Politically Correct Planting

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

MONTHS before the crocuses peep through the snow or the barn swallows chatter about their return from points south, there are signs aplenty of impending spring for those who know where to look on the small farm in Virginia where I live. None are so ominous, however, as the trays in the refrigerator. Long before the final frost they begin to appear -- a few at first, and then an invading army that settles in for an extended siege. Filled with potting soil and scores of practically invisible seeds, they are the seasonal harbingers of what I have come to think of as The Project -- my wife's efforts to turn 3,600 square feet of dirt into a garden of native perennials.

Thirty-six hundred square feet is about a twelfth of an acre, a laughably small patch of ground by the agricultural yardstick of our neighborhood. But it is alarming just how many plants it takes to fill a plot that size, and all the more so when the seeds of the plants in question must live in one's refrigerator for two months before they will germinate. (Just a few, mercifully, require an additional sojourn in the freezer compartment.) This has been going on for years now, and there is no end in sight.

We decided to concentrate on native plants and those cultivated in America before 1800, for no particular reason that I can remember now other than that it seemed in keeping with Alexander Pope's famous gardening exhortation to "consult the genius of the place." Our place includes, if not much evident genius, at least a log cabin and a rolling pasture secure for the moment against the advancing tide of townhouses. Although the tinge of nostalgia in our choice was undeniable, wildflowers and other native plants did seem more in keeping with the surroundings -- and also less fussy once past the refrigerator stage of their lives -- than gaudier and more temperamental garden standards such as roses and peonies, imports from distant shores.

Many of the native plants that now flank the oystershell walks of our square garden are pretty and elegant things, fully justifying their frequent description in the reference books as "unjustifiably neglected." A favorite of mine is Amsonia tabernaemontana, also known as blue star, which with its small clusters of steel-blue flowers has what one of these books calls an "understated grace." A tendency toward the exotic and showy has long dominated the American flower-breeding scene, and there is certainly nothing understated about the names given to conventional flower varieties. "Olympic Fire," "Hot Lips," and "Boy O' Boy" are a few of the tamer ones. Amsonia, on the other hand, this book goes on to observe, "certainly ... will never be called 'Mae West.'"

Another native perennial I have come to know and love for its simple elegance is Baptisia alba, white false indigo, which puts out a fine chain of white wisteria-like blooms against a deep-purple stem. A member of the legume family, it forms pealike seed pods that last until fall, a homey touch in the perennial border.

ONCE we had made what was at the time a rather casual, even naive, decision to grow only native and traditional plants in our ornamental garden, one thing quickly led to another. Starting from seed proved to be largely a matter of necessity. Many native plants are simply not part of the nursery trade: it's seeds or nothing. And when tiny bare-root plants or cuttings were available, through mail-order suppliers that specialize in native plants, prices often seemed prohibitive.

The short shrift given local species is an old story and an odd one, and I can understand why native-plant enthusiasts tend to feel so strongly about their enthusiasm. They must fight a battle not only against what the textbooks call the "complex dormancy systems" of many of these species (hence the refrigerator sessions) but also against indifference, neglect, and even a want of proper patriotic feeling. In 1851 one American horticulturist wrote,

Nothing strikes foreign horticulturists and amateurs so much as this apathy and indifference of Americans to the beautiful sylvan and floral products of their own country. An enthusiastic collector in Belgium first made us keenly sensible of this condition of our countrymen last summer, in describing the difficulty he had in procuring from any of his correspondents here, American seeds or plants.... "In a country of azaleas, kalmias, rhododendrons, cypripediums, magnolias and nyssas [he wrote] -- the loveliest flowers, shrubs, and trees of temperate climates -- you never put them in your gardens, but send over the water every year for thousands of dollars worth of English larches and Dutch hyacinths. Voilà le goût Républicain!"

I was prepared for the whiff of chauvinism, even xenophobia, that hovers around those who take up the cause of native species; I was aware, too, that a sort of reverse snobbery has long been attached to the cultivation of understated flowers, and growing only native understated flowers could seem too refined for words.

What I was not prepared for was the discovery that in dutifully hauling cartloads of muck and mulch each spring and acquiescing in the de facto annexation of my refrigerator each winter, I had become a marcher in a moral crusade to save the planet. This disconcerting fact came to my attention recently when I picked up a copy of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Handbook #157, "Starting From Seed." There is not a lot about starting from seed in this pamphlet. What there is a lot about is repairing the tattered fabric of local ecosystems, resisting the hegemony of "a handful of multinational corporations" and "agrichemical conglomerates," protecting the world's "irreplaceable genetic wealth," and, yes, preserving "Spaceship Earth."

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."

IS there anything to all of this? Can we really save (or destroy) the planet in our very own back yards?

The basic claims of the horticultural nativists seem to fall into two categories. One is what might be termed direct effects. Several thousand native plant species are considered to be under threat from habitat destruction or competition from alien species. Accidental imports that stowed away in ships' ballast or animal bedding and took root on American soil, or deliberate imports, such as cornflower and English ivy, that jumped the garden fence and ran wild, now make up as much as a quarter of the wild flora of New England; certain regions, such as the Hawaiian Islands, face an even more acute threat from escaped imports. Native plants provide habitat for other plant and animal species, so their loss threatens to have extended ecological consequences. By eschewing particularly invasive and escape-prone aliens, gardeners can diminish the pressure on native species in their vicinity. (On the other hand, an embarrassingly large number of alien and highly invasive plants turn out to contribute valuable food and habitat to endangered fauna, including monarch butterflies and a number of birds.)

And by cultivating rare native plants, gardeners can help to ensure that these species survive even if they vanish altogether from the wild. Steven Clemants, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's director of science, notes that a number of cultivated native plants have already disappeared from the wild in America; franklinia, a beautiful flowering tree discovered in the late eighteenth century by the American botanist John Bartram along the Altamaha River in Georgia, has never been seen in the wild since. All franklinias in gardens today are probably derived from the specimens Bartram collected.

Of course, there is a danger that enthusiastic native-plant gardeners will create a demand for rare species that will be met not by propagation by ethical nurserymen but by illegal collecting from the wild. That has certainly been the fate of some much-coveted orchids and cacti.

The second argument about backyard biodiversity, which is made far more often and with considerably more passion, is an indirect one -- that the gene pools of even well-established cultivated species are being dangerously diminished by the practices of seed companies. Since the 1940s plant developers have increasingly dropped old standard varieties in favor of hybrids, which are produced by pollinating plants from one breeding line with the pollen from another and then collecting the seeds that result. Conventional plant breeding involves repeatedly selecting individual plants that show a desirable characteristic, such as disease resistance or high yield or earliness. But strains that happen to have one of these desirable traits often have severe shortcomings in other departments that can be weeded out only by selective breeding over many generations. Hybridization allows for a swift melding of the best traits of several different strains. Moreover, there is a long-recognized bonanza inherent in the very act of hybridization -- hybrid vigor. Crossing two genetically diverse parents tends to cancel out debilitating recessive traits that can become fixed in an inbred line. Thus hybrid seeds produce plants with qualities that are far more consistent than, and often far superior to, those of either of the parent lines. Hybrids are the force that fomented the Green Revolution, more than doubling the yield per acre of rice, corn, and other grains.

But the unique combination of traits produced during hybridization is lost in the next generation. Even when a hybrid plant pollinates itself, its genes recombine by the laws of chance; the seeds a hybrid produces carry a spectrum of unpredictable traits. The only way to reproduce the hybrid's desirable characteristics is by recrossing the parent lines each year. In other words, the farmer or gardener has to go back to the seed company each year for fresh seed. That fact has perhaps inevitably reinforced the feeling on the part of grassroots enthusiasts that they are striking a blow for the common man, as well as for biodiversity, by refusing to embrace the hybrid revolution. By growing "open-pollinated" -- that is, nonhybrid -- strains of vegetables and flowers, the seed savers argue, they are maintaining a living, standing library of genetic diversity that may be crucial to the viability of these species. To quote from "Starting From Seed,"

The genetic diversity of food crops everywhere is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate.... without ... infusions of genetic diversity, food production worldwide is at risk from epidemics and infestations.... about six percent of all vegetable varieties are dropped from seed catalogs every year.... the varieties that are dropped often represent the life's work of several generations of gardeners or breeders.

One frequently cited example of the danger of relying on hybrids is the 1970 outbreak of southern corn blight, which destroyed 15 percent of the corn crop in the United States; subsequent investigation showed that 71 percent of the U.S. crop that year had been planted in six hybrid varieties that all carried a previously undetected genetic susceptibility to the disease.

The trouble with this line of argument for backyard biodiversity, however, is that the heirloom open-pollinated varieties grown by home gardeners are hardly the last bastion of genetic diversity. In fact, they are not even a terribly significant one. The mistake of 1970 was not corrected by someone who had ordered Hopi Magenta Parch Corn from the Seeds of Change catalogue; it was corrected by those "agrichemical conglomerates" who have been systematically collecting and preserving samples of corn strains from all over the world on a huge scale. Tapping into their germ-plasm libraries, the companies were quickly able to develop new hybrids that eliminated the defective gene. Indeed, the very business of producing hybrids creates an enormous incentive for the discovery and preservation of what breeders usually term "landraces" -- traditional open-pollinated varieties.

William Niebur, the director of maize research for Pioneer Hi-Bred, the major producer of hybrid corn, says that "from a historical perspective every hybrid represents the crossing of, conservatively, twenty-five to seventy-five different genetic families." Pioneer maintains, in cold storage, seeds representing every original strain it has worked with since the 1920s; the company also carries out field tests of more than 100,000 new corn hybrids each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a vast national germ-plasm bank as well. "If the genetic diversity is effectively maintained in the public or private sector on reserve, has it been lost?" Niebur asks.

In fact, rather than preserving diversity, replanting seed saved each year from open-pollinated varieties may result in a loss of old strains, since it will almost surely cause significant change owing to natural selection and random genetic "drift"; eventually the heirloom variety lovingly tended year after year will resemble its ancestor no more than a CD player resembles a Victrola. To insist that the only way to preserve traditional strains is to grow them in gardens is a bit like saying that the only way to preserve Model T Fords is to drive them to the store every day. Most people would think that keeping them in museums, where they can be conserved and studied, is as good an idea, if not a better one.

One recurring theme in modern environmentalism has been the tendency to take often trivial and intensely personal choices and elevate them to the status of global moral imperatives. I am not sure whether this tendency simply reflects misguided earnestness or indicates something deeper -- a wish to justify and give a sense of importance and high drama to the many trivial and intensely personal choices we make in our lives. But I am reasonably certain that when I wavered over a choice between the Crete Hybrid Muskmelon and the Jenny Lind Heirloom Melon as I filled out my seed order this winter, the world did not tremble.

Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of (1998).

Illustrations by Robert Zimmerman.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Politically Correct Planting - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 118-123.