Atomic gardening

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Atomic gardening is a form of mutation breeding where plants are exposed to radioactive sources, typically cobalt-60,[1] in order to generate useful mutations.

One example is the resistance to verticillium wilt of the "Todd's Mitcham" cultivar of peppermint which was produced from a breeding and test program at Brookhaven National Laboratory from the mid-1950s.[2][3]


Beginning in the 1950s, atomic gardens were a part of Atoms for Peace, a program to develop peaceful[2] uses of fission energy after World War II. Gamma gardens were established in laboratories in the US, Europe, parts of the former USSR, India[4] and Japan. The Atomic Gardening Society was set up in 1959 by Muriel Howorth in the UK. The youngest member of the society was Christopher Abbey (15), a student at Eastbourne College and the son of a dentist, who received a certificate of merit for propagating several species of irradiated seeds to maturity. Irradiated seeds were sold to the public by C.J. Speas, who had obtained a licence for a cobalt-60 source; and sold seeds produced in a backyard cinderblock bunker. A number of commercial plant varieties were developed and released.[5]

The gamma gardens were arranged in a circular pattern with a retractable radiation source in the middle. Plants were usually laid out like slices of a pie, radiating from the central radiation source; this pattern produced a range of radiation doses over the radius from the centre. The plants nearest the centre usually died, the ones further out often featured "tumors and other growth abnormalities"; beyond these were the plants of interest, with a higher than usual range of mutations, but not to the damaging extent of those closer to the radiation source.[2]These gamma gardens have continued to operate on the same designs as those conceived in the 1950s.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

Atomic gardens are part of the background of the plot of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds which features the growth of irradiated seeds as a science fair project.[2] The Dilbert comic strip contains a reference to atomic gardening in form of sentient broccoli.[6]


  1. ^ a b Twilley, Nicola (2011-04-21). "Strange and Beautiful Seeds From the Atom". Edible Geography. Future Plural. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  2. ^ a b c d Trevi, Alexander (2011-04-20). "Atomic Gardens". Pruned: On landscape architecture and related fields. Alexander Trevi. Archived from the original on 29 April 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 
  3. ^ van Harten, A. M. (1998). Mutation Breeding: Theory and Practical Applications. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press. pp. 286–287. ISBN 978-0-521-47074-2. 
  4. ^ "This Day That Age: August 30, 1960: "Gamma Garden"". The Hindu. The Hindu. 2010-08-30. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  5. ^ "Atomic Gardens". Garden History Girl. Blogspot. 2010-12-02. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  6. ^ "Tuesday August 29, 1989". Dilbert. 1989-08-29. Retrieved 2015-04-28. 

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