The Secret Behind Midnight Snacks

It’s a classic, isn’t it?

You’re reading a fantastic book, and you keep saying to yourself, “Just one more page!” Or your best friend forever is visiting from out of town, and you talk late into the night, heart to heart.

Big Ben Clock FaceSuddenly you realize that it’s midnight and you’re starving.

I never gave the classic midnight snack much thought. I’d heard health experts recommend against it for various reasons: it didn’t give your gut a chance to rest; calories ingested at night got converted to body fat more readily; etc.

I’d also read that the food-to-body-fat superhighway was nonsense: it didn’t matter when you ate, rather that how much you ate overall was the key.

But I never paid more than cursory attention to all the discussion.

When I was younger, I happened to be one of those lucky people who maintain an ideal weight without much attention or effort.

Now that I’m older, my metabolism has slowed – as most people’s do – and I pack on extra pounds much more easily. So the pros and cons of midnight snacking hold more interest for me than heretofore.

But I’ve also learned that the simplistic calories-in-calories-out model (calories expended must match or exceed calories ingested) still touted by much of the medical establishment grossly ignores the action of the hormone insulin on the body.

My blog posts Thinner and Healthier and Test first, then conclude! go into this more extensively, if you’re interested. But the bottom line is that most people become much more sensitive to the effects of insulin in the bloodstream as they get older. The hormone packs fat into the fat cells and, once we’re over 50, makes it more and more difficult for any of that fat to be removed and used for fuel. While starving yourself on super-low-calorie diets merely deprives your body of needed nutrients and lowers your metabolism further. Catch-22!

But I digress! 😀

Sleep SmarterThe reason I bring this up is because of something I learned in Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson.

When you are sleep deprived, the amount of glucose reaching your brain dips.

Brains run on glucose. They must have it. However, there’s no need to eat sugar to fuel your brain. In fact, don’t do it! Your liver can make all the glucose your brain requires, without you ever ingesting any sugar at all.

In a sleep researcher’s lab, where the amount of sleep deprivation induced for the purpose of study is extreme (24 hours), glucose reaching the brain dips by 6%. But suppose you regularly get by on only 6 or 7 hours of sleep. No doubt your glucose dips much less, but it still dips.

Even worse, the reduction of glucose to the brain is not distributed equally. When the reduction is 6% overall, the parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex lose from 12% to 14% of the glucose they should receive.

Why is that important?

The parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex are the areas of the brain we use for thinking, for discerning the differences between potential actions, for social interactions, and for knowing right from wrong.

When the parietal lobe and prefrontal are short of their necessary fuel, our decision making suffers.

That’s why you might do something really unwise late at night and then wonder in the morning: “What was I thinking?” In fact, you weren’t thinking, or not very well.

On top of this, your brain late at night – desperately seeking glucose, due to the growing dearth of this necessary fuel as the hour latens – knows perfectly well that a shot of glucose is conveniently at hand in a bag of potato chips or a bowl of Cheerios® or a few scoops of ice cream.

That’s why those foods prove so irresistible at midnight!

I took away several things from all of this.

1 • If I’m asleep before the glucose dip arrives, it will never even happen. Asleep, my body will be in the repair mode that occurs most intensely between 10 PM and 2 AM. (That’s another fact I learned from Sleep Smarter.)

My brain chemistry will be exactly as it is supposed to be, initiating repairs, instead of losing glucose and frantically seeking a resupply by prompting cravings.

(Unless I am chronically sleep deprived; in which case, the glucose dip occurs even in sleep and can actually wake me up!)

2 • It’s not that eating late at night is a problem in itself. It’s that such snacks are usually extra and often composed of sugar or simple carbohydrates. I’ve already ingested all the food I truly need at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Whereas, if I fall asleep somewhere between 10 PM and 11 PM, I’ll never even get hungry at midnight, let alone go seeking extra food.

3 • If I do happen to stay up too late – which will happen at times, because I’m a night owl – I have the perfect hack. I’ve tested it, and it usually works, although not infallibly. The brain in search of fuel is pretty fierce!

Curse of Chalion 300 pxHere’s the scenario: I get to re-reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my absolute favorites, and – whups! it’s midnight!

I realize I’m feeling really hungry, hungry enough that it will keep me awake, even though my eyelids are falling closed with my fatigue.

In the past, I’ve poured a big glass of local, farm-fresh milk and stirred a little stevia and cocoa powder into it.

The problem with that is that I’m getting an awful lot of carbs in the lactose (milk sugar) contained in that milk. On top of that, the sweetness of the stevia will trigger a larger insulin release into my bloodstream than would the lactose alone. And, on top of that, the big glass holds twice the amount of milk that I would normally drink in one go. So I’m getting a huge lactose hit with little else to cushion it.

