September was a very exciting month for me as I was invited to give a presentation for the St. Louis innovation think-tank, Openly Disruptive. The meeting was on the topic of food & sustainability and I ended up speaking on 3 ideas where electro-horticulture would be of benefit to urban agriculture. It was a great event and I’ll share more about it once the video is posted online. The only thing that I would like to mention is that the speaker before me spoke a great deal about food forests and permaculture – which re-sparked some thoughts I had regarding how electricity could be used in those settings.

Food Forest

Food Forest


Initial Thoughts of Mixing Electricity & Permaculture

I was insopired while hanging out at a friend’s house who wanted to have a garden in their back yard. While their yard seemed to be very shady, they thought that the bigger problem was their enormous black walnut tree, and the toxic root exudate that it produces, juglone.

Knowing that electric fields in soil are capable of a number of useful effects, I came up with two ideas:

  • Using electricity to transport toxic root exudates away from our crop
  • Using electricity to move our crop’s roots away from the tree’s roots.

Electronic Transport of Plants’ Root Exudates

In case you didn’t know, it’s possible to use DC electric fields to transport a range of ionic substances from one area to another. This is commonly used in high-tech biomedical systems ranging from microfluidic systems to the analysis of DNA using gel electrophoresis. If it could be used in the lab, then how about outdoors, in the soil? In one form of remediation or toxic waste cleanup, a technique known as electrokinetic remediation uses strong electric fields to draw charged contaminants towards special electrodes that enable the toxic substances to be sucked out of the ground (reference). Using the same method, but at much lower power, I thought that perhaps it would be possible to move the toxic root exudate that black walnut produces away from any desired plantings. If juglone can be transported through the soil using some form of electromigration, then there is a chance this may work.

Electronic Movement of Root Systems Away From Toxic Exudates

There may be another solution. One researcher of plant electrophysiology, Andrew Goldsworthy, applied external electric fields to callus cultures, and found that newly forming root cells had a charge associated with them, and found that they grew towards the oppositely charged electrode.

Perhaps this could be used to help direct the roots of a plant we desire to nurture away from roots that emit toxins.

Realize that in a simple configuration, when the field is applied, both sets of roots will grow in the same direction. I suppose that the placement of the electrodes, their polarity, and the age and spatial relationship between the different plant species will make a difference.  This could be a really cool topic of exploration!


Do you think either of these approaches will work? Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

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  • Adam Beatty

    From what I understand thus far about the effects of magnetism on roots; there does appear to be some connectivity with them.

    Apparently the Earth’s magnetic fields have an effect on root growth also; notice the way a lightening bolt forms and the way tap roots form; perhaps there is connectivity between the pull of gravity and root growth; roots will take the path of least resistance also.

  • Cris Bessette

    To me “Permaculture” implies limiting outside inputs. I don’t understand where the electricity would come from. Being that the ground is “grounded” electrically to the Earth, one would have to pump possibly hundreds to thousands of volts into it to overcome the grounding effect I imagine.

  • Martolt

    There is a large voltage potential gradient from ground going up to the ionosphere. Electrical force drives many, if not all, natural processes. Look at a topo map, a Lichtenberg figure, a tree, lightning, etc. and they all exhibit the exact same fractal pattern. This is not by coincidence.

    So, putting an electrode above the plant to enhance the natural electric field seems reasonable enough. The history of electroculture goes back to the 19th century, and some amazing work by a variety of French, German and English researchers (much like the entire modern world itself, I suppose).