Garden Eugenics

05/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is the year everybody plants a vegetable patch. The Secretary of Agriculture has an edible garden. The White House has an edible garden. Hummers are out, rototillers are in, and sales of seeds and garden supplies are soaring. But the same hard times that inspire us to work the soil can also send us looking for scapegoats. Let's be careful that the virtuous desire to grow our own food does not lead to proclamations about the moral purity of one crop over another. This is no time for garden eugenics.

You remember eugenics, the pseudo-science of a century ago that warped the principles of genetics to encourage the 'best people' to have many children while raising fears about the uncontrolled procreation of 'degenerates' who were often identified as having dangerous hereditary qualities like poverty, ignorance, or 'mongrel' heritage.

Thankfully, this kind of thinking has fallen far out of fashion--except in the realm of crops. The same language of purity, the same reverence for ancient bloodlines that makes people cringe when applied to humans, is often applauded when applied to plants. Older varieties are preferred to newer ones. Heirlooms are honored over hybrids. Organic is confused with local. And substantial improvements get tarred with the same brush as dubious adventures in bioengineering that may even alter the biological balance of the planet.

Gardeners, get a grip! It's possible to go back to the land without going back to the Stone Age. In fact, it's essential, unless you really want to limit your diet to ferns. If, like many people, you're hoping to cut down on grocery costs while enjoying freshness and reducing your carbon footprint, go for the seeds that are most likely to give you a thriving, bountiful harvest. And accept the fact that most of those seeds have been improved by the age-old process of selection and the more recent but still venerable techniques of hybridization.

A century ago, before it was possible to patent a living organism, innovation in the garden was not synonymous with ownership, and new plant introductions were not regarded as a threat to biodiversity. Even as the environmental movement was coming into being and broad swatches of wilderness were being set aside by Congress as national parks, there was little question that improving cultivated plants was a worthy goal, and that anything that increased yield or improved quality was an asset. In the years before supermarkets, refrigeration, and long-distance shipping provided a safety net for the home grower, the development of hardier, sweeter, longer-lasting edible crops was a matter of intense public enthusiasm, and anybody who could improve a plant was considered a public benefactor. If we're going back to the cottage garden our great-grandparents tended, let's honor their desire for improvement.

All the heirloom designation means is that a plant grows true from seed. Save the seeds for next year, and you'll get a reasonably close approximation of what grew this summer. Hybrids, made from crosses of different varieties, also produce seeds, but next year's crop won't be the same as this year's and it won't have the famous first generation "hybrid vigor" that Charles Darwin noted long before anybody understood why it occurred or what it meant.

Since your goal is to eat everything in your garden before it goes to seed, the predictable duplication of ancestral traits is not really an issue. Plant Great-aunt Agatha's favorite pickling cucumber, by all means, but save some ground for stringless beans, sweet and tender carrots, wilt-resistant lettuce, and other newer varieties that are, in fact, tastier and hardier than anything our grandparents grew. Discourage rabbits with sturdy marigolds that can stand the summer heat, indulge yourself with hybrid roses that bloom all season, and thank the breeders who have worked to bring you these improved varieties.

And while you're at it, forget that other piece of lingering snobbery, the importance of a good neighborhood. Plant where you can. Lettuce grown on the western slope may indeed taste different from lettuce grown on the east, but the best place to start your garden is wherever you can. Clear the ground. Mulch it. Start a compost pile in the corner to make next year's soil even richer. Plant in containers, if all you have is concrete. Pick a crop that can survive your particular conditions of sun, wind, rain, or traffic.

It will probably be a hybrid, carefully cross-pollinated and selected to meet just such challenges. Embrace its multiple origins and be proud of your efforts, mongrel though they be. In the salad bowl, the fruit cup, and the veggie stir-fry of democratic gardening, it's achievement we should honor, not origins.