While I was fighting my sleep schedule in the aftermath of my retinal detachment – before I read Sleep Smarter – I drank that huge glass of milk nearly nightly. And I gained 10 pounds. Not good!

(Chronic sleep deprivation all by itself causes weight gain, without any big glasses of milk, so some of my gain of ten pounds was no doubt due to several months of sleep loss.)

These days I’m usually asleep by 11 PM. Plus I’m finally visiting the gym swimming pool again after a long layoff. So I’m hoping to take those 10 pounds off! (Fingers crossed.)

But on those nights like last night, when I was absorbed in The Curse of Chalion and got hungry, this is what I do:

FIRST, I remind myself that my sensation of hunger, while powerful, is due to the dip in glucose to my brain. This actually does help, although it is not enough without my next step.

SECOND, I eat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil.

coconut oilCoconut oil is made up of largely medium-chain fatty acids that are not normally stored in the body’s fat cells at all. Instead they are quickly converted to energy. Additionally, coconut oil acts as a slight appetite suppressant for many people. It certainly does for me.

Anyway, it’s a much better option than the huge glass of milk. That 2 tablespoons of coconut oil diminishes my craving for food at midnight just enough that I can get to sleep. And it gives me a slight energy boost – not a frenetic boost like caffeine, but a calm can-do feeling – just enough oomph for me to go brush my teeth, spray some magnesium oil on my legs, and turn out the light.

CAUTION: If you decide to try my coconut oil hack and see if it works for you, be a little careful. The short- and medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil don’t require bile for digestion. But coconut oil also contains some long-chain fatty acida, and those do require bile for digestion.

If you’ve been eating a low-fat diet for a while, which many people do these days, your body hasn’t needed much bile for a while and has adjusted by not making much. It won’t suddenly produce more when you abruptly dump 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in! Which means you’ll feel nauseated and maybe even experience diarrhea.

So start with a quarter of a teaspoon and work up slowly to give your pancreas and gallbladder a chance to ramp up.

(I’ve blogged about the benefits of coconut oil in Butter and Coconut and Cream, Oh My!, if you’d like to know more.)

The bottom line? It’s really best to be asleep long before midnight!

But I found the why of the midnight munchies to be fascinating, so – of course! – I had to share it with you. 😀

To read the blog posts I mentioned in passing, see:
How I Rehabilitated My Sleep
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!
Butter and Coconut and Cream, Oh My!


Anatomy of a Pitch

4 photos showing a baseball pitcher pitchingThose of you who read my blog regularly will know that I’m insatiably curious. And those of you new to this web space . . . are about to find out! <Grin!>

I’m sure some of you say from time to time: why in the world does she care about that? But I hope that at least a few of you say: oh, cool!

Oh, cool!

That was my reaction when I read D.J. Gelner’s split-second-by-split-second description of a pitch in the game of baseball.

And you know the rest: I couldn’t resist sharing it with you!

Gelner is also a writer of fiction. Just a week ago, I read the first two parts of his three-part serial Hack. I was enthralled, despite the story’s marked difference from the type of fiction I usually prefer. That writer’s got magic in his fingertips! But, for now, we’ll focus on this non-fiction piece by him.

photo of first baseball pitch at Fenway Park in 1912

Without more ado, here’s Gelner and . . .

Why It’s So Tough to Hit a Fastball

It’s often said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult single activity in all of sports.

While folks may dispute the assertion, there’s no denying the fact that attempting to launch a fast-moving projectile in the other direction using nothing more than a finely-crafted club is incredibly tough to do.

A typical major league fastball travels somewhere between 90-95 miles per hour, which translates to 132-139.3 feet per second. That means that a batter only has between .434 and .458 seconds before the ball hits the catcher’s mitt.

Lets take a look at the various stages a pitch travels on its way to a hitter.

First 5 Feet: Initial Recognition (.035 – .037 seconds)

In this tiny window of time, the batter watches for tiny, almost imperceptible clues as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Whether the ball comes out-and-up (curveball), drops a bit (changeup), cuts horizontally after release (slider), or stays relatively flat (fastball), the veteran batter is able to recognize this movement, and use the information to begin the process

10 Feet to 30 Feet: Tracking and Confirmation (.07 – .2 seconds)

This is where the batter picks up the spin on the ball, and his initial instincts regarding the type of pitch and its location are confirmed.

A batter normally recognizes a major league fastball by the apparent lack of spin. This is because all of the other pitches he sees have tell-tale “spin signatures.” Curveballs look like large, rotating circles in the middle of the ball. A slider tightens this circle up somewhat, and the movement on the pitch is more horizontal than vertical. Most change-ups spin end-over-end like a fastball, but aren’t as fast, so the spin is detectable.

