Of Roots and Shoots!


I dug out the Spinach plant box last week. It was quite an experience. And, it reminded me of philosophical conversations with my grandfather.

I had snipped off the dense spinach growth right above the soil level and then had let the box sit for a couple of weeks hoping for the roots to become lifeless and become easy to pull put. I had not bargained for breaking iron-ore! When I first dipped the shovel in the soil expecting it to slice though with ease as in my other boxes, the shovel bounced off the surface. I had to nibble around the corners a few inches at a time for a long time with a three-pronged hand-held fork before being able to work towards the center and then slowly dig couple inches at a time till I got to the bottom. The cause for this box to have become so dense to dig was the roots. Many plants have tap roots that go straight down like a carrot while others have a fibrous root system that spreads out and doesn’t get deep. The tap roots have the advantage of anchoring a plant strongly in the soil and being able to reach deep for nutrients. On the other hand the fibrous roots spread themselves shallow and are the first to such any water and nutrients that the soil surface receives. Thus, each root type has its advantages. The tap root plants are much easier to pull-out. You basically grab the plant ‘by the neck’ and pull it straight out.  On the other hand the fibrous root system spreads out and generally stays shallow. Most herbs are rather easy to pull out as the fibrous roots are shallow and are easily pulled. However the fibrous roots when they become dense and there are many such plants grown close together, as in the case of a spinach box, these roots entangle with each other. On top of it my garden patch is pretty close to out neighbor’s redwood trees. Those trees, while they have a taproot system also have a dense secondary lateral root system. Thus, they have a dense underground network of roots that like to show up to any party in the neighborhood no matter what direction it is in. So this box had the spinach roots mixed up with the strong Redwood roots. It was like the warp and weave of a carpet. Between the two root systems, the spinach box was a veritable Afro hairdo.  It is this kind of root system that helps slow down slow erosion on mountain slopes that are dense with vegetation.

While digging out the box, I was reminded of a topic often discussed by Grandpa when we are in the garden together. He likens the plant roots to figurative roots we have in our own cultures. He likes to say that the more we learn about our specific culture and family, the denser our roots become. And the denser our roots are, the more anchored we are in our lives, the more steady we stand in times of violent disruptive gusts of happenstance that life throws at us from time to time.

Grandpa can turn any gardening activity into a lesson for life!

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