I noticed them just a week and half ago: the brave garlic spears jutting up through the protective mulch. The mulch insulates the soil so that it remains a more constant temperature. In early spring that means colder. This prevents frost heaves, but it also slows garlic germination. Eventually the garlic heeds the cues of spring and starts its march towards flowering. Little does it know that I intend to rip off those flowers before they have a chance to fully form. I’ll fry them in oil or maybe chop them to toss with lettuce. I’m a regular vegetation Vandal crushing reproductive success.

This year, as in most years, my mulch is contaminated with an undesirable species: maples. Just days after the first garlic shoots emerge from their leafy blanket, maple seedlings follow, striving to outcompete the other plants by growing taller earlier. Of course they’re not prepared to compete with the garlic guardian (AKA the aforementioned vegetation Vandal).

In my garlic bed there are probably 10 maple seedlings for every garlic plant. And I planted the garlic! Of course, even if accidentally, I planted the maple seedlings too. They came in with the mulch. This is what I get for using abundant free mulch. If I used straw I’d save myself work, but I’d have to spend money and that is not the way of my people.

The maples barely hold on. In less than an hour I can do some morally acceptable species cleansing. If I get them before their true leaves expand (the ones that look like maple leaves not the cotyledons), they come up easily. At that point they’ve only got a single root heading down to find purchase in the soil. I can usually grab a cotyledon and they’ll pop right out. They make up for this weakness with numbers. I’ll miss a few; if not in the garlic bed, then in with the onions, early lettuce or carrots. Once the stem turns even the slightest bit woody, the plant becomes much harder to pull. If one makes it a year, I’ll have a project on my hands.

This strategy for reproduction is pretty common in plants: make lots of seeds. Maples, like many other trees have years in which they produce enormous crops of seeds and years in which they hold back. Seed production takes a lot of energy. Maple flowers in most species form before the leaves come out, so much of the reproductive apparatus is formed using last year’s stored sugar– in sugar maples that’s what we make into syrup. The seeds continue to mature after the leaves have set so the plant will continue to put energy into those seeds well into the season. Years in which seed production is very high “mast years” are usually followed by low syrup production years. It turns out that seed set is a better predictor of sap production than weather in sugar maples (“Whirlybirds and Maple Syrup”, Harvard Gazette 2012).

So enormous amounts of a tree’s energy are put into producing seeds that it flings out to the world. Most of them will die, of course. Sad, yes?

Not really, most organisms do this. In many organisms the vast majority of energy is spent preparing for reproduction or sending seeds out to the world. Bacteria are usually growing to a size at which they can divide or dying. Is it any wonder then how much energy we humans spend on reproduction? We, at least, spend more time on our seedlings.

Caleb Rounds

Author: Caleb Rounds

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