This is also why a cut fastball like Mariano Rivera’s can be so deceptive; the spin pattern isn’t nearly as pronounced as a fastball’s, but it has enough to cause late movement that flusters hitters.

30 Feet: The Point of No Return (.215 – .227 seconds)

It takes a batter anywhere from .2 seconds to .25 seconds to physically swing the bat. That means that at around thirty feet or so, the batter has to take the spin, location, speed, and trajectory of the ball, and decide whether he can hit the pitch or not.

It’s not easy.

The San Francisco Exploratorium has created an interesting little game for those enterprising enough to try their hand at seeing whether or not they have the reaction time to hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. Warning: it’s a bit addictive.

30 Feet to 55 Feet: Adjustment (.22 – .39 seconds)

The batter continues tracking the ball and adjusts the trajectory of the bat to meet the ball in flight. A batter can only reliably track a fastball to about five-and-a-half feet before contact; after that, his brain calculates the rest of the ball’s flight based on the available information.

This explains why pitchers always strive for the elusive “late movement” on their pitches, the later the better. If they can somehow cause the ball to move within five feet of the plate, the batter will have an incredibly difficult time guessing properly, and thus hitting the pitch.

55 Feet to Contact: (.39 – .44 seconds)

Contrary to popular belief, a batter doesn’t hit a ball when it’s “over the plate.” Advanced hitting instructors are quick to point out that the point of contact varies based on the location of the pitch. A hitter tries to make contact with an inside pitch 18 inches in front of the plate. For a pitch right down the middle, he aims for a foot or so. And for a pitch on the outside corner, the batter shoots for 5-6 inches in front of the plate to adequately drive the ball to the opposite field.

This helps to explain why pitchers make a point to establish pitches on the inside part of the plate early in the count to throw off a batter’s timing and reaction time, if ever so slightly.

Contact (or Not)

Pretty self-explanatory: Either the batter accomplishes his goal and hits the heck out of the ball, or the pitcher succeeds in tricking the hitter and casually receives the throw back from the catcher, before they do it all over again.

So the next time you marvel at a four hundred-foot homerun hit by your favorite player, think about just how remarkable that accomplishment is.

Then celebrate like a crazy person and high-five anyone nearby.

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Sources: Dr. Peter Fadde’s Pitch Recognition Page, “The Physics of Baseball,” Chicago Tribune, Live Science

D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer (and lifelong Cardinal fan) from St. Louis, Missouri. The first installment of his baseball series “Hack” is now available for the Kindle. His novel, Jesus Was a Time Traveler, is available as an ebook on AmazonB&N, Kobo, iTunes, and in paperback on Amazon. For more of his articles, check out his web site. Follow him on Twitter @djgelner or e-mail him at

* * *

For more cool science trivia, see:
Our Universe Is Amazing


Running Mushrooms

image depicting old growth forestFirst, a confession: I didn’t read every page of Mycelium Running. I didn’t even read most of them! So why am I telling you about this book? The half of it I did read was amazing. But let me explain.

Mycelium Running is a manual geared toward practicalities, toward getting out there and getting your hands dirty. If you need to know how to heal an ailing forest under your care, how to purify bacteria-laden water running off your land, or how to restore your compacted and abused back yard, then Paul Stamets’ book will tell you exactly what you need to know.

But I’m not quite ready for action. I do hope to tackle my clay-imbued and weed-strewn garden over the next few years, but I’ve got other projects ahead of that one on my to-do list. Mostly I’m gathering facts, seeking to understand the big picture. And Mycelium Running is good for that too – especially the earlier chapters. Thus I dare bring it to your attention.

The basic facts of mycelium are fascinating. And the scope of its influence and potential are far beyond anything I might have imagined. Frankly, before I read Mycelium Running, I hadn’t thought much about mushrooms. I loved eating them sautéed in butter. I enjoyed spotting them during August nature walks. And I took pleasure in whimsical paintings featuring fey dancers amidst mushroom circles. Essentially, I was ignorant!

Which meant I loved the experience of having my eyes opened. (Yes, nothing like tickling my curiosity!)

But what is mycelium anyway? The dictionary names it the vegetative part of a fungus. It consists of a mass of branching, thread-like filaments called hyphae. Healthy soils harbor colonies of mycelia, but tree bark or fallen leaves or your compost heap (if, cool) also feed mycelial or fungal mats.

Fungi eat by secreting acids and enzymes into their surroundings and then absorbing the created nutrients through the cells of their mycelia.

