Salvail: Wonders of science feed growth underground

Nitrogen is the primary nutrient responsible for that deep green colour in foliage and for vigorous plant growth.

As the days lengthen and we enjoy the sunshine on our eager faces again, an amazing world of biology and chemistry is taking place outside. What is often overlooked and under-appreciated is the remarkable changes and processes that are occurring in the ground under our feet.

One of the first dramatic changes to the soil in spring comes from the snow itself. As snow forms it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and holds it in the snowpack all winter. When warmer temperatures arrive in spring, all that melting causes the nitrogen to leach into the soil profile. Nitrogen is the primary nutrient responsible for that deep green colour in foliage and for vigorous plant growth. Ever notice your lawn always seems greener after a good rain? It’s that fixed nitrogen from the atmosphere that does it! So imagine the potential nitrogen added to soil from months of snow that melts over a short period of time.

The melt also reveals the leaf and plant litter that was left over from the last growing season, now breaking down and softening as it decays. And a good thing it’s around because there are billions of microbes in the soil that are also waking up and they are hungry! Soil microbes feast on this litter, or detritus as it technically called, and turn it into an extremely valuable compound called humus.

Humus, sometimes called ‘black gold’, is tremendously valuable to plants, soil and the environment. It helps plants take up nutrients from the soil that would ordinarily be difficult for them to absorb. Humus helps the soil retain moisture and it darkens the soil, which increases the absorption of heat from the sun’s rays. Remarkably, humus also breaks down toxic and polluting compounds in the soil, literally cleaning up some of the contaminants we put in our environment!

With early spring soil now saturated with nitrogen, teeming with hungry microbes and possessing rich humus, it’s time to turn our attention to the plants themselves. Ever wonder just how plants even know it’s time to wake up? It turns out that there is a molecule in the plant’s root structure that tells it to grow and to flower. When the temperatures go down, this molecule stops being produced and the plant safely prepares itself for the long winter. But after 20 days of consistently frigid temperatures the molecule becomes active again, and for reasons not fully understood, tells the plant to spend the next 20 days slowly ‘waking up’. This, of course, is exactly when the soil is coming into its richest, most ideal conditions; it’s a beautiful relationship in nature that has developed and evolved over millions of years. As the plant begins to grow, it uses reserves in its roots to get started. Without the richness of these spring soil conditions, the plant would be under stress and be far more susceptible to pests and diseases.

So go outside and look at your tulips coming up, look at your trees that are budding out and appreciate how much happens underground to make it all happen. It may have taken you an afternoon to clean up the patio and put out the lawn furniture but it has taken months for the microbes, molecules, nitrogen, decomposition, humus, and spring warmth just to coax open a beautiful flower for us to enjoy. And it all happened right under your feet.

Just Posted

West Kelowna to hire eight more firefighters

The city looks to solve what they are calling a critical shortage of firefighters

Kelowna RCMP look to reunite stamp collection with owner

The stamp collection was handed to RCMP in Oct.

Kelowna RCMP search for speed-slowing cut out

The cut out of Const. Warren Ning has been allegedly taken from A.S. Matheson Elementary School

Battling winter blues, depression and SAD after the holidays

Kick the blues on ‘Blue Monday’ that is supposedly the most depressing day of the year

UPDATE: B.C. legislature managers accused of excessive travel, personal expense claims

Clerk Craig James, security chief Gary Lenz call allegations ‘completely false’

B.C. man fined $10,000 after leaving moose to suffer before death

Surrey man was convicted last week on three Wildlife Act charges

Man charged in 7-Eleven fire in Shuswap granted bail

Accused facing arson charges released with 23 conditions including a 7 p.m. curfew

‘Blue Monday’ isn’t real, but depression can be

CMHA encourages people to prioritize their mental health

Anti-pipeline group wants NEB to consider impact of emissions, climate change filed NEB motion asking to apply same standard to the project as it did with Energy East pipeline

B.C. man charged in 2014 snake venom death of toddler

Henry Thomas was taking care of the North Vancouver girl the day before she died

Parole granted for drunk driver who killed B.C. RCMP officer

Kenneth Jacob Fenton will be able to attend alcohol abuse treatment, nearly three years after crash that killed Const. Sarah Beckett

B.C.’s largest public-sector union wants inquiry into money laundering, drugs

Union officials say Premier John Horgan and Attorney General David Eby have not ruled out the possibility of a public inquiry

Teen in confrontation with Native American: I didn’t provoke

Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School said he was trying to defuse the situation

Most Read