Skip to main Content

Here’s our first-ever gardening column with an earthquake angle

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: December 7, 2018
  • Published December 6, 2018

Sometime in late November, this column had another anniversary. I cannot believe how tolerant the loyal reader and publishers have been since 1976! Thank you for that.

In return, I never repeat a column. Sure, some things simply have to be covered year in and year out -- tomatoes, fuchsia, potatoes, dandelions, amaryllis and what to save from that first frost, for example. That is the nature of gardening.

These weekly columns don’t come easy. Jude heard my weekly cry so many times, she made me a needlepoint pillow that reads, “I have to write column!” I am always looking for new, interesting subjects (or figuring out how to write about an old subject in a new way).

So it comes as a total surprise to me that I have never incorporated anything about earthquakes into these columns. How did I miss this topic? Surely there is a column here!

And there is! Let’s start with if you ever wondered how trees react to a quake like the one(s) we just had? Given a full minute or so of violent shaking, how come they all made it without snapping?

The answer has to do with the big difference between plant and animal cells. Plant cells are surrounded by a cellulose-based wall, while animal cells are not. These walls allow sections of cells to slip and slide a bit during a quake. It is sort of like having rollers under a building.

To a certain extent, even the cells of dead trees have this ability, which is why wood structures usually survive quakes where brick and stone ones don’t stand (sorry) a chance. (Hey! Maybe we need to build overpasses and highway exchanges out of wood.)

This is also the reason I tell readers not to stake up trees (even though it is still advice given often by others). In fact, the two or three downed trees I did see this week happened to have been staked. They snapped right where the trunk was supported; the tree cells there were prevented from slipping and sliding.

Next, as guy who was a geology major in college, I should have been familiar with dendrochronology and mentioned it a long, long time ago. This is the science of using tree rings to mark past geologic, insect and climatological events.

We have all seen, and probably counted, tree rings. They are the tree’s growth pattern. Spring growth is delineated by the lighter color, and later in the year is followed by a darker ring. If good growing conditions are good that year, the rings are thicker.

All that slipping and sliding of a quake at some point causes deformations or otherwise changes how the tree is growing. Trees that are close to fault lines have growth different from those farther away.

Sometimes it isn’t damage but changes in the ground causing the tree to grow at an angle. Anyhow, scientists collect a core from trees that allows them to analyze the rings without killing the tree.

I stumbled upon two other items of possible interest to gardeners. The first has to do with birds. They, along with lots of animals, are able to detect the earliest earthquake "P" waves. They arrive a few seconds before the other waves hit, and while these moments don’t give much warning to your cat or dog, birds notice and, startled, fly out of trees before a quake.

And then there is the one about moths not being able to fly during an earthquake. Apparently, any two-winged insect, such as a fly or a mosquito, possesses a set of stunted “fake” wings just behind the working ones. These can detect vibrations and wind and help signal the insect to adjust a flight pattern. Apparently, the air disturbances created by quakes impair how these work.

Other than that, the well on earthquakes is dry. You may have a crack out in the yard and some heaving in the gardens, but we can deal with that this spring. The only thing left is to check your plant pots to see if there was any structural damage.

Good to know, however, thanks to plant cell walls, the plants themselves should be fine.

Alaska Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: Holiday Lights! through Dec. 29 plus New Year’s Eve, 5 - 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Members: $5/person. Non-members: $7/person. 4 and under: Free.

Water for Christmas trees and poinsettias: Slightly moist on the poinsettias and lots of water for those trees.

Paperwhites: Time to get some and grow them for the holidays. Just put the bulbs on water. Use pebbles or a proper container to support them.