Get to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ “Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots” before it closes on Nov. 2 | VailDaily.com

Get to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ “Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots” before it closes on Nov. 2

Carolyn Pope
Special to the Daily
The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens has recreated the U.S. Botanic Garden’s most popular 2015 exhibit, "Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots," which features 20-feet tall, floor-to-ceiling perennial roots to demonstrate how roots and soil interact in agriculture.
Special to the Daily

The average person usually doesn’t think much about the bottom half of the plant. Above the ground, there’s green foliage, fruits, flowers. But the stuff under the dirt is equally or more important than what appears above the surface.

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens has an exhibition, “Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots,” that has been running this summer all about roots. Locals and visitors who haven’t seen it yet should stop by the education center, because the exhibition closes on Nov. 2.

Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic who specializes in the environment, paired up with the Land Institute in Kansas and the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C., to present the eye-opening exhibit. Richardson grew up in Kansas, so he knows the soil there.

“I came from a farm and live on planet Earth,” said Richardson as to why he took on this project. “Agriculture is the biggest impact on the planet. It’s the biggest human endeavor; it covers 49% of the habitable land. I expect that in 25 years, the 49% will grow to 65%. If we expand to 10 billion people and they all want to move their diet into the ‘middle class’ diet that we enjoy, lots of cheeseburgers and steaks, we will have to double food output in the next 25 years. How do we do that, without just taking more land and enlarging the footprint?” he said.

Nanette Kuich, education director for Betty Ford Alpine Gardens shared that, according to Project Drawdown’s list of the top 80 ways to reduce greenhouse gases, “Regenerative Agriculture” is number 11 and “Conservation Agriculture” is number 16. Project Drawdown is an international research group that works with policy-makers, business representatives, investors, and nonprofits to promote best practices for preventing and reversing climate change.

Regenerative agriculture practices include refraining from tilling the land, planting diverse cover crops, eliminating use of external nutrients to promote in-farm fertility, eliminating pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and practicing multiple crop rotations. Carbon loss in soil is also a major problem: by bringing it back to the soil through regenerative agriculture, we can address human and climate health as well as the financial well-being of farmers.

And this all takes us back to roots.

“We want to show what perennial plants look like and what their value is to producing soil,” Kuich said.

“Even though farming is not one of our major industries in our area, all this affects our climate which, in turn, affects our alpine ecosystem,” Richardson said. “Healthy prairie has never been plowed. One hundred fifty years ago, there was almost 40 inches of topsoil on agricultural land. Now it’s down to only 18 inches of topsoil and clay underneath. The remaining soil has half as much carbon left as 150 years ago, so, if you calculated that, what you find is that in 150 years they burned through 75% of their carbon.”

Deep roots are the essential link in this scenario.

Our cycle of farming is centered on annual grasses, like corn, soybeans and wheat. These have very shallow root systems, are tilled up seasonally, and give nothing back to the soil. Soil is the landholder of billions of organisms, thousands of species. In one teaspoon of rich soil, Richardson said, there are over 75,000 species and 7 billion organisms. The problem is, with repeated tilling and replanting new crops, we aren’t taking care of that soil. Nitrogen-dense fertilizer and pesticides kill those organisms. The chemicals run off into our watersheds, where it kills the plant life and animal life there, creating “dead zones.” That’s exactly how the Dust Bowl of the 1930s happened: poor agriculture practices created a top layer of loose dirt which, combined with an extended drought, blew away.

Deep-rooted plants have history, so to speak. They have been digging deep in that soil and hold everything down, keep it secure. When weather conditions are inclement, they tap into water deep down and keep the earth in place.

Preventing another ecological crisis like the Dust Bowl is easy as respecting the earth.

“Sustainable farming; no till, for one. The plow is very destructive because you are turning over soil every year. An analogy is that if you build a fire in a fireplace and it burns strong for a while. When it burns down, you turn it over to expose more oxygen and fuel (carbon) and it burns for a while, but not as high. You do it again, and you get some flame but not as much. Pretty soon, you have no fuel left. That, essentially, is what plowing does,” Richardson said. “It’s only now that people are getting on board that soil is a very complex, living organism, and we don’t know exactly how it’s working down there. The roots can’t take up the minerals directly. Instead, they put out some sugars and enzymes that attract the kind of bacteria that gets minerals out of the soil that they need. It’s a complex and symbiotic relationship. No-till or organic farming is complex and takes a lot of time, planning and knowledge. The more conventional farmer is basically buying simpler solutions, though not necessarily cheaper. People want simple answers, and there is no dearth of people who will dispense simple answers. It all sounds good when you’re hearing someone talk it.”

There are many other ways that agricultural practices could turn our Earth around, including inter-planting (alternating rows of perennials and annuals), covering crops during off season, crop rotation, and even using animals for grazing that recycle the nutrients through their manure.

New perennial crops are being developed by organizations such as the Land Institute in Kansas. Kernza is one grain that could, possibly, substitute for the annual wheat. In China, the Land Institute has helped plant 133,000 acres of a perennial rice that is producing as much as the typical annual rice.

But some farmers are still hesitant to adopt these practices for a few reasons. Some of their land may be unproductive, and they would have to stop putting in manufactured fertilizers on the soil. They may have to replace equipment. This other process takes time, but there are farmers who are doing this right now.

Richardson summarized it beautifully.

“To see the incredible lengths that plants go to tap into all the resources that are available in the soil is pretty impressive,” he said.

To learn more about roots, responsible agriculture, sustainable farming and how all three are interconnected, visit the exhibit. For more information about the gardens, visit bettyfordalpinegardens.org.