The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Understanding Roots

Understanding RootsRobert Kourik recently sent me a review copy of his newest book, Understanding Roots, and I highly recommend it...for about 30% of our readers. Those of you who love my geekiest posts, who aren't afraid of numbers, and who are willing to read critically (Jake, I'm looking at you) will find Understanding Roots both intriguing and thought-provoking. On the other hand, readers who come here for the pretty pictures and whose eyes glaze over when I start rambling on at length should probably skip this one.

If you've read some of Kourik's other books, you'll know that the author has an intellectual crush on Dr. John Weaver, who spent his entire career excavating soil to draw meticulous maps of plants' roots in Nebraska. While Understanding Roots does include many additional Weaver root maps, though, Kourik delved a little deeper this time around and included drawings from other sources as well. This is handy since the German scientists he tracked down, for example, generally found much shallower roots for the same species of plants compared to those Weaver drew. This shouldn't be entirely surprising --- the deep soil of the Great Plains makes it much easier for roots to delve deep, so those of us with poorer soil will likely be dealing with considerably shallower roots than those shown in Kourik's previous books.

Another intriguing point from Understanding Roots pertains to dynamic accumulators. We've all heard the stories --- comfrey roots extend many feet into the ground and suck up leached nutrients, which they return to the soil surface for the use of other plants. But how true are the stories? Comfrey rootsKourik assessed the data and discovered that most dynamic accumulators merely concentrate nutrients from the topsoil, using deep roots (if present) to search for water during droughts. In fact, the vast majority of comfrey roots are found in the top foot of soil just like the roots of most other plants. This is where the nutrients are highest, oxygen is most plentiful, and beneficial microorganisms proliferate.

In the end, Kourik's book is bountifully illustrated and full of sound science. But it's definitely a text for the thinking gardener to curl up with in front of the wood stove during a long winter night rather than a how-to manual to inspire you to dive into the summer garden. So pick up this book only if you're looking for a thought-provoking text to help you reach the next level as a permaculture gardener.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I downloaded the sample pages from this book the other day and was thinking about buying it, but I wasn't sure it would be worth the effort. What strange timing that you would review it now!
Comment by Ken Sun Sep 20 16:45:58 2015
Anna, did you learn anything from the book that will lead to changes or experiments in your garden?
Comment by De Mon Sep 21 07:42:35 2015

Ken --- So glad I could help! :-)

De --- That's a good question. I'd probably have to say no, although there were some interesting tidbits that supported my existing techniques. For example, he found that oat roots are some of the most extensive of the grain cover crops and oilseed radishes seem to make more phosphorus available in the top six inches of soil. But I already love both of those cover crops, so I didn't need to be sold on them again. :-)

Comment by anna Mon Sep 21 13:11:54 2015

Hello! I just saw this page and I really hope it is still active. I would really like to use the book as a reference. But I have to write my text in a week and I live in Belgium so the book will never arive in time. My question is if u could tell me on which page he cites that deep roots don't always take up nutrients from deeper layers, but often use it as nutrient storage etc. This would help me a lot! It is for my bachelor paper about Comfrey and it's use in a food forest! Thank u in advance!

Comment by Mariska Sun May 2 06:19:37 2021

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