The mushrooms we notice springing from a forest floor or among the grass blades of a lawn are almost a side show of the drama hidden below ground. That’s where the real action transpires. Spores released from a mushroom (the fruiting body of the fungus) germinate like plant seeds when they encounter the right moisture, temperature, and nutrients. From microscopic grains, they grow and branch, and grow and branch, creating a mycelial mat. Mycelial mats vary in size. The one supporting the health of a birch tree in your front yard might be just a few feet across. But one mycelium in eastern Oregon – Armillaria or honey mushroom – once covered 2,400 acres!

But more than just odd trivia make mycelia cool. In fact, I can’t confine myself to just three cool things. Here are six!

Mycelia Partner Plants

Most plants – from grasses to Douglas firs – have mycorrhizal mycelia as partners. These mycelia form sheaths around the plant roots and bring nutrients and moisture to the host plant, spreading a net far wider than the roots alone could do. And actively creating nutrients with the action of its enzymes and acids.

Plants with mycorrhizal partners thrive, growing faster and stronger than those without, and resisting diseases better. Their root masses are larger and denser. Their stems or trunks are thicker and taller. Their branches are leafier. The difference is dramatic. And some plants won’t grow at all without their attendant mycelia.

Mycellium is Nature’s Internet

The physical structure of mycelia shares the branching architecture of neural pathways in the mammalian brain. It also mirrors diagrams of the internet’s information-sharing systems. Mycelia might very well be the feedback loop by which planet Earth regulates its ecosystems. They certainly respond in complex ways to complex environments.

In one experiment, researchers mapped the flow of nutrients via mycellium between a Douglas fir, a paper birch, and a western red cedar. The researchers covered the fir, simulating deep shade. The mycellium responded by channeling sugars from the root zone of the birch to the root zone of the fir (which was unable to photosynthesize the sugars it needed).

Outside the lab, mycelia build soil, remove contaminants such as spilled diesel fuel, and filter bacteria out of polluted water.

Could mycelia possess a form of intelligence never envisioned by humans? Impossible to say at this point in history, but the biochemical connections formed by mycelia surpass those of supercomputers. And the organisms display nuanced responses to the world around them. Perhaps our next generation of computers will use fungi instead of copper micro-wire for hardware.

Even Parasites Bring Benefit

The most famous parasitic mushroom, Armillaria or the honey mushroom, is stigmatized as a blight. It can destroy thousands of acres of forest and is banned in many areas. But look again, and look longer. Parasitic fungi may serve to select the strongest plants for survival and to repair damaged habitats. Each time Armillaria swept through that 2,400-acre spot in Oregon, it created nurse logs for more directly benign fungi, it increased soil depth, and it covered barren rock with rich humus. The stage was set for a vibrant revival of habitats and ecosystems.

Mushrooms Lead Eco-restoration

Consider forest fires. The first species to appear amidst the ash and cinders are mushrooms – typically morels and cup fungi. They’re fast-growing and quick to decompose. As they mature and release spores, they also emit fragrances that attract insects and mammals. The insects attract birds, and all these newcomers bring seeds with them. Soon the wasteland burgeons with life – all starting with fungi.

Timber Is Not a Renewable Resource

The old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest accessible to loggers are largely gone. The first two replantings of logged areas are gone as well. Logging companies are now harvesting the third. But no one is making plans for a fourth replanting. Why? With each clear cut, the mycelia of the forest is damaged and the soil grows both thinner and poorer. You can’t get good wood from trees growing in exhausted soils, so many logging companies are selling their land.

Mushrooms Are Renewable

Now consider another patch of forest, this one in south central Oregon. Imagine harvesting timber from it. You’d get a substantial financial return, but eventually you’d reach the end of what you could profitably extract. When you were done, the land would be effectively barren.

But what if you harvested matsutake mushrooms – tasty and desirable – instead? The economic benefit would equal that of the timber (actual calculations have been done), but each year you’d also get thicker soils, reduced erosion, increased stream health, greater biodiversity, improving air quality, and increased regional cooling. And it can go on forever.

I’ll take it!


And do I recommend this book?

I do.

Just don’t try to read it from cover to cover. Begin with part one, where the big picture info is dense. As technicalities creep in, start skipping a bit. Part two held my interest. Part three is where I touched down lightly. (I’m not ready for mushrooms species specifics yet!)

I’m normally a cover-to-cover reader, but this book was worth adjusting my reading style for. It changed my world view. Again! Give it a try. It might change yours!

Mycelium Running at Amazon

Mycelium Running at B&N

For more green living concepts, see:
Permaculture Gardening
Green Housekeeping
Grass Green

For more cool science trivia, see:


Our Universe is Amazing

curved spacetime on a black fieldBrian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is my favorite non-fiction read. I’ve traveled its pages only three times thus far, because its concepts give my brain a workout. The prose is elegant (like our universe!) and accessible, but understanding the physical underpinnings of the cosmos is not something I do easily. I labor. And, yet, by book’s end, I feel like I’ve been peeking over the shoulder of the divine, granted a view of miracle. That’s worth some effort!

