What do you get if you combine scientific research with gardening? Andy Sturgeon takes it upon himself to find out…

Gardening and science have never been particularly happy bedfellows. In fact, the two things seem almost exact opposites. There’s way too much trial and error, and luck, involved in horticulture. It all moves at such a snail’s pace that you just don’t get many shouts of “Eureka” coming from the potting shed, and for years the closest the two came to each other was a bit of cross pollination and the spraying of weedkillers.

But now science is inflicting itself upon gardening and this is evident from the amount of research being done at universities. Theses are being written and PhDs are being handed out for the most peculiar things, and you have to wonder who is paying for it all.

Entomologists at the University of East Anglia for example have discovered, presumably by watching them very, very closely for months, that pea aphids are smarter than we think. The clever little buggers can detect whether a predatory ladybird larva has passed close by and then they take radical evasive action. These cowardly insects change their sexual habits and their whole breeding regime to boost the production of winged offspring so they can all fly away, which seems to me to be an incredibly slow getaway plan.

Meanwhile the scientists/bored students at the University of Northumbria have deduced that women are more natural gardeners than men. This apparently stems from when women foraged and harvested and men went hunting with spears and drank beer and probably just mowed the lawn at the weekend.

Further afield in Italy researchers have claimed that high numbers of wood lice indicate a healthy soil and ecosystem since they are highly susceptible to chemicals. But why did anyone ever decide to spend their grant studying a little bug like that?

In China recent tests have shown that the thinning ozone layer and the consequent UV-B radiation is reducing the pollen production of plant species that include familiar ornamentals like quince, walnut, philadelphus, lilac, kerria and weigela. But perhaps rather more significantly, scientists have at last conceded that global warming is due to man and that within an incredibly short 100 years the temperature will rise by 5 degrees and the sea level will rise by 0.88 metres. This in turn will flood whole countries like Bangladesh, the populated bits of Egypt, parts of Cornwall, Ireland and East Anglia. Is it possible for water gardening and Charlie Dimmock to be even more popular? Perhaps some sort of university research programme could be set up.

Everyone’s been getting hot under the collar about GM food but most people don’t give a monkeys about GM plants. At the Chelsea Physic Garden they’ve set up a trail highlighting the other areas affected by GM around the world. Dye plants are being created, for example; blue cotton is being grown so they can make jeans without having to dye the cotton first, and a gene has been spliced into oil seed rape to make a product for the American market to control their obesity. Rather poetically, the gene was taken from the Californian headache tree. There’s also something called pharming going on which is the production of vaccines within plants, for example a cystic fibrosis vaccine is being produced in bananas. Suddenly science and plant production have come together in a big way.

The problem with all of this is that as they produce pest- and disease-resistant crops we could eventually end up with super weeds and super bugs that we can’t control with herbicides or biological controls, and as they naturally spread they may start to takeover our gardens.

Perhaps the most futuristic advance has been in the normally low-tech world of lawn grass. The Scotts Company has developed drought- and disease-resistant cultivars and even those that grow slowly so they don’t need much mowing. Even more cutting edge, they will be able to produce coloured grasses and even some that glow in the dark. That should get them thinking down at the golf club.


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