been exposed to a sick neighbor.

The researchers analyzed leaves from exposed and unexposed plants and found that out of the 8,226 compounds identified, only one showed up more frequently in the exposed plants, a substance called HexVic. And indeed, when the researchers fed HexVic to cutworms, it knocked down their survival rate by 17%.

Looking for the source of this protective substance, the scientists fingered a chemical precursor to HexVic among the cocktail of volatiles released by the infested plants. When they wafted it over uninfested plants, the plants began to produce HexVic, suggesting that they were turning the volatile into the caterpillar-killing chemical. A series of other tests confirmed that idea: Uninfested plants don’t have this precursor lying around, and must build their own weapon from the early warning message released by their infested relatives.

It’s an elegant tale, and it may be happening in far more plant species than tomatoes and with far more chemical signals that are still unintelligible to us. For now though, it’s hard not to have at least a little more respect for a type of life that not only communicates but, in its own invisible way, looks after its kin.

 

TIME climate change

Why Some Mushrooms May Be Magic for Climate Change

Fungi growing in soil
EEM fungi like this Amanita mushroom help soils store more carbon Colin Averill

The soil contains more carbon than all living plants and the atmosphere combined. Now a new study says that a certain type of fungi can help soil hold up to 70% more carbon—with potentially big impacts for the climate

Fungi don’t get the respect they deserve. Maybe that’s because they do most of their work in the dark, beneath the ground or on dead matter, or because there’s something essentially alien and bacterial about their appearance and the way they grow. But fungi are so plentiful and basic to life that they’re recognized as their own phylogenic kingdom. There may be more than 5 million separate species of fungi, and the largest single organism on the planet is a fungus: the four sq. mi. (10 sq. km) Armillaria ostoya fungus, which lives in the soil of Oregon’s Blue Mountains and which may be more than 8,000 yeas old. Without fungi we wouldn’t have antibiotics, blue cheeses and most importantly, beer. And we won’t even get into the magic kind.

Fungi also play an important role in the carbon cycle, the biogeochemical process by which carbon—the essential element of life on Earth—moves between the air, soils and water. Plants sequester carbon dioxide, but when they die, that carbon enters the soil—a lot of it. Globally, soil is the biggest single terrestrial reservoir of carbon, far more than the amount of carbon contained in living things and in the atmosphere combined. (On a planetary scale, the oceans hold by far the most carbon.) As the dead plant matter is broken down by microbes in the oil, that carbon is released back into the air. The rate at which that carbon leaves the soil can obviously have a major impact on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which in turn helps drive climate change.

(MORE: Climate Change Might Just Be Driving the Historic Cold Snap)

One of the limits to the growth of those decomposing microbes is the availability of nitrogen in the soil. Living plants and soil microbes compete for nitrogen, and the less nitrogen is available to the microbes, the slower decomposition is—and the more carbon remains in the soil, instead of outgassing into the atmosphere. This is where the fungi come in. Most plants have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi: the fungi extract the nitrogen from the soil, and make it available to the plants through their roots. But according to a new study in Nature, one major type of the symbiotic fungi can extract nitrogen much more quickly than other types—and that in turn slows the growth of the competing microbes and leaves much more carbon locked away in the soil.

Researchers from the University of Texas, Boston University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute ran computer models on data from more than 200 soil profiles from around the world. They found that soils dominated by ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal (EEM) fungi contain as much as 70% more carbon than soils dominated by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. That’s because the EEM fungi produce more nitrogen-degrading enzymes, which allows them to extract more nitrogen from the soil. They essentially outcompete the soil microbes, which slows down their ability to decompose dead plant matter and return carbon from the soil to the atmosphere. “This analysis clearly establishes that the different types of symbiotic fungi that colonize plant roots exert major control on the global carbon cycle, which has not been fully appreciated or demonstrated until now,” said Colin Averill, a graduate student at the University of Texas and the lead author of the paper.

That relationship between the different types of fungi and plants is so important for the carbon cycle because it’s independent of temperature, precipitation, soil clay content and all the other variable factors that can influence plant growth and soil content. Perhaps unfortunately for us, though, AM fungi symbiosis is far more common, occurring in approximately 85% of plant families, while just a few plant families have a symbiotic relationship with EEM fungi. That could change as the composition of forests change, however, but we wouldn’t know the effects until scientists add the role of the different kinds of symbiotic fungi into global climate models, which they have yet to do.

“This study shows that trees and decomposers are really connected via these mycorrhizal fungi, and that you can’t accurately predict future carbon cycling without thinking about how these two groups interact,” said Averill. “We need to think of these systems holistically.” The humble fungus won’t be forgotten.

(MORE: A Newly Discovered Underground Lake in Greenland Will Help Us Understand Climate Change)

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