Greene starts with an entertaining overview of Einstein’s principles of special relativity and general relativity. I grin through this section, because his examples are amusing. In my latest perusal, I noticed a nugget about how we navigate spacetime that had previously escaped either my notice or my memory. (Amidst all the other wonders presented.)

Time Travel

We are always in motion, even when sitting still, both because we traverse time and because our planet whooshes ever onward around our sun, around our galaxy, and across the universe. However, Einstein’s principles of relativity allow me to declare myself as still in space when occupying my armchair reading The Elegant Universe.

When I’m not sitting and reading (or sitting and writing!), I’m moving through both space and time. Compared with the speed of light – 670 million mph – I’m traversing space very slowly, at 1 or 2 mph when I’m strolling in the garden, 25 mph driving down a residential street, or 300 mph jetting through the sky. But guess what? I’m traveling through the dimension of time very fast. At the speed of light, in fact! Of course, so is everything and everyone around me. So I don’t notice my speed!

Wow! I’d like to see Greene explore the ramifications more thoroughly, but he’s a man on a mission with a lot of conceptual ground to cover. His purpose is not to dance in Einstein’s preserve, but to connect superstring theory to it. He continues through the history of physics and into the paradox arising between the rules governing the macrocosm and those governing the microcosm. When physicists want to understand black holes or the moment of the big bang, they cannot, because these conditions require both general relativity and quantum mechanics. Which do not mix! Superstring theory proposes a solution for the paradox.

Superstrings Calm the Quantum Foam

When we think about the smallest particles that make up the physical universe – electrons and quarks – we consider them to be points that have no height or width or depth. They are dimensionless.

This way of thinking causes problems.warped and tattered grid representing quantum spacetime

It means we must deal with quantum tunneling. At a sufficiently small size, many of the usual rules of the universe no longer pertain. Gravity? Nope. Cause and effect? Gone. Knowing where and when? Farewell certainty.

Envisioning the smallest particles as strings rather than dimensionless points solves these problems in two ways.

First, the strings of superstring theory have length. They are loops of about the Planck length. “What is the Planck length?” you ask. It is very small: a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. Greene gives us an analogy: if one atom were the size of the entire known universe, the Planck length would be the height of an average tree!

Very small, indeed, but NOT zero. Which means that we cannot probe physical reality below a certain size. Below the Planck length, in fact. Because nothing is smaller than that. In a sense it doesn’t exist.

And the quantum foam, where the rules of the universe go awry, exists mathematically only at scales smaller than the Planck length. But if we know the fundamental blocks of matter – strings – are too big to fit into the mathematical quantum foam, then all matter remains within a spacetime where the usual rules apply.

That is one way of looking at the issue. Superstring theory also gives us a second way.

In the Grandstands for an Event

Consider two particles traveling at high speed that collide, say an electron and a positron (an electron’s antimatter counterpart).

The particles collide and are annihilated, releasing energy as a photon. The photon travels some while and then releases it energy, transforming into two particles that go their separate ways.

an electron and a positron collideA physicist’s diagram of the event would like like this.


And here’s the difficulty: Einstein’s relativity principles state that different observers would not agree about exactly when and where the two particles collided. When considering point particles, that truth seems impossible.

Which is it?

This?an electron and a positron collide


Or this?an electron and a positron collide with different details


How can it be both?


Now consider how it looks if the particles are strings.diagram of 2 strings colliding


One person might see the collision like this, at a certain time and observer sees the collision at one place and time


While another might see it like this, at a different time and place.another observer sees the collision at a different place and time


No paradox at all. The quantum foam (which is paradox) has smoothed out.

Greene goes on to discuss the further wonders of superstring theory: Calabi-Yau spaces and their transformations, M-theory, and the striking similarity between black holes and strings. It’s an incredible romp through the foundations of physical reality. Greene leaps from marvel to marvel, ending with the tantalizing possibility that superstring theory might allow us humans to graze the ultimate why.

I’ll be re-reading The Elegant Universe every few years . . . when my brain is ready to stretch and work!

The Elegant Universe at Amazon

The Elegant Universe at B&N

The Elegant Universe as an ebook at Kobo

For more cool science trivia, see:
Anatomy of a Pitch


Permaculture Gardening

Photo of a lush garden.First, I have a confession to make. I read Gaia’s Garden and was so impressed I immediately started a to-do list of chores for my own garden. But that’s not the confession. It is this: just as I was gathering materials and gearing up to create my first sheet mulch, I took an unfortunate and ill-timed bicycle ride and broke my foot! Perhaps you see where this is going. The break was a bad one, but not bad enough for surgery and pins, so I was bed-ridden all last summer and on crutches all last fall and in physical therapy all last winter. In other words, I have not yet done a single one of those garden chores. But I’m going to tell you three cool things from the book anyway!

