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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

George Ball: The growing trend of getting back to gardening

By George Ball W. Atlee Burpee Co.

The first day of spring kicks off the unofficial national gardening holiday everywhere in the northern hemisphere. In the United States, gardeners are celebrating riotously.

For the largely quiet home gardening business, this year started with a bang – no, an explosion. On the heels of 2020, a breakthrough year for seed buying, 2021 has already produced sales unprecedented in our company’s 145-year old history.

Triggered by an ever-expanding population of new gardeners, the surging seed demand is not evidence of a speculative craze, like Tulipomania or tech stocks. To invert Alan Greenspan’s phrase, the tsunami of seed buying reflects “rational exuberance.” In addition to offering outsized nutrition, flavor, fragrance and beauty, seeds are exceptionally lucrative, delivering seed-to-vine-ripened produce values that would be the envy of Wall Street.

The existential menace of COVID-19 ruffled the petals of our collective unconscious and evoked deep stirrings in our souls. Seemingly at once, millions of Americans had a shared aha moment, prompting a newfound urge to grow backyard Edens abounding with life.

Gardens first took root 11,000 years ago, give or take a millennium, when pioneering nomadic hunter-gatherers put down roots to create settled communities. In so doing, they established the first planned conversion of solar radiation to human metabolic energy.

Once people followed the example of plants, stayed put and produced their own sustenance, civilization burst into bloom. With a more certain and abundant food supply, we devoted the energy and time we had expended on hunting and gathering to agriculture and creating communities with shelter and protection, civic and cultural life, specialized crafts and trades. The rest is history.

This ancient moment is alive in us today. New and seasoned gardeners are sowing, growing and harvesting the same vegetables, fruits and grains as did our long-ago ancestors.

The coronavirus has rendered us less like animals and more like plants. We have dismounted the digital hamster-wheel, changing from hyperactive texting vagabonds to garden-bound locals, growing a fresh, tasty food supply on our own terra firma – green peace.

Ever more verdantly, one day we may create artificial chlorophyll-based energy, perpetually renewable with zero emissions – the Holy Grail of solar panels. At research laboratories such as the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at CalTech in the United States and others in the UK, Australia and Belgium, scientists are using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide in an attempt to produce unlimited waves of clean energy.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortes, please take note: with energy based on the model of living plants producing their own food, “green” will never be a better “deal.” Domesticating photosynthesis would be biomimicry on such a profound level that it would make artificial intelligence seem puerile.

Today, we are experiencing a rebirth and reprise of the most remarkable cultural change in history: the emergence of garden-centered communities. We are seeing and learning plants’ seemingly endless lessons and thereby glimpsing more deeply into both the universe and ourselves.

Our gardening revolution marks a significant transition – much like today’s equinox, when day surpasses night and, however riotously, spring begins. Let the sunshine in.

George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee Co. and past president of The American Horticultural Society.