Kinky Roots: What Tree Transplanting and Trauma Can Teach Us

One of EFTE’s values is “plants are people too;” but lately, I’ve been thinking of it also as “people are plants, too.” Just like people, plants deserve love, care, and understanding of how they like to be treated and what their needs are in times of transition. Just like plants, the roots young humans develop given their environmental conditions have long-term impacts on wellbeing.

The other day as we were installing viburnums and Mountain laurel at a woodland site, we found that the plants from the nursery were extremely pot-bound with badly kinked roots and root flare buried too deep under the soil. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for nursery conditions to lead to this type of growth. Like people, the plants develop in a way that reflects circumstance, context, environment. Any number of factors such as soil quality, container size, sunlight, watering habits, etc. can affect the roots of a baby plant. What happens when it’s time for a young container-bound plant to move to a new earthen home? As with humans, we know the world is larger than the home we grow up in, but we may find that as we start to fill out into possibility and fertile expanses of soil, perhaps there are some girdled roots, so to speak, getting in the way of healthy growth.

Sad street plants installed still potbound with rootball in bad condition (Photo by Sherrilyn Billger)

A good handful of landscapers out there would probably just install the plant as is, thinking it looked fine at first glance. And it’s true, in *some* cases perhaps the resilient plant would do fine, but in other cases the roots would continue to girdle and end up leading to sickness or short life. Before beginning work in the field of gardening and eco-landscaping, I didn’t know that, like people, sometimes you need to dig around a little bit to find out what’s really going on with the roots and growth patterns of a plant, and that this is a crucial step when transplanting a young shrub or tree.

As we examined the rootballs of the viburnums, we had to dig and scrape and work with the material to discover where the healthy roots were that we needed to keep and where the kinky roots were that would inhibit the plant from up-taking nutrients and living sustainably. This process reminded me of therapeutic frameworks and healing work. Through therapeutic and mindful practices, humans often find that within themselves, there are kinked roots (usually formed when developmental needs weren’t met or through childhood trauma, or perhaps stemming from generations-long familial trauma) amidst strong, healthy, resilient roots. We may have been planted in a new situation after childhood or experienced trauma and/or transition at various later stages of life and found that, perhaps surprisingly, some of our coping mechanisms can actually get in the way of living our healthiest possible lives.

I recently attended a workshop on the Hakomi Method of Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy. Fascinatingly, we learned with hands-on experience how someone with developmental trauma who hears a potentially nourishing phrase will often have some somatic response indicating that they are not quite able to uptake that nourishment. For example, this is a potentially nourishing phrase: “Your heart deserves to be taken care of.” Folks who are able to absorb this statement will report pleasant somatic feelings, or “that feels good,” or perhaps don’t feel much somatically at all. Folks whose life experience has been traumatic in some way relating to this phrase may report different kinds of pangs, pains, or swooshes of sensation in different parts of their body, perhaps connected with emotion. The body is not able to uptake the nourishment, and now the client and therapist can both see more clearly where the girdled or problematic roots may be.

Girdled Amelanchier stump. This tree was most certainly having a hard time properly taking in nutrients and healthfully growing. (Photo by Sherrilyn Billger)
Potbound roots should be redirected outwards or cut before planting

Although with humans it isn’t always so straightforward or possible to detangle or cut away the kinky roots when being transplanted, with plants it is something we can certainly do. Researchers have said that it is possible to cut away up to 90% of kinked roots at planting time and still have the plant thrive. The most important thing is to find the root flare at the base of the plant, make sure it is level with the top of the soil, and to get as many of the roots as possible to expand outwards rather than circling in on itself. This is a beautiful metaphor for humans as well: sometimes we need a little assistance getting organized inside and getting prepared to expand outwards.

Experience shows that plants with a significant amount of problematic roots removed during transplanting may look less beautiful in the first year, but in the long run will look more beautiful and will live longer than trees who were planted with rootball still potbound and girdled. This makes me think metaphorically of a larger scope of humanity. It feels to me that our society is in a big time of transition (maybe we always are, more or less)— that we’ve exposed a lot of kinky roots at our core. I think we’re still digging around and getting a feel for the shape of the rootball and the extent of the girdling. Yet, there is a sense of urgency. It’s time to cut away the problematic roots. I’m referring broadly to histories and persisting realities of racial, gender-based, and other types of oppression and violence, white supremacist and colonizer frameworks, human-first/domineering non-relational systems, and more. It may not appear to be a “beautiful” process for everyone, at first, as we snip such roots, but it’s crucial for a healthier and more just future. I wonder where our healthy collective roots are–how can we locate those and help them get stronger? To me, this often is the work of artists, myth-relayers, storytellers, and more: creative documents can help us examine where our kinky roots have sickened ourselves and where our strongest roots could grow us into uniquely graceful, robust, or resilient beings.

