Historical Ecology, Biophilia and Your Bottom Line

First the forests, then the huts, then the academies, this is the order of human institutions.

These words, roughly interpreted, were first penned almost three centuries ago by the quintessential Renaissance man Giambattista Vicco in the New Science. Vicco did not subscribe to the then widely held view that all human cultures were endowed, via providence, with the same innate abilities simultaneously. Rather, he thought that although the trajectory was the same, the speed or cadence of the acquisition of these abilities differed and that this was dependent on established institutions, or- modes of thought related to their environment.

Vicco thought that once mastered, a specific skill set or level of sophistication would not be lost by a culture, even in the event of stochastic upheavals of one sort or another. After the perturbation, the culture could and often would rise again beginning at the level of “development” present at the point of disturbance.  Three hundred years ago, Vicco did not know or even conceive possible the things we know today.  In the 21st century, we know there have been numerous instances where a culture has mysteriously abandoned an established activity. Sometimes the reasons are not so mysterious.

As soon as our ancestors first domesticated agricultural animals in the pastoral sense, they would certainly have become aware of the need to manage the metabolic wastes of their livestock. The archaeological record informs us that swidden or slash and burn was practiced across the globe. In fact, as many as 500 million people utilize this technique today.  Our growing dependence on livestock led to a reduction in this type of nomadic agriculture and a growing utilization of animal waste as a fertilizer. It was less intensive, more effective once mastered and allowed for a sedentary lifestyle, no more packing up the village every 3-5 years.  Many old world cultures essentially abandoned the swidden technique because of shrinking marginal utility; consequently, we embarked on the chemical input amendment trail.

Across the ocean, at the same time, the expansive cultures of meso and South America were practicing widespread  swidden agriculture, but with a difference. Instead of burning the slashed vegetation, they would lightly bury and smoulder it, as it turns out- a small but very profound difference, a process we know today as pyrolysis.  The residual charcoal or biochar made a staggering, almost unbelievable contribution to enhancing soil primary productivity; orders of magnitude better in some cases. Fertility is similarly off –the-charts, even now several centuries after their abandonment;  a product of failed Spanish and Portuguese colonial efforts to forcibly re-settle the indigenous peoples. The archaeological record shows the use of the technique over the course of at least a millennium

It was not until the mid 20th century that the technique again gained widespread recognition. A young soil scientist from Holland, Wim Sombroek (1934-2003), was struck by the similarity in qualities of certain dark earth soils he encountered in Amazonia with the soils his father had developed during the German occupation. Those soils are what kept his family alive during that terrible time. His research of these soils was extensive and led to the development of many more research programs, at Cornell for example.  Virtually every desirable feature one could hope for in a soil is created or enhanced with the addition of biochar, or Terra Preta de Indio as it is referred to now in the literature.

How this affects your bottom line

For those of us involved in the horticulture industry, especially the interiorscape sector, a soil mix provides the foundation upon which your installed specimen will, ideally, manage to enter a state of homeostasis within that particular, ever changing, interior environment. We hope they will all survive forever, sadly we know that just won’t happen. A plant in an interior environment is on a one way trajectory. Our goal is to keep it healthy enough to ensure it can provide a net benefit to the client and facilitate our business earning a profit.  With that in mind, we all too often make the easy and convenient choice of a peat based mix. Peat is a poor choice as a primary component of an interior soil mix. Not only is it destructive of the natural environment and therefore a very poor demonstration of a firms commitment to considerations related to Biophilia, but it is doomed to succumb to deterioration well before our investment returns our reward. As it deteriorates, it clogs up soil pore space, affecting moisture levels and drainage, leads to salt precipitation and crusting, reductions in soil oxygen levels, a very poor environment for beneficial soil biota, a good environment for deleterious biota, foliar diseases and much more. Each of these problems leads to increased servicing or variable costs, this in turns gnaws away at your margin.

If one must adhere to the status quo and use a peat based mix, the single most important amendment to utilize is biochar. Remember, this amendment enhances soil primary productivity. Significant research has clearly illustrated that it is the soil biota that is responsible for most of the VOC removal in interior environments where plants have been utilized as a component of mitigating indoor air quality (IAQ). This feature is one of our primary selling points. Biochar will reduce your pest and disease management costs and thereby not contribute negatively to IAQ, reduce your fertilizer inputs, enhance moisture holding capacity, possibly extend the installation period and thereby reduce turnover waste, reduce the industries foot print on the natural environment, enhance your reputation as a comprehensive practitioner of biophilia and it will do all of this while adding to your bottom line.

And they say money doesn’t grow on trees!


Featured image courtesy of Engineering for Change

Chris is a plant biologist and forester who has dedicated over two decades to plant ecology research in addition to acquiring almost 20 years of experience in the garden center and florist sector. He graduated from Trent University with an Honours degree in plant biology and from Sir Sandford Flemming College with a diploma in Forestry. As an ecologist, Chris has been involved in many projects, large and small, from government directed natural resource management audits and climate change research with carbon sequestration in permafrost peatlands to natural vegetation restoration following disturbance. As an garden center and florist business owner in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, he has born witness to the tremendous change that has occurred in the horticulture industry over the past twenty years.

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