Before I go further, Gaia’s Garden is written by Toby Hemenway and introduces home gardeners to permaculture and how to use its principles on their land. Now for those three things.

plans for three gardens: vegetable plot, raised beds, keyhole gardenGarden Topology Matters

Consider the time-honored, conventional vegetable plot. The plants in it are useful, yes, and their color and the texture of their foliage, beautiful. But now look at those rows and the paths between them. Not only are they visually uninspiring, but they waste a lot of space! We can do better.

What about raised beds with paths threaded between wider blocks of plants? Definitely an improvement, but we can do better still.

Now evaluate the keyhole garden. The amount of ground devoted to paths shrinks further, and the space for plants burgeons. There are other shapes taken from nature that conserve fertile soil: the herb spiral, branching systems, and nets or mesh patterns. They’re all worth keeping in our palette when we design the layout of our gardens.


Sheet Mulch is Efficient

Nearly every gardener can wax lyrical on the value of compost. It replenishes the soil with mineral wealth. It improves the soil’s texture, building humus, the light and fluffy component that holds moisture and nutrients for the questing roots of plants.

But compost heaps are a lot of work: building them, turning them, watering them, and then carting the whole kit-and-kaboodle to the actual garden plot. And there’s another disadvantage. Soil organisms – bacteria, fungi, and amoebae – are just as important to plant well-being as the minerals and other nutrients in the soil. A thriving fungal mat might extend across an entire back yard or even further. But all that turning and forking and moving needed by a compost pile disrupts and destroys these microscopic helpers.

Just as with garden topology, there is a better way – an easier way! Mulch in place. It’s done in two steps. First lay down a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard to suppress weeds. Be sure to overlap the edges by at least 6 inches. (Weed shoots can really travel to reach a gap! Don’t leave any.) Then top that layer with a foot of bark or straw or grain hulls or sawdust or wood chips. Anything that used to be a plant, basically. And don’t be timid about the amount. This layer needs to be thick. Then wet the whole thing down and let it sit.

Fall is a great time to sheet mulch. The bed will be ready to plant in spring. What if it’s already spring and you want to try this now? All is not lost. Build your sheet mulch and then create small pockets in the sheet, about 3 inches deep. Fill the pockets with soil and compost, and plant your seeds. (Somewhat deeper pockets can be used for seedling plants.)

What will you have once your sheet mulch decomposes? Lovely, humusy soil packed with nutrients along with a tide of earthworms and millipedes and beneficial mites and fungi teeming both in the decomposed mulch and a good foot underneath. Your garden will thrive.

The Apple Guild

Among permaculture practitioners, a “plant guild” is a community of plants and animals living in a pattern of mutual support. It is often centered around one major species. And it benefits humans while also creating habitat. Plant guilds are more complex than companion planting (such as placing marigolds between broccoli rows to keep insect pests away). Plant guilds are more comprehensive than polycultures (such as growing rice and fish and ducks together).

Plant guilds attempt to borrow some of the resilience and robustness of plant communities found in Mother Nature herself. Most plant guilds are local, derived or deduced from the unique soil, climate, and species found in a specific region. But there are a few “universal guilds” that are likely to thrive in much of a continent. One of these is the apple guild.

plan of garden centered on a fruit treeAt its center grows an apple tree, although any fruit tree (or even a small nut tree) could work. Any size fruit tree – standard, semi-standard, semi-dwarf, dwarf, or mini-dwarf – may be chosen, but a larger tree will support more associated plants than a small one.

A ring of thickly planted bulbs grows at the drip line of the tree. You might choose daffodils to discourage depredations by gophers and deer. Or you might choose something edible: camas or alliums such as garlic, garlic chives, or wild leeks. (Don’t mix daffs with edible bulbs, because daff bulbs are poisonous. You wouldn’t want to risk a mistake.) Either choice will keep grasses from invading your guild.

Within the ring of bulbs is an assortment of plants that attract bees and birds, make mulch, pull nutrients deep underground to the root zone, and fix nitrogen in the soil.

A dotted circle of comfrey is the most multi-functional among these. Its purple blossoms attract beneficial insects. Its deep roots pull potassium and other minerals upward into its leaves, which can be used to infuse a medicinal tea and to create a fertilizing mulch. (Slash the comfrey back 4 or 5 times during the summer and let it fall in place as mulch.)

A couple of robust artichoke plants are interspersed with the comfrey. Their spikey roots restore soil tilth and fluffiness. The plants yield food: the artichokes. And their leaves contribute to the natural mulch.