If you can keep following my societal metaphor here, or even the personal therapeutic metaphor, consider that there may be times we are dealing with an older, well-established tree rather than a young tree at planting time. Older trees, for a number of reasons, including but not exclusive to the poor initial planting and root conditions, may have sick roots or get sick in other ways. One technique arborists use to ease this is to do radial trenching. In addition to cutting away obvious and easy to locate girdled roots, we can dig holes between root flares to add nourishing organic matter and to aerate the soil. Like with older individuals or with habituated societal patterns, we can certainly still work to cut away the unhealthy and knotted roots. At the same time, we can infuse the context and individuals with nourishment, love, and support. We want to give them the best chance possible to thrive. Maybe plants and people are not so different, after all: we all need a healthy environment where we can safely grow to our fullest potential, and sometimes, when conditions weren’t perfect, we need a little extra -or maybe a lot of- TLC at various stages of life to help us revivify.

Cutting out obvious girdled roots and adding compost between root flares as part of a radial trenching technique. (Still from a video by Courtney Paoli)
Some wounds scar for a lifetime. Somehow this rope is embedded into the bark of a Holly tree. It is likely disturbing flow of nourishment, yet the resilient plant grows on. Please take care of your young ones– whether plant, human, or otherwise–and take care of each other. (Photo by Victoria Moyer)

Teaching Climate Change

Sherrilyn Billger, PhD and Andrew Smith, PhD will present two companion pieces at the Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines conference June 10-30, 2019. This is a nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference presented by the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. For more information about these projects, please read the abstracts below.

The Philosopher and the Entrepreneur: The Pedagogical Significance of a Symbiotic Relationship

Andrew F. Smith and Sherrilyn M. Billger

How many environmental philosophers do you know who’ve had the opportunity to develop a symbiotic relationship with an entrepreneur? In our case, the entrepreneur—a specialist in restorative landscaping and forestry—opened the philosopher’s eyes to one important way in which care for the needs and interests of urban and suburban landbases provides a tangible inroad into addressing climate change. This has had a marked effect on both his scholarship and his teaching. Reciprocally, the philosopher offered a theoretical framework to the entrepreneur, rooted in a defense of plant sentience and our embeddedness in the living community. This gave birth to the name of her business. It’s also informed how she advertises it to draw attention to the ecological and climatological importance of cultivating people–plantrelationships.

In this presentation, we tell the story of the pedagogical significance of this symbiotic relationship. The philosopher offers insights into how the entrepreneur’s hands-on work aimed at restoring ecosystems inspired a book project that’s influenced his teaching inside and outside the classroom. This has proven particularly beneficial when focusing on steps students can take to work with our distant green relatives to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In turn, the entrepreneur has found the philosopher’s theoretical framework invaluable for teaching clients and employees how to be nurturers of the land.

Take it Outside:  Eating for the Ecosystem

Sherrilyn M. Billger and Andrew F. Smith

Most of us have strong (occasionally clashing) opinions about to best redress climate change. Whether we debate as polite discourse, lively classroom discussion, or proverbial bar-room brawls, we need to step back and take it outside. To wit, this collaboration between philosopher and entrepreneur presents strategies for enhanced learning by taking students outside.

The philosopher’s pedagogical methods in the comfort of the classroom encourage students to engage with climate issues intellectually. They obtain an essential foundation, understanding theoretical issues, scientific underpinnings, and cultural context, but are unsure about how to translate what they learn into what they can do. This frequently leads to depressive overwhelm that can fortunately be alleviated through interactions with living communities in local ecosystems. Such outings provide experiential learning about interdependence, soil health, social justice, invasive species, storm water, plant tending, etc. To be clear, what is needed is not vocational training per se, but a link between the theoretical and the practicable. 

Climate change isn’t just happening out there, in the rainforests, low-lying islands, and Arctic ice sheets. It’s happening down the block where the storm drains overflow, in the park overgrown by invasive vines, and among the street trees outside the classroom window. This presentation will lay out essential elements for connecting theoretical foundations to experiential learning. We will include footage from our out-of-the-classroom activities.  

Spotting the Spotted Lantern Fly

Have you heard about the latest insect invaders? They reproduce in very large numbers, and swarms can cover entire tree trunks. They will land on your head, your shoulder, your shoe, your lap, anywhere they please. If you see one on the ground and try to stomp on it with your foot, you better be quick or it’ll hop away at lightning speed. Spotted lantern flies (SLFs) are an invasive pest, and they will be popping up all over the Philly area this year. They were already in Fairmount park last summer.

