Here’s a preview of the first half of my speech to be given this Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4, at 1:30 P.M. Come hear the rest of it!
Part 1, New American Sun Garden
I’m going to talk today about the future of plant breeding from the unique perspective of someone who has been in the industry and had a front row seat to cutting edge flower and vegetable breeding for over 30 years.
The number one rule in plant breeding is that you are creating a plant for a specific garden, which is a literally unique space and time, which is to say, in the precise place and during the exact time that the customer wants to enjoy it.
Put a simpler way: the context of plant breeding is the home of the consumer. Therefore, it is the home of the consumer that gives plant breeding its meaning and either its rightness or wrongness.
Here are a couple of illustrations to make this point. First, there are in America—in the entire United States—approximately 5 million brand new single-family homes with substantial yards in the middle of what was once either very recently a farmer’s field or perhaps, long ago, an abandoned meadow or simply an expanse of barren land. Add these to the similar millions recently built, or built since the 1960s. Millions and millions of yards, and potential gardens, with absolutely no shade other than the amount cast by the house at dawn and dusk, and then only if it’s two stories high. Ranch houses cast virtually no shade in a yard.
Also, we are including here a large part of the North American continent that is subject to a tropical type of climate during almost half of the year, and in a substantial part of this area, well over half the year is hot, sunny and subject to swings in relative humidity—in other words, a sub-tropical climate.
So the context of the breeding of new plants for this particular consumer’s home is that this person has absolutely no shade. The yard and garden bakes in the summer sun. This poses a number of challenges and opportunities, the most obvious being a vegetable garden. It also brings up the most profound questions in landscape design, and it is not an obvious one, just as it is not an easy one to answer: Where do I put a tree? Think about it. Imagine it. The answer initiates the entire process of a “blank page” garden design. It is especially profound for someone who has a yard of 1/4, 1/2 or 2/3 of an acre in the middle of nowhere, so to speak, with no trees. Many of our rural North American ancestors knew where to place them—they’d line them along the windward side of the farmhouse to shield it from the blowing winter cold. Up in western Canada they actually place them in a spoiler or wind shear formation surrounding three quarters of the house.
This situation can become complicated by what is called a homeowner’s association or a community that was planned to have only certain types of landscapes in the yards, as well as “transition areas”, a euphemism for the spaces where the houses have been built.
In other words, it may be that you aren’t allowed to plant a tree. However, you may be allowed to plant miniature shade trees and shrubs. Another effective structure is fencing. Fencing and trees have a lot in common. In fact, in the history of civilization they have often been in association and sometimes one and the same. I believe that, like walls, fences are at the heart of civilization. However, especially in today’s world, they need trees to grace them, so to speak, to soften them, to decorate them. Personally, I love chain-link fence, as odd as that seems to many people. The reason is simple: I can see through it. Vines love it as well. However, a fence may also become a shade structure in and off itself.
So the new shade garden of today for many Americans is extraordinarily different from what used to be called “the shade garden”. In the 50s a shade garden consisted of 20-30 foot oaks and elms, ashes, beeches and maples, with enormous canopies, as well as many smaller trees towering over a yard, or yards, in a neighborhood that stretched through town after town throughout the northeast as well as many parts of the urban south and even in the old cities of the Midwest and west.
Not true today. This is what I mean by the context of breeding being the home of the consumer. A classic example is impatiens. Today’s impatiens have to hold up under partial to full sunlight. However, they were bred originally for part to full shade, and they originated in the deep shade of tropical jungle riverbanks. There are few places shadier in which flowering plants can evolve.
New physical space equals new context. And the new physical place of many new homeowners, as well as future homeowners, is in the Midwest, the plain states, the inland west and the vast and treeless southwest. Therefore, from breeders of trees and nursery plants all the way to the most petite and dainty plants used for groundcovers and edging beds, today’s plant breeders are faced with brand new challenges. We must create shorter trees with enhanced canopies; new shrubs that are more sun tolerant than ever before; and herbaceous annuals and perennials that not only tolerate sun and heat but also, because of the remoteness of water in cornfields and abandoned meadows, tolerate much lower levels of water. This is a new environment, as was the leafy, forested suburbs to the city-dwellers who began migrating to them 100 years ago.
An interesting thing about the New American Sun Garden: it is a reiteration on a microscopic level of the early settlement of the Midwestern and central plains states—a huge area roughly between the Mississippi Valley and the Rockies and from Canada to Mexico—that is predominantly treeless. A few small woodlands follow the larger river valleys here and there, but they are swallowed by an ocean-sized space of strong winds, extremes of rain and drought and little else but grasses, which when seasonally burning, destroy all woody shrubs. Therefore, short and green (or “wet”) trees evolved but had no value to settlers who had to import trees from East, West and even overseas. Virtually all their tall trees adapted to become shorter. So, we can imagine our backyard treeless meadow or cornfield sub-division as the great plains states—whether low plains of Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska or high plains of Colorado and Wyoming—writ very small, like a hobby scale model. So, if you face this situation, don’t feel bad: you’re part of a continental landscape fraternity. What the early settlers of the nation had to do collectively, you have to do individually.