Dotted throughout the circle of the guild are bursts of yarrow, trailing nasturtiums, and the umbels of dill and fennel. Yarrow is a nutrient accumulator, making nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and copper available. It is also an insectory, attracting ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps (that eat the larvae of pests such as borers and coddling moths). Dill and fennel attract these beneficial insects plus lacewings, and they are edible.

A dense carpet of white clover laps between all the plants along with a sprinkling of dandelion, chicory, and plantain, giving the guild plenty of nitrogen-fixing (the clover) plus more nutrient accumulators. (Chicory yields potassium and calcium; dandelion adds magnesium, iron, copper, and silicon to the mix; plantain, manganese and sulfur.)

The apple guild is a dynamic system with most of its members playing multiple roles and immensely lightening the work load on its human caretaker.

Two years before I read Gaia’s Garden, my husband and I planted an apricot and a pair of cherry trees in our backyard. One cherry succumbed to the nibbling of deer, and we replaced it. The other trees survived. This spring, the apricot showed the beginning of fruit on its branches! We hope to harvest a few for the first time this summer. But I still cherish that list inspired by this book. And I wonder: what might we see after we sheet mulch the ground surrounding the fruit trees? What eden spot might evolve when daffodils, comfrey, coriander, dandelions, and clover are growing in lush circles below the fruiting branches? I hope to find out.

Gaia’s Garden at Amazon

Gaia’s Garden at B&N

For more green living concepts, see:
Green Housekeeping
Running Mushrooms
Grass Green

For more cool science trivia, see:



cover of book, The Big Thirst; image of flowing waterLast summer I read The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman. The book was fascinating, and I highly recommend it. But perhaps your TBR list is already too full. To pique your interest, I’ll share three cool facts I learned.

There are oceans in the sky!

The vast spaces between galaxies hold a thin gauze of hydrogen gas left over from events following the big bang. Supernovas hurl oxygen (and all the other elements) out into the universe to mingle with the hydrogen. All sorts of interesting things can happen then.

But in some reaches of the universe, what is happening is water. The oxygen and the hydrogen are combining to make good ole H2O in quantities that stagger the imagination, quantities so immense that these cosmic oceans dwarf a droplet the size of our planet – like all Earth’s oceans dwarf the dewdrop on a dawn spiderweb.

That’s more water than I can imagine!

Earth’s mantle is wet!

Twenty to thirty miles beneath the soil under our feet is Earth’s mantle. The rock of the mantle is not truly molten, but plastic. Perhaps a bit like hot toothpaste? (No, I’m not a geologist!) And chemically attached to all that hot, squodgy rock is water.

Serpentinites are hydrated mantle rocks that have surfaced enough to cool and lose their plasticity.

But down in the mantle itself, the plastic rock flows and moves, taking the bound water along in its currents. And just as there is a water cycle on our crust’s surface – lakes and streams and rivers evaporating to form clouds and then falling back to earth – so there is a water cycle between the mantle and the lower reaches of the crust. Water flows out of the mantle into the crust; water flows out of the crust into the mantle. And there is far, far more water in the mantle than there is flowing on and through the crust.

When water is too clean, it’s dangerous!

Water attracts. That’s why it does such a great job cleaning, even without soap. Dirt and debris stick to it and get swept away. Drinking water is actually pretty dirty, but that’s a good thing. I’ll tell you why in a bit.

Water for cleaning computer chips is clean. Really, really clean. It has to be. One tiny speck of dust left on a computer chip will interrupt the thin filament through which electricity runs, and the chip won’t work. So the water is filtered through 49 steps (give or take a few – I’m not a microchip engineer either!) to make sure it is ultra pure. And it cleans the microchips beautifully.

If you drank it, it would also clean you! The calcium you need for your bones would be swept out of you with the ultra pure water. Likewise the many other minerals your body needs. Perhaps one glass wouldn’t do too much damage, but a regular dose . . . not good!

A water engineer at one of the microchip plants reported that he stuck his tongue in a glass of ultra pure water. (Note: don’t try this at home!) He said it tasted very, very bitter.

The ultra pure water is actually categorized as hazardous waste. And it needs to be. In fact, in places where drinking water is supplied by dirty water cleaned through three or four stages of filtering, dust and minerals have to be added back in. The water isn’t ultra pure, but it’s still too clean to taste good. Our water has to be just the right amount of dirty!

There’s much more in The Big Thirst than that however. Go check it out!

(The links are for your convenience only. Do consider checking your local library. That’s where I found the copy I read.)