For most homeowners, SLFs are little more than a nuisance. But they can take nuisance to a whole new level. Their favorite plant to eat is Ailanthus, commonly known as tree of heaven, which happens to be another rapidly spreading invasive plant-pest. Unfortunately, SLFs also feed on fruits and have caused significant problems for some vineyards and orchards. And they feed on black walnut, maple, and willow trees, among others. Hops, cucumbers, and other crops can suffer serious damage too. (My biggest problem personally has been on my computer vines.)

I have been battling these beasties for a few years because I have a vegetable garden in Berks county, just a few miles from the location where the SLFs first came into the US (in a load of stones). 

Spotted Lantern Fly life stages
Image Source: Penn State Extension

Garden and home centers are advertising a number of different control methods, including a systemic insecticide that kills bees. If you are like me—eating for the ecosystem—you want to avoid using such toxic chemicals. You absolutely have other options.

The best non chemical option is scraping off and destroying egg masses. You can do this from late September through May, but the best time to scrape is late winter (nymphs start appearing in late April). Scraping is literally just scraping, with something like a plastic card or a butterknife. Just be careful to limit damage to the bark. Most egg masses are closer to the ground in sheltered locations. SLFs will lay eggs on just about any flat surface, including deck boards and concrete blocks.

The next step is to catch any after they’ve hatched. During their life span, SLFs climb upward in trees, so sticky bands around trunks are effective in catching them. One sticky band program in PA has already caught over a million of these buggers. In order to limit the likelihood of beneficial insects and birds getting caught in the sticky band, it’s a good idea to trim the width to just a few inches. Replace the bands every 2 weeks or sooner if they fill up.

Like many insects, SLFs can be killed with organic contact pesticides like neem oil and horticultural soap. I’ve also had great results using a spray bottle of diluted (biodegradable) Sal’s Suds. But remember that these interventions are chemical and can damage plants (don’t use in the heat of midday) and other insects (spray carefully and avoid bees as much as possible). I also like to swipe or finger flick the SLFs into a container with rubbing alcohol.

The option with the least impact on other insects is to just smash the SLFs. But you need to be quick! It could be a great game for your family and friends. 

hops

An unfortunate consequence of pests like this one is how they impact our food and beverage industries. Many of us choose organic food when possible, but the most effective methods of controlling (read: killing) pests are not certified-organic. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Something that ‘efficiently’ kills one thing is likely to be harmful to other things. Many vineyards are now faced with higher costs from more extensive pest control measures. I’m not going to condemn wine growers out of hand for trying to protect their vines. To be frank, if the more toxic pesticides—including the neonicotinoids—were only available to companies (and not homeowners), we’d have significantly less run-off and over spray and residual contamination to deal with.

At the same time, I enjoy a nice malbec or syrah, and I’d prefer my wine be organic. Contending with SLFs clearly raises costs for all affected vineyards, but is particularly rough for organic growers. Organic pesticides like spinosad and neem oil degrade quickly, requiring many more applications than conventional options like carbaryl and dinotefuran.

So let’s be informed consumers, purchasing food, wine, and garden products that align with our values, keeping in mind the underlying costs that lead to the price on the tag.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can deal with these spotted lantern flies, EFTE will gladly venture to your home for a consultation. We will teach you how to identify all life stages, as well as where to look for the eggs, the nymphs, and the adults. We will discuss the more eco-friendly control options with you, helping you craft your custom intervention plan. We will also provide you with tips and strategies for protecting your most favored plants and trees.

If you’d prefer not to be bugged by these bugs, we also provide egg mass detection and scraping services, to destroy as many as possible before they even hatch.

What we eat matters

What we already know

The majority of food available to us is heavily processed and shipped long distances. Conventional produce has often been sprayed with chemicals that may cause cancer. We know that diets high in fresh produce are healthier, and many consumers demand organic options. Locally-produced food is generally fresher, and prevents large transportation costs, including the pollution that transportation generates. CSAs are growing, farmers’ markets are booming, and community gardens are popping up all over the city. We’re moving (slowly) in the right direction.

We know climate change is real. We know monoculture crops are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And we know that the political climate directly affects environmental regulations and therefore the quality of our air, water, soil, and food. Now is the time to take action. Now is the time for every single one of us to improve the way we eat.

But why should I grow my own food?

Growing your own food is a patriotic and revolutionary act. When you grow your own food, you have greater control over what ends up on your dinner plate. You can pick the varieties you like best, you can use organic methods, you can eat the veggies at their peak ripeness. Nothing tastes better than a freshly picked vine-ripened (in my opinion Brandywine) tomato.

If you are a CSA member or buy produce at a farm stand, growing a few of your own edibles is a great complement. The CSA and farm are indeed local—which is great!—but nothing’s more local than your back door. And maybe they don’t grow your favorite hot pepper. At the height of the harvest, vegetables like snap peas and string beans should be picked every few days. You can claim your bounty at its absolute peak.

