Properly inoculated with mycorrhizae, alfalfa is an excellent nitrogen fixer. However, when harvested, most of the nitrogen goes with the harvest.

When we think of the atmosphere, and its necessity in sustaining life, we are thinking of oxygen and for plants, CO₂. There is another chemical though, a clear odorless and tasteless gas at room temperature, that makes up almost 80 percent of what we call air, and is just as essential for life—nitrogen or dinitrogen, N₂.

Nitrogen is a primary nutrient critical for all living organisms. Nitrogen’s influence starts at the very root of who we are. It is a core element in the formation of DNA and RNA, and every amino acid, the building blocks of proteins, has at least one nitrogen atom, often more than one. And that goes for every living thing.

The struggle with nitrogen is not that it is in limited supply. With an atmosphere full of the stuff there shouldn’t be a problem getting all the nitrogen we need, right? Well, it isn’t as simple as that. The nitrogen in the atmosphere is N₂, a form of nitrogen unavailable to most living organisms. It is like being in a life raft in the middle of the ocean and not having a drop of water to drink. Somehow, dinitrogen needs to be converted into the, “ammonia (NH3) form of nitrogen in order to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, and other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life” (College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University).

There are several pathways for converting N₂ into NH3. All of them require the assistance of organisms we tend to have little respect for such as bacteria, blue-green algae (now called cyanobacteria), lichens and fungi. The process is called nitrogen fixation and is one of five steps along the nitrogen cycle.

While nitrogen fixation by these organisms is significant and crucial to life on earth, there is one special relationship that moves nitrogen fixation into hyperdrive. This is when members of the legume family of plants, peas, beans, peanuts, alfalfa, sainfoin, clover and many more, partner with bacteria to fix huge amounts of nitrogen. While a natural system dependent upon lichens, blue-green algae and fungi may fix (remove N₂ from the atmosphere and convert it to NH3) five pounds per acre annually, in a natural setting, legumes may add 25-75 pounds annually. In a crop setting that number can jump to 200 pounds per acre.

This partnership takes place on the roots of the plants where they provide homes for the bacteria in the form of pea-sized nodules. The plants provide energy to the bacteria which in turn provide nitrogen to the plants.

If you are a gardener, you have probably heard that planting peas or beans next to other plants is a good way to provide natural fertilizer. For the most part, that is a myth, as most of the nitrogen is used by the intended plant and only small amounts escape to be available to neighbors. It is not even true that planting nitrogen fixing legumes (not all legumes do this) will automatically enrich the soil. If you harvest the crop of peas or beans, for example, the vast majority of the nitrogen will leave with the crop. The best way to get the benefit of nitrogen fixation is to till the crop under so that all the nitrogen remains in the soil.

Finally, in order for nitrogen fixation to occur, the bacteria must be present in the soil, and it has to be the right bacteria for the plant. These bacteria are called mycorrhizae and are very specific to their host plant. Mycorrhizae for beans will not work for alfalfa. Fortunately, mycorrhizal spores are readily available for most legumes.

The more I study about the natural order of this world of ours, the more impressed I am with the myriad interdependencies that support life here. It is a complex world out there.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho