Are atomic gardens making a comeback?

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Updated Jul 26, 2017
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At the end of World War II, atomic gardening began as a campaign to promote the peaceful use of fission energy.

Determined to find a solution to “the fearful atomic dilemma,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the Atoms for Peace speech on Dec. 8, 1953, before the United Nations General Assembly. By delivering this speech, Eisenhower sought to find a means to transform the atom into a benefit for mankind.

“It’s interesting that public engagement was desired, and sought out, during the Atoms for Peace program of which the atomic gardens were a part,” Paige Johnson, nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, told Pruned in a 2011 interview. “It was a time when the atomic scientists who had been sequestered during the war began to speak strongly into the public sphere about their science and its implications, to enter the cultural discussion in the way that these atomic experiments—which are still ongoing—should now.”

With this in mind, Gamma Gardens were set up all across the globe in the United States, Japan and Russia. Using radiation to induce useful mutations in plants, scientists arranged typical gardens in a circle with different levels of radiation reaching plants from the center.

“The circular spatial form of the gamma gardens, which in aerial view uncannily resembles the radiation danger symbol, was simply based upon the need to arrange the plants in concentric circles around the radiation source which stood like a totem in the center of the field,” Johnson told Pruned in the same interview. “It was basically a slug of radioactive material within a pole; when workers needed to enter the field it was lowered below ground into a lead lined chamber. There were a series of fences and alarms to keep people from entering the field when the source was above ground.”

The plants that were closest to the radiation sources usually died, but plants at the farthest end of the gardens typically survived with significant mutations. The mid-ranged plants would develop growths and tumors.

After about 20 hours of radiation exposure a day, scientists would then remotely lower the radioactive isotope into an underground bunker, usually made of concrete or lead, and then begin inspecting the plants. By speeding up the natural mutation and growing process of these plants, scientists hoped to create crops that could one day withstand harsh growing conditions or be more resistant to diseases. It was thought that this work could also one day help solve the world hunger crisis.

Scientists were hopeful that some of these plants would develop mutations that could then be used in beneficial ways and then bred into normal plants. Because of these genetic modifications, wheat, pears, cotton, ruby-red grapefruit, sunflowers, rice, bananas and more produce can attribute their present-day heartiness to atomic gardening.

Scientists were not the only ones involved in these experiments, however, as many curious citizens began attempting their own trials in their very own backyards. One of the most well-known at-home experimenters was a Tennessean oral surgeon named CJ Speas. Speas would conduct his seed irradiating experiments in a concrete bunker he built in his backyard. He would then open his bunker up to tours from local schools, gardeners and more, and he would sell the seeds around the area to gardeners and children needing a science fair project.

One of Speas’ biggest clients was an English woman named Muriel Howorth, who showed a great interest and passion for atomic technologies and gardening. Howorth later formed her own international society, the Atomic Gardening Society, that was dedicated to engaging everyday people in atomic experiments. She also hosted many gatherings and film screenings on atomic topics, and she published an atomic magazine.

Suffice it to say, this trend never grew into the world hunger-ending success scientists and citizens wished it would because of the public’s growing skepticism toward nuclear research. By the 1960s, the topic of atomic gardening had faded and to this day it is still a subject shrouded in mystery and remains unpracticed. Or does it?

Almost 70 years later, only one large atomic garden remains in Japan. The Institute of Radiation Breeding boasts the trademark pie-shape of Gamma Gardens and stretches across over 300 feet. To contain spill-off radiation, a 25-foot tall wall surrounds the complex. According to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the lab is currently breeding for fruit color and fungus resistance. Along with this garden in Japan, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are said to have a joint plant-breeding team that still conducts research on radiation breeding.

It’s hard to predict what will come from these experiments in the wake of this highly advanced technological age, but it’s safe to say that the possibilities are endless.

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