Politically Correct Planting

When gardening becomes a crusade, it's time to pause and take stock

In retrospect, there were warning signs that this was coming. I have subscribed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's handbook series for a number of years, and looking back can trace a steady evolution from nuts and bolts to the Meaning of It All. The series used to be called the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, and it was notable for its small type and many pages of raw data cataloguing various plants and describing their soil and cultivation requirements. But at a certain point it shed its fusty title in favor of the "21st-Century Gardening Series" (several years early); the type started getting bigger, and the word "diversity" started appearing with increasing frequency. Articles from the BBG began frowning on lawns and clipped hedges and warning that unnatural intrusions on the landscape such as herbs and vegetables had best be confined to the immediate vicinity of the house, where they presumably can be kept under close observation for any signs of threatening the biodiversity of the planet. Farther away from the house we are advised to "increase the degree of wildness" and "release" existing plant communities from "the grip of alien shrubs and vines." One special issue of the 21st-Century Gardening Series was devoted to combating the invasion of alien species, another to the complementary virtues of native plants. Most recently came "Starting From Seed," which in places seems more a sort of New Age spiritual guide than a gardening handbook.

There are other indications that we are in the midst of a full-blown movement here. Weighty books with titles like Gardening the Gene Pool in Your Own Backyard are appearing. Organized groups with names like Seed Savers Exchange and Flower & Herb Exchange are rising up with the avowed aim of preserving "heirloom" varieties and challenging the hegemony of the seed companies. The seed giant W. Atlee Burpee is apparently worried enough by all this that it has countered with its "Burpee Heirlooms" catalogue, illustrated with lithographs from its catalogues of a century ago.

What makes this a movement, rather than simply a hobby like collecting old phonograph records, is the ideological drumbeat that accompanies almost every piece of prose on the subject. People who collect old phonograph records may think that big-band music is superior to rap; they may think that Caruso was a better singer than Pavarotti; some may even think that vinyl records sound better than CDs. But none, so far as I can tell, think they are saving the planet by indulging in what most of us would view as a simple personal choice of leisure-time pursuit.

Nor, I imagine, do people who collect old phonograph records have as little fun as the native-and-heirloom and grow-it-from-seed crusaders seem to much of the time. The hectoring and moralistic tone of much of their literature is instantly recognizable to readers of a certain kind of environmental writing. A typical offering in this genre is a classroom study guide on native plants and preserving genetic diversity published by the Missouri Botanical Garden, which asks students to engage in thought-provoking exercises -- for example, "List five ways in which your life would be different if the world's tomato crops were suddenly decimated by a disease." ("We'll only have V-7 juice from now on"?)

The most all-encompassing exhortation I encountered to grow native and heirloom vegetables and flowers from seed was from a company called Seeds of Change, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Its catalogue is a strikingly handsome four-color publication with the usual seductive pictures of riotous green abundance and nary a corn borer or weed, and for that matter not even much dirt, in sight. But that's where the resemblance to the ordinary ends. Interspersed with listings for Anasazi Flour Corn and Indian Woman Yellow Dry Bush Bean ("RARE, TRADITIONAL"), Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage ("HEIRLOOM"), and calendula, a.k.a. pot marigold ("TRADITIONAL, MEDICINAL") are promises that by growing traditional and native plants from seed one can save "the world's fragile gene pool," experience "the intense interconnectedness" of the earth and the "unity of the biosphere," improve one's health, reverse the depletion of nonrenewable resources, resist social disruption in rural communities, and a few more things that I forget.

Earlier publications on heirloom vegetables tended to emphasize the idea that traditional varieties taste better, and there is some truth to that: some (though by no means all) of the modern hybrid varieties have been developed to meet the demands of commercial growers, who often value shelf life and time of ripening over taste. But many heirloom varieties are, frankly, not as good as hybrids available now. A number of hybrid strains of tomatoes are resistant to plagues such as fusarium and verticillium wilt, tobacco mosaic virus, and nematodes, which have driven home gardeners to distraction. New varieties of sweet corn are much sweeter and more flavorful, and keep that sweetness and flavor for hours, as opposed to minutes, after they're picked. This may explain why proponents of heirlooms are shifting to more cosmic justifications for their cause.

Saving the planet does not come cheap, I should add. Many heirloom varieties retail for as much as or more than the latest hybrids. A 150 mg packet (about 1/200 of an ounce) of Certified Organic Burbank Red Slicing Heirloom Tomato seed goes for $2.29 at Seeds of Change; Burpee sells its Early Girl hybrid tomato seed for about one third that per gram.

For those ready to advance to the next level of consciousness, Seeds of Change offers its "Deep Diversity" catalogue ($6.00, but availability is "limited"), which contains hundreds of additional varieties for "serious and adventuresome gardeners and seed savers dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity."

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