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Atomic Gardens
Atomic Gardens

Paige Johnson works as a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. When not inventing new ways to fabricate nanobatteries and other advanced materials, she moonlights as an independent scholar of garden history. She has published articles on the “outlandish” garden hydroengineering of Isaac de Caus and the technological motifs of Art Deco landscapes, among other topics. Additionally, she maintains two landscape-themed blogs, Garden History Girl and Playscapes, both of which have given us some great material to blog here in the past.

Her current landscape research is focused on the strange and fascinating story of atomic gardening, a post-war phenomenon in which plants were irradiated in the hopes of producing beneficial mutations. Considering recent nuclear events in Japan and the ever ongoing concern for food security, it's a topic that's sure to resonate.

As a cap (albeit a delayed one) to our Atomic Week earlier this month, we asked Johnson to share some of her research.


Pruned: So basically what are atomic gardens?

Paige Johnson: After WWII, there was a concerted effort to find 'peaceful' uses for atomic energy. One of the ideas was to bombard plants with radiation and produce lots of mutations, some of which, it was hoped, would lead to plants that bore more heavily or were disease or cold-resistant or just had unusual colors. The experiments were mostly conducted in giant gamma gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US but also in Europe and countries of the former USSR.

These efforts utimately reached far into the world outside the laboratory grounds in several ways: in plant varieties based on mutated stocks that were—and still are—grown commercially, in irradiated seeds that were sold to the public by atomic entrepreneur C.J. Speas during the 50s and 60s and through the Atomic Gardening Society, started in England by Muriel Howorth to promote the mutated varieties.

It's easy to look back at it all as some crazy, or conspiratorial, plot. But the atomic gardens weren't a secret. They've just been forgotten. And it's clear from reading the primary sources that most people involved were deeply sincere. They really thought their efforts would eradicate hunger, end famine, prevent another war.

Atomic Gardens

Atomic Gardens

Pruned: What made you interested in unearthing the story of these gardens, which, judging from their lack of a Wikipedia article, are indeed largely forgotten? What is the compelling angle?

Johnson: I was asked to speak at a conference about landscapes of the 1950s. I had previously done work about the appearance of technological motifs in the Art Deco landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s and anticipated doing something similar for the 1950s lecture. So I started by searching for atomic references in mid-century landscape forms, but soon came across this much deeper atomic element. I was immediately fascinated, and frankly really surprised that the history had never been examined. If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer. Amidst all the debate over altered crops, surely evaluating the legacy of the atomic gardens could be useful.

I'm in no way starting from the premise that all modern ills are somehow a result of these mid-century experiments. Maybe they didn't have any lasting effects at all; I don't know yet, and the goal of the research is to find that out! But I do know that this information should be readily available so that the public can access it and make up their own minds, and so that future researchers, beyond me, can engage with the primary source materials.

I think one way that science has failed the public is by not making its results accessible, often with the implicit—even explicit—excuse that non-scientists somehow aren't smart enough to understand them, which is self-serving tosh. 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. 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.

Plus, the atomic gardens are an amazing human story—with Muriel carrying around atomic potatoes in her hand bag and C.J. irradiating seeds for science students—who wouldn't want to hear about that? Muriel and C.J. were exemplars of a nuclear enthusiasm that hasn't been nearly so examined historically as has nuclear protest. It's fun to look back and laugh, to shake our head with hindsight, but the less comfortable part of it is to examine our own enthusiasms, to ask what their unanticipated consequences might be.

I'm a bit of a contrarian thinker. So I tend to not worry so much about issues that are being debated—like, say, oil, or even GM crops—as about the debates we aren't having. I was startled that the strongest contemporary similarity to the language surrounding the atomic gardens is the grandiose predictions that are often attached to the latest 'green' technologies. Going into a future that is more influenced by science and technology every day, we have to be absolutely steely-eyed in our evaluation of what someone says will change the world for the better. Even if we want it to.

Muriel Howorth
Pruned: Muriel Howorth is a major character in this story. Can you elaborate her role in this post-war phenomenon?

Johnson: Muriel is one of my favorite parts of the story and my upcoming article for the British Journal for the History of Science is all about her nuclear enthusiasm. I was able to locate her remaining family, they're lovely, and they still have a trunk of her things which they made available for my research, and her own personal geiger counter!

The atomic peanut dinner party sparked Muriel's involvement with atomic gardening, but it was in some ways a culmination of ten years of work during which she had acted as a tireless booster for all things nuclear: forming two societies to promote atomic science to the layman, publishing books and a journal with the same aim, writing the biography of a Nobel prize-winner, and even staging a “Radioactivity Jubilee” and an isotopic pantomime in which she and a dozen 'Atomic Energy Associates' danced out atomic forces.

Muriel was also the only person at the time speaking specifically to women about the new science, and encouraging them to take an active role; she had a Ladies Atomic Energy Club whose aim was expressly to bring women out of the kitchen and into the atomic age.

By her own account, Muriel originally hadn't thought beyond serving the NC4X peanuts to her guests at the dinner party. It was only afterwards, seemingly disappointed with their reaction, and wondering what to do with the leftovers, that she thought of popping some in the soil to see how they grew.

The Atomic Gardening Society was really the final chapter in what was an unusual career of atomic and self promotion. Muriel is interesting just for herself, of course, but also as an example of atomic optimism which has gone largely unexamined by historians.

It's common, now, to hear about the 'others' of history. Muriel was a woman, and a non-scientist, but her greater otherness was that she was an incredibly enthusiastic player for the losing team—the side of the nuclear discussion that was eventually discredited. We never talk about the losing team. But as a historian I'm interested in what we can learn from these kind of 'others'.

Gamma Gardens

Pruned: You have an aerial picture of one of those giant gamma gardens. First of all, what accounts for its circular layout? Can you describe some of the quarantine protocols the researchers used? At first I thought it’s surrounded by hedgerows and beyond are farmlands. But I guess it’s surrounded by woodlands.

Johnson: 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.  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 amount of radiation received by the plants naturally varied according to how close they were to the pole. So usually a single variety would be arranged as a 'wedge' leading away from the pole, so that the effects of a range of radiation levels could be evaluated. Most of the plants close to the pole simply died. A little further away, they would be so genetically altered that they were riddled with tumors and other growth abnormalities. It was generally the rows where the plants 'looked' normal, but still had genetic alterations, that were of the most interest, that were 'just right' as far as mutation breeding was concerned!

So far, I haven't been able to find much more about the wider landscape settings of the gamma gardens; they are still within the grounds of national laboratories, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Atomic Gardens

Pruned: Outside of these laboratory grounds, where did the mini atomic gardens pop up? If the public wanted to start their own, would C.J. and the Atomic Gardening Society have been their only commercial source of the irradiated seeds? As a matter of fact, how would they have known about them in the first place? You mention that they weren't exactly a secret.

Johnson: There is much less documentation of atomic gardening outside the laboratory. C.J. was the only way for the public to buy irradiated seeds. I can trace the marketing of the seeds—at garden fairs, and in the back of magazines, in grocery stores, and through high school science clubs, which sold them as fundraisers. But I don't yet know who bought them, or how many, or where.

I also don't know how many people participated, but it was enough of a cultural moment to form the plot device for Paul Zindel's Pulitzer prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1964. The main character, the child Tillie, grows irradiated seeds as her science fair project and makes a speech about her project which ends: "Some of the mutations will be good ones—wonderful things beyond our dreams—and I believe, I believe this with all my heart, THE DAY WILL COME WHEN MANKIND WILL THANK GOD FOR THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL ENERGY FROM THE ATOM."

Paul Zindel was a science teacher. The play is still widely performed, but most people don't know that the irradiated marigolds were real.

Atomic Gardens

Pruned: I'm curious as to how C.J. irradiated the seeds. What kind of equipment are we talking about?

Johnson: C.J. obtained a license from the Atomic Energy Commission for a Cobalt-60 source, probably similar to those still used in radiotherapy. He encased it in a small cinderblock chamber, into which he slid trays of seeds. He often showed his backyard “bunker” to tourists and school groups. That's about all I know so far.

I had high hopes of traipsing through Tennessee to find the bunker, but the site was incorporated into flood plain as part of a river project, and near as I can tell no longer exists. No documents have turned up on what happened to the source.

Atomic Gardens

Pruned: What were some of the mutations these gardens produced?

