New Plant Frontiers

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 at 3:29 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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14 Responses to “New Plant Frontiers”

  1. Connie said:

    The homeowner associations must rethink their restrictions. They are mostly about keeping the development all looking alike, visual continuity, if you will. Sustainability considerations (not to mention mental health concerns- don’t get me started) require these little plots to, yes, be treated as an overall whole, but not just concerning the color of the garage door and similar shrubbery. As you pointed out, planting wind belts would make a huge difference in the living and gardening environment. Using varieties of regionally native plants would help maintain our wild birds, and serious research should suggest trees that use water sparingly.

    As a garden designer and student of habitat restoration, I am depending on you, George, to provide me with desirable plants to nurture the bodies and souls of my clients and the beautiful world of nature from which they carve out their homes.

  2. pn said:

    This is most interesting – I really enjoy looking at topics from a wider perspective like this. Please send more! Thanks –

  3. Terri said:

    What a fascinating job to have ! I consider you lucky. This is something I would love to do. I do not have enough space. I crossed my own orchids had the seed pods and the person to plate them, then it dawned on me-where am I going to raise all these hundreds of babies?
    I would tell you to tell all these people to start planting as many trees as possible the earth is going to need them now more than ever.

  4. bfish said:

    George, this is an interesting piece and not without implied criticisms of the “planned community” or just good old subdivision. Here in south-central-eastern VA we have plenty of houses built on farmland or deforested areas, as well as woodland and older cities and towns w/ established large trees. Home buyers have a choice; for me having a lot with many old trees is THE #1 selection criterion for buying a house — not schools, location, traffic, or even what the house is like. A house can be remodeled to meet the owners’ functional and aesthetic requirements; an 80′ pine, oak, or tulip poplar, on the other hand, can’t be grown to its majestic mature state in my lifetime.

    I’m doing my part to try to maintain the planet’s oxygen/carbon dioxide balance; I’d love to have even more property than I do so I could start some new big trees for the next generation (but am settling for lots of understory trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses — all aimed at both beautifying and enhancing wildlife habitats). Yes, the color and style of the mailbox, fence style, house colors, and all being dictated by “covenants” is anathema; the possibility of being proscribed from planting trees and landscaping to my personal choice is even worse.

    I realize you’re developing and growing plant materials to sell to the bulk of consumers who have the “blank slate”, scorched-earth gardens — that makes business sense for Heronswood and Burpee to make this market a focus. However, please don’t give short shrift to those of us who seek out shady sites and love gardening under massive tree canopies!

    Thanks for providing your thought-provoking posts to comment on.

  5. Katherine Morgan said:

    George, I wish I could come to hear the rest of your speech. I am in Illinois, money is tight, traveling to Pennsylvania would be a great luxury in the present economy. That does not stop me however from enjoying your word(s) in the Heronswood Voice. You are a treat, one only discovered this spring. You already feel like an old friend – oh, to enjoy a comfortable rocker basking in the low and warm sun of spring while sipping “George’s Magic Water” and stroking our dogs while we bantered about the birds, the greener side of life and the eternal promise of life renewed as we watch the tree leaves unfold. Thank You George for helping me tap into my inner peace and enjoy the world more pleasantly during these tough and trying times. Kate

  6. shannon Wiggins said:

    I agree! We built a house 4 years ago in the middle of a horse pasture!(South Ms is HOT!) Great fertilizer and things grow very well! We are slowly getting a yard! we have bradford pear trees and lots of full sun flowers! I enjoy your emails and get lots of tips. I am trying a vegtable garden for the first time this year!

  7. Sheila Paige said:

    Thank you, Mr. Ball, for all the wonderful things I’ve learned on this delightful and engaging site; I am passing along things as well. Good to know that thoughtful ideas and observations are still in vogue – somewhere!

  8. Susan said:

    Please don’t forget those of us who still live in urban neighborhoods, large & small cities, with beautiful large trees that shade our lots and keep our soils dry. We love our trees, enjoy attracting wild life into the city, but struggle to have a little color in the garden during the summer. “Moist but well drained” is mythical here! So many shade plants languish in our shade. Many of our cities are revitalizing as people move back into the old neighborhoods looking for more sustainable neighborhoods. We need good plants too!

  9. Cindy said:

    Interesting. My job is landscape maintenance, so I work mostly with installed gardens, or garden problems. I have worked at this for over 20 years, and most of the answers are in the particular plant or soils or products and water and how they are used. Personally, after taking care of the usual plants all this time, I like to find something a little different for my own yard. I live in an area which still has alot of trees, but down the road in the Valley, there are miles and miles of subdivisions of exactly what you are talking about. Most of their plants will come from the big box stores in the areas, until the next big flood.
    I have never had so many people suddenly interested in growing vegetables as this year. My garden has fed me for the last two years, as I can’t afford the food from stores anymore. The joy from growing my own seeds and produce is wonderful. I am currently installing a big irrigation system on one property which will automate water to vegetable garden, ornamentals, trees, livestock, and lawn, because the water company has asked us to do so to save water. Just the thought of not having to drag hoses anymore is such a timesaver, plus I will save quite a bit in gas not having to drive out there so much.
    Alot of us are getting older, and need beds that can be reached from a chair. The gardening chores, which are such a pleasure, need to be easier for people. Ideas like higher beds, gardening up the surface of walls or fences, or any vertical surfaces, and automated watering systems, is helpful. Aside from being older, some folks just work so much they have little time for a garden. So, what can make it easier? I have always loved espaliered trees, and see them more than ever now.
    Thanks for your article. I can’t come to hear the rest either. Have to work. It is always interesting to see what you are coming up with. People are so delighted to be helped with just one plant.

  10. Joanne O said:

    I expected to read a little ditty about new garden plants but when I read the start of your essay “New American Sun Garden” I found myself getting depressed about suburban sprawl and wishing we had the barren land and the abandoned fields back. I then wanted to read about population control and donate to Planned Parenthood. All I can think of is more people, more pollution, more pesticides and more Round Up sprayed. Good for business though – all these new consumers buy lots of garden products.
    – J O’Brien

  11. greenmoss said:

    How i would love to have some sun!

    All that open area aching to be planted in trees in 30 years has turned mostly into heavy shade.

    Gone is the vegetable garden, even impatiens don’t do well, because they are now being bred for…sun!

  12. Wanda said:

    Consider the plight of the urban homeowner. My two story house located on a standard (for California) lot size 50 x 100 feet total is surrounded by other two story houses. New homeowners plant trees early on and then later remove them because roots are too close to the house and cause plumbing problems or too close to the driveway which causes the cement to crack. My neighborhood does not have a parking strip for planting trees near the street due to poor city planning. About the only trees that will fit on lots this small are cypress and palms.

    As for fruit trees or a vegetable garden, the surrounding two story houses give us only 5 hours or so a day of full sun which will not support a vegetable garden.

    So we are left to planting partial sun annuals and perenniels and a few bushes when what we really want are large trees and enough sun to grow our own vegetables.

  13. Michele Draper said:

    Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your very interesting “Heronswood Voice”. I look forward to all your truly unique garden voice.

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