The Big Thirst at B&N

The Big Thirst at Amazon

For more cool science trivia, see:
Our Universe Is Amazing
Running Mushrooms

For green living concepts, see:
Permaculture Gardening



photo of solar flareThis winter I read The Sun’s Heartbeat by Bob Berman and found it fascinating. I’m going to share three tidbits I learned, in hope that they will pique your interest. Old Sol seems so steady and unchanging as he crosses our skies, but there’s a lot more to him than I dreamed.

Evolved by Sunlight

Across the entire electromagnetic spectrum – from ultraviolet through visible light to infrared – the sun’s peak emission is green! And the reason our eyes see visible light
and not, for example, x-rays is because visible light is the vast majority of the sun’s emissions.

If I were trying to find my lost keys by perceiving x-rays, I’d be a long time searching. There aren’t many x-rays bouncing off of anything. And that’s how we see: by photons bouncing off of things. There are lots of visible light photons bouncing off of everything.

Our eyes are essentially sun created!

Photons Have a Long Journey

The nuclear fusion powering our sun releases energy mostly as gamma rays and x-rays, deadly radiation. So how is it that Earth receives mostly lovely light and heat, not lethal ultraviolet?

Well . . . as the photons of the gamma rays (and x-rays) leave the sun’s core, they smash into the rest of the sun’s atoms. The first layer of smashed atoms absorbs the energy and then re-emits it as more photons. Those photons bump into the next layer of atoms. Those atoms do the same thing as the inner ones: absorb and re-emit. It’s a cascade, beginning deep within the sun and radiating outward through the plasma. Of course, with each BUMP, some of the energy stays behind, meaning that by the time a photon reaches the surface, its energy has been ramped ever downward, from ultraviolet down to visible light or even lower
to just heat (infrared).

No one knows the truth of how long it takes a photon to travel from the sun’s core to its surface. (I think the scientists are just guessing!) Some say a “mere” 15 thousand years. Others say 1 million! Either way . . . a photon has a long journey!

Once a photon reaches the surface and blasts off into space, it shows its true dashing nature, racing along at the speed of light. It takes only 8 minutes and 19 seconds to reach Earth.

The Little Ice Age

The dark, cooler patches – known as sun spots – that appear on the sun are accompanied by brighter, hotter spots. Thus when the sun has lots of sun spots, it also has lots of bright spots and emits its maximum energy.

Normally sun spots come and go on a regular 11-year cycle. Their numbers rise swiftly to a peak population, then slowly fall. But sometimes this rhythm
is disrupted.

From 1645 to 1715, there were virtually no sun spots. (Yes, the scientists of the day were already studying sun spots!) Europe got colder, the winters grew more severe. There were crop failures and famines. Disease was rampant. The northern lights disappeared for 50 years.

Who knew that Old Sol rules Earth so thoroughly?! One seemingly small wobble, and our neighborhood changes dramatically!

There is much more than these morsels in The Sun’s Heartbeat, however. Check it out for yourself.

(The links below are for your convenience. Do consider looking in your local library. That’s where I found the book I read.)

The Sun’s Heartbeat at B&N

The Sun’s Heartbeat at Amazon

For more about our sun and how facts about it inspired one of my stories, see:
The Heliosphere

For more cool science trivia, see:
Our Universe Is Amazing


Curiouser and Curiouser

Why? How does it really work? Is this actually true? Or is it just a collective illusion we’ve mistaken for truth? I ask these questions, often randomly, but the answers matter to me. Perhaps they matter to some of you too. I’m always interested in digging beneath the conventional, the superficial, and the accepted to learn if something different – opposite? tangential? – lies deeper.

Foundations enthrall me – the foundations of the physical world, those of the psyche, the basis of knowing, the interface between the corporeal and information, the dance between knowing and feeling. I’m fairly certain the questions that draw me most cannot be answered. At least, not yet. Maybe not ever. But entertaining such questions seems worthwhile.

And amusing. I confess to pleasure in the hunt for knowledge. I am a curious monkey. And I thrill in the playground of ideas. I must also plead guilty to being a dilettante. I follow no course of study, but frolic on the non-fiction side of the shelf of new books at the library.

I read about string theory and quilting. The sun and grifters. George Washington and the history of ballet. All of it holds my attention. And some of it is so fabulous, I stray into impromptu lectures to friends and family. Oh, dear! Even you, respected blog reader, will not be immune to my desire to share fascinating morsels. I’ve already finished two posts in this vein for future Sundays. You shall have them in good time!

But, don’t worry. Just as I won’t lay these “who are we?” posts on you back-to-back, neither will I do so with “my curiosity is provoked” ones! Like a savory soup, this blog will be well-mixed.

I’ll close with a pair of questions for you. If you could have one unanswerable question answered – existential, practical, quirky, whatever – what would it be? And, if you collect intriguing clues to the essence of the cosmos and of being, which one fascinates you most?