When’s the last time you bought a head of lettuce with a few brown leaves? How about a strawberry with a mushy spot? An oddly shaped tomato? We demand visual perfection from the produce we buy, and as a result, we waste a lot of perfectly good food. You are probably more forgiving with edibles you grow yourself. You’re likely to pull off (and compost) the brown lettuce leaves, cut out the mushy strawberry spot, and use the tomato anyway. Let’s embrace imperfection and reduce waste!

You can make our ecosystem healthier

By growing more of your own food, you add more green to our city, which not only looks nice, but also helps improve air quality. Adding new garden beds and containers chips away at the ubiquitous concrete surfaces that perpetuate our ongoing runoff problem. Your garden can enhance biodiversity, feed pollinators, and improve your own connection to the natural world that surrounds us. And fresh produce is just plain yummy.

Why “eating for the ecosystem”?

I started Eating for the Ecosystem because I am determined to change what we grow and how we grow it. I know we can choose plants and designs that strengthen our ecosystem, while looking beautiful and providing us with food. And we can do it affordably.

The company name arose from discussions with my husband about his second book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism. One of his points matches one of my long-held beliefs: that “[h]ow plants are treated in the process of cultivating and gathering them for food matters morally” (p. 31). To me, plants are people too.

We both consider what we consume to be a moral decision, and we constantly re-examine our choices. We believe that the best metric for weighing these choices is the effect we have on our ecosystem. “[T]he world is full of people, only some of whom are human. Plants and other-than-human animals may be people, too. Moreover, we maintain a special bond with, and specifiable obligations to see to the needs and interests of, our landbase and all the people who live on it and in it” (p. 8). We have a bond with, and obligations to, our ecosystem.

Myriad factors can drive a person’s food choices, whether health effects, genetic modification, price, availability, treatment of animals, synthetic chemical use, sentience, or environmental impact. I frankly don’t care whether other people have the same diet I have. I do care whether people think about what they eat and how their food choices impact their ecosystem. And I want to make it easier for anyone to make consumption choices that match their values.

I want to encourage eating for the ecosystem: growing more food in urban settings, selecting diverse plants that support local animals and insects, turning lawns into woodlands or gardens, and using integrated pest management rather than reaching for a chemical solution. We need to do more to enhance food safety and food security for ourselves and future generations.

What is a conscious consumer?

I’m guessing you’ve heard the phrase “vote with your dollars.” Every time you spend money on a product or service, you support the employees and the owners of the company. Every time you buy a box of crackers at the local supermarket, you support the jobs of the cashier, the managers, the stockers, the truck drivers, the cracker plant workers, the grain farmers, and the company that produced the seed. And some of your dollars pay for herbicides, fertilizers, gasoline, coal-powered electricity, and product packaging. All for two dollars and fifty-six cents. Seems like quite a bargain, doesn’t it?

Do you believe that $2.56 is distributed fairly among everyone responsible for bringing that cracker box to you? Do you think the truck driver earns overtime pay? How much does the packaging cost? Do you think the factory workers have good health insurance? Do the grain farmers use synthetic chemicals on their fields? Who receives the bulk of that $2.56?

Our industrialized food system is complex, and it’s nearly impossible to trace the complete production path of the food we buy in bodegas and grocery stores. How do you feel about that fact? Are you curious about labor conditions and environmental impact? Do you care about where your food comes from?

Conscious consumers seek information about the companies they patronize. Conscious consumers know what their own values are, and they try to support causes and companies that match their values.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be (your own idea of) perfect in order to be a conscious consumer. But it does mean that you care about all of the costs associated with your purchases. That sort of information isn’t easy to gather, but you do not turn a blind eye. Instead, you take off your blinders and notice what’s in the periphery.

Here’s an example from my own life. I really like monarch butterflies and I am saddened by their decline. So I did some research and discovered that their host plant (i.e., where they lay their eggs) is milkweed. I bought some red milkweed seeds, and have been growing milkweed ever since. Every time I see a monarch caterpillar or butterfly on my plants, I smile (and pat myself on the back once or twice). It feels good to do good.

But if I really care about monarchs, I won’t stop there. I’ll do more research and learn about why they are declining. I’ll learn about habitat loss and the effect of synthetic chemicals used in the production of some of my favorite processed foods. And I’ll ask myself the tough question: is my eating pleasure worth supporting the institutions that are killing the monarchs?

I want to remember that I vote with my dollars and I always want my voting to match my values.

It’s a journey and I’m no paragon of perfect purchasing. But I care and I want to keep moving toward better alignment.

Want to join me? I really enjoy research (and dare I say I am quite good at it). If there’s a plant, animal, habitat, or food you’d like me to look into, please let me know. Who’s in?

Resources:

Food Prices and Spending
Farm Bill
Food Packaging Forum