Johnson: While the scientific experiments are documented pretty well in the journal literature we actually don't know what mutations came from the home experiments. The Atomic Gardening Society had the lofty goal of furthering scientific research. It was really an early crowd-sourcing, citizen-scientist movement. Very ahead of its time!

But obviously there are issues around properly controlling experiments in people's backyards, and there was no avenue to 'publish' results. A really interesting part of this investigation is what unknown progeny might be out there.

Pruned: So really there might be an atomic heirloom tomato that's now growing on somebody's allotment garden. They're thinking that it's strangely misshapen and uniquely pigmented because it's an heirloom, but in fact it's a gamma-mutated variety. It's a kind of amnesia, one that's actually fairly common when it comes to the foods that we eat. Pick any vegetable or meat at Wal-Mart or the local farmer's market, and more likely than not, there's a long history there of genetic manipulation that's largely forgotten.

Johnson: The atomic plant varieties certainly fit it with your 'food amnesia' premise; it would be rare for the consumer to know anything about the genetic history of the food we consume, much less if it came out of the mid-century atomic experiments. But the path from an irradiated seed, or a gamma garden, to the table can be anything but straight. Let's look at some examples that have made it to the American table, and tummy.

Mint oil from the peppermint plant, Mentha piperita L., is ubiquitous in things like chewing gum and toothpaste. Peppermint is one of many plants susceptible to Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease that cause stunting and plant death. Hundreds of thousands of stolons were irradiated at the Brookhaven National Laboratory from about 1955 on, and planted into wilt infested fields, ultimately resulting in the release of the wilt-resistant 'Todd's Mitcham' cultivar, a product of thermal neutron irradiation, in 1971. The exact nature of the genetic changes that cause it to be wilt-resistant remain unknown. Most of the global production of mint oil is now the Todd's Mitcham' cultivar, with an estimated market value of around $930 million USD.

Another readily available atomic mutant is the 'Rio Star' grapefruit, which accounts for 75% of the grapefruit production in Texas. They were bred solely to produce flesh and juice that is more red in color than previous varieties.

That's a pretty direct route; the genetic change produced by irradiation remains in the commercially cultivated variety, as my research shows so far. So yes, it is possible that someone, planting atomic seeds in their allotment, produced a plant with a genetic mutation that was robust enough to still possess the mutated 'feature' today.

Atomic Gardens

Pruned: Lastly, you are a nanotechnology researcher by day and moonlight as an independent scholar of garden history. What brought about this fascinating career combination? Also, I'm curious how one career might be informing the other and vice versa.

Johnson: I think I just have a hungry mind.

There is no obvious intersection between nanotech and my garden history, and it started out as something of an indulgence; a break from science to pursue formally a subject in which I had an avocational interest. I even told my garden history tutor that I didn't want to write about scientific/garden overlaps, that I was tired of things technical and needed a break. But as soon as I read about the mystery of the rainbow fountain I was hooked.

How my garden history informs my continuing work in science is a bit more complicated; it is more influenced by my general interest in design of space, of which garden history is a part. At a very fundamental level, many nanotechnology problems are about the creation of appropriate spaces. There are load of papers published on new whiz-bang nanostructures, which one might think of as objects or sculptures. They're pretty and all, but what we need is negative-space structures, spaces that are architectures not sculptures, spaces that can be 'inhabited', and comparatively few people are working on that. These are things my study of design helped me understand, which has led to a patent for a hollow nanostructure, and another application for one that inhabits the hollow space.


If you are in London on 7 June 2011, Paige Johnson will be at the Garden Museum giving a talk on atomic gardening, Muriel Howorth and the Atomic Gardening Society. Her article on in British Journal for the History of Science is forthcoming this summer.

Johnson is also planning to write a book on the subject; check back on her blog and here in the coming weeks for details.

Gamma Gardens
  • Anonymous
  • April 20, 2011 at 12:00:00 PM CDT
  • fascinating! thanks for posting.

  • Brian Davis
  • April 20, 2011 at 7:03:00 PM CDT
  • fascinating. so this could be seen as a kind of atomic analog to gmo foods, or previously to selectively bred plants, or even simply wholesale importation of invasives to address specific concerns, such as when the science-of-the-day convinced the US DOT that kudzu should be used throughout the southeast to stabilize the banks of all those new interstates they just built? Or perhaps I'm drawing the wrong conclusion...?

