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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - July 08, 2009

From: Rochester, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: Edible Plants
Title: Vegetables for sustainable garden in Rochester NY
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have decided to start growing a small sustainable garden. Therefore I have decided to plant mostly North American native greens and vegetables. I live in upstate New York and so the plants designed for that climate would be best. Any suggestions?

ANSWER:

Unfortunately for your purposes, very few vegetables available today are native to North America. Just about anything edible that you would consider for your dinner table is probably not only non-native but so hybridized that the original plant is virually unrecognizable. How about some examples?

Lactuca sativa, lettuce, is unknown in the wild, but is considered totally a cultivated plant. Its distant ancestor was probably Lactuca serriola, a common weed that grows in waste places, fields or clearings in Europe, northern Asia and North Africa.

The taproot vegetable, Carrot, is a domesticated form of the wild carrot,  Daucus carota, native to Europe and southwestern Asia.

And what about that All-American vegetable, tomato? Solanum lycopersicum, tomato, is native to South America, probably first cultivated as a small, round green fruit by the Mesoamericans on the highlands of Peru. 

So, does this mean you can't grow your sustainable garden? No, of course not. We eat those vegetables and fruits, too. Just because the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is concerned solely with the care, propagation and protection of plants native not only to North America but to the area in which they are being grown  doesn't mean we don't use and enjoy non-native plants. We just don't have information on them in our Native Plant Database.

A better and closer-to-home information source would be the Cornell University Cooperative Extension Office for Monroe County. They almost surely have plant lists, even seminars and classes in vegetable gardening, and can give you information on when it is safe to plant and when to harvest in your climate and USDA Hardiness Zone. 

You might also be interested in growing "heirloom plants." These plants, generally speaking, are from plants being grown before the industrialization of gardening and extensive hybridization of plants. When they are planted from seed, the plant usually "comes true" which is generally not the case with hybridized plants. Check this article Keeping the Past Alive Through Plants by Betty Jakum from The Master Gardener of Adams County Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland.

 

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