The science of gardening

Gardening, that most agreeable of gerunds, is also among the most democratic of human pursuits. For sustenance or pleasure, from multi-acre botanical masterpieces to chia pets, from clinical cross-pollinization to blowing the seeds off a dandelion stalk, just about everyone has contributed to the existence of a plant at some point in their lives. (Even I have been responsible for a few blossoms of my own - from a select, private crop of mesh-bagged potatoes and carrots that lay forgotten under my kitchen sink for a very, very long time.)

Of course, for those who prefer something a bit more hands-on than simply neglecting your groceries, there can be a good deal of science to the art of a successful garden. Now the Exploratorium, the website of the Museum of Science in San Francisco, has expanded its Accidental Scientist series, after having already looked at such subjects as hockey, baseball, and music, into the horticultural field. Whether you consider it a lifelong passion or strictly a spectator sport, the Science of Gardening has something for anyone who's ever planted a seed or sniffed a blossom.

Launched during the last planting season (May 15), Science of Gardening provides more a general education than a collection of gardening tips, so nothing is lost if you haven't visited before starting your summer crop. Divided into three sections, the site uses articles, interactives, slide shows and embedded videos to cover everything from the history of peas to the biology of soil. (No mention of kitchen cabinet agronomy, though.)

The first section, Feed, reflects on the intersecting dietary requirements of plants and animals, and opens with "Everybody Gets Lunch" - a four-part video introduction to a home garden in California's Sonoma Valley, where weeds and insect 'pests' are allowed to exist in natural harmony with food crops. And while cucumber beetles may be dining on old zucchini leaves in Sonoma, "Peter's Savage Garden" demonstrates that sometimes the food chain runs in the other direction - as it shows Venus Flytraps in action and reveals the impressive appetite of the common Pitcher Plant.

Less dramatic, but more broadly relevant, is an interactive feature sharing the history and biology of common garden edibles. For example, gardening fact: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and collard greens are all of the same species. Strawberries are members of the rose family. After the edibles education, Feed closes with an article encouraging us to give Dirt a little more respect.

Next, Control looks at deliberate human interventions, ranging from a hydroponic greenhouse at McMurdo Station in Antarctica to such homey customs as adding rusty nails, fingernails, and pickle juice to the soil to improve results.

Other essays explain both the need to create new varieties and to save 'heirloom' varieties, while also examining the curious cultural and agricultural phenomenon of growing giant pumpkins for competition. (A practice that reaches its illogical conclusion in the annual Pumpkin Regatta, held every Fall in Windsor, Nova Scotia, home of the "Atlantic Giant" pumpkin variety.)

In Bloom, the Exploratorium zeroes in on the reason most people get into gardening in the first place: the visual delight of the finished product. "The Secret Lives of Flowers" gets up close and personal with some common blossoms and reveals what they look like through the eyes of various creatures. (Apparently, we see very much the same thing as a butterfly, albeit on a different personal scale.) Secret Lives also makes public some private correspondences between pollinator and pollinatee, along with their scientific translations - though I have to think that what goes on -or doesn't go on- between a consenting adult hummingbird and rose is their own business.

"Hello Dahlia" uses a slideshow to demonstrate the extraordinary variety of this particular genus and finally, "Any Little Patch of Dirt" reveals a San Francisco neighbourhood where residents turned a garbage-strewn traffic median into a successful community garden.

(If all this has you itching for a garden of your own, but you can't even manage a window planter in your current abode, don't despair - the Web is standing by with virtual alternatives. If you'd like to realize your vision of a single perfect blossom, the always entertaining ZeFrank.com has an interactive blossom builder. If you're thinking of something more elaborate, BBC's Virtual Garden allows you to create a 3-D 'backyard' layout online or with free downloadable software, and if you'e more the spectator type, there's always the option of a virtual stroll through the Japanese garden of Seiwa-en at the Missouri Botanical Garden.)

The Science of Gardening can be found at http://www.exploratorium.edu/gardening/.

H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds'

And on an unrelated but topical note, the recent cinematic release of yet another adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" has generated a rediscovery of websites dedicated to earlier versions of the classic work, so if you're interested...

The War of the Worlds Book Cover Collection displays almost 180 different variations on the theme, dating from 1898 to 2005, along with a smaller selection of inside illustrations. Audio files of the Orson Welles' 1938 radio adaptation are available at Radio Memories, while sounds and stills from, and background information about, the 1953 film can be found at SciFlicks.com

If you prefer the text approach, a new eComic of the story is currently in progress at Dark Horse Comics, and a free eText of the book that started it all is available through the Fourmilab in Switzerland.

("...to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day.")

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