    It makes the practice of agriculture and agronomy a lot less bombastic- we test out the technology of the day, with utterly mixed results always. Wonderful find.

  • Georgia
  • April 20, 2011 at 8:37:00 PM CDT
  • Great interview. I follow gardenhistorygirl and had no idea of Paige's day job.

    I just read a fiction book that might be of interest titled The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

  • Anonymous
  • April 20, 2011 at 11:50:00 PM CDT
  • PJ may be interested in a Long Beach State College Junior-year Physics project in the late '50's using high-gauss magnets on the growth of tomato seeds and frog eggs. Reliable results can't be confirmed but the anti-marketing of it may relate to Atomic Gardens. Our Professor(s) insisted that this was all hush-hush and to not tell our friends and relatives, they might be "spooked".
    Patrick S.

  • Anonymous
  • April 25, 2011 at 12:22:00 PM CDT
  • It’s tempting to think of these scientific experiments of the 1950s to 1970s as the beginning of technical modifications to our food supply that have culminated in the genetically modified foods now causing public debate. But we can’t point to the gamma gardens as the beginning of GMOs, at least in peppermint, because the Mentha piperita plants the researchers irradiated were already hybrids that had been carefully nurtured by growers since at least the 1750s. Mentha piperita makes its first recorded appearance in Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum. The original, 1750s Mitcham peppermint itself was a genetically modified, sterile hybrid that could only be propagated by root cuttings. The sterility of peppermint plants is due to the fact that they are a hybrid of two other Mentha species, water mint (M aquatica) and spearmint (M spicata). While this cross may have originally happened naturally, the resulting plants do not set seeds. They would not have been able to spread across the planet, without the active participation of mint farmers.

    Which is not to say that we shouldn't be concerned about the technical manipulation of our environment. Just a little historical perspective -- which, incidentally will appear along with a reference to this post and Andrew Sullivan's coverage of it, on The Historical Society's blog ( ).

  • Anonymous
  • April 25, 2011 at 11:30:00 PM CDT
  • This is a very intersting, but I find odd the assumption throughout the article by both interviewer and interviewee that the atomic botany was "discredited" and the idea that they were a cultural "other" and on a "losing team" like they were some mistake our society made and abandon. I grew up on a rural farm in the late 70's and 80's, and knew of the use of radiation to accelerate the mutation rate of plants for agronomy experiments. I can't recall anyone being afraid of it or treating the idea with disdain. I took a nuclear engineering class in college, and it was certainly not treated as a mistake or 'discredited' there either. Was it actually discredited or disavowed by experts? Or are the writers here just considering that "something from an unfashionable industry that isn't widely known about to the chattering class with humanities degrees who saw that one movie with Jane Fonda and some 60 Minutes expose on something about how terrible nuclear stuff is" to be the same things "discredited." I thought it wasn't done anymore just because we have cheaper, better GM technologies. What did I miss (other than "atomic" stuff going out of fashion in pop culture)?

  • Philip Rutter
  • April 26, 2011 at 12:12:00 PM CDT
  • "Was it actually discredited or disavowed by experts?"

    Yes. I'm a plant breeder. The hope was based on a lack of intimate molecular understanding of genetic mechanisms; it was known radiation produced mutations, and the hope was that "hey, some of them ought to be good!"

    The reality is; 999.999999999% of the mutations would more correctly be classed as "damage". Genes are made non-or dys-functional, requiring the plant to resort to backup pathways for the various physiological processes involved. Virtually none of these prove valuable.

    For those intimately involved in plant breeding; our opinion at this point is that the reported "useful" events from radiation breeding are far more likely to be due to faulty record keeping; ie, the useful plants may well have stemmed from control populations with lost identities; than that they are the creation de novo of useful genes by random molecular damage.

    In any event; the "return on energy invested" in all radiation breeding so far- is so close to zero as to be indistinguishable. Time and energy are far better spent in other directions.

  • peter donegan
  • May 3, 2011 at 3:43:00 PM CDT
  • in a world gone mad and subject matter slightly to one side, one of the finest blog posts i have read in some time.
    Well done on a great interview and a great piece.
    And who would have thought...


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