Science Experiment



Mary and Craig Barnes Consulting With My Kid, The Hybridizer

Gardens exist to make the world more beautiful, don’t get me wrong. But there’s another purpose to gardening that may well eclipse the drive towards beauty, and I’m not sure it’s not just as important. Gardening gives the mad scientist free rein of a rather amazing laboratory.


Both of my parents worked when I was a kid, and since I lived in a suburb where nothing was possible without somebody driving you there, I spent long summers with no adult supervision in a state of crushing boredom.  As a result, I read incessantly, and when I had a splitting headache from reading, conducted science experiments of a particularly sloppy sort–frog dissections, digging up saplings and seeing how they reacted to cigarette smoke, trying to brew stink potions with skunk cabbage, you get the idea.

Surprisingly–or not surprisingly at all–no career in science followed, but I do try to keep the experimental spirit alive in my garden.  I am constantly mucking up my pretty pictures by shoehorning in new plants, digging successful things out for the sake of change, planting too many different kinds of things just to see what works, and generally behaving like a child, rather than an exalted critic of the exquisite.  And I’m alternately fascinated and anguished and in denial about what I’ve wrought in a way that recalls the childish Victor Frankenstein.

One of the reasons I adore Slate Hill Farm Daylilies, a spectacularly gorgeous daylily nursery just down the road from me in the country, is the fact that Craig and Mary Barnes, too, are mad scientists of a slightly more successful sort.  And they have been introducing my kids to the joys of crazy fiddling with plants in recent years by allowing them to hybridize daylilies.

This is the first year that any of my children’s crosses are blooming.  The one below is a creation by my son Milo, with its parent flowers tucked into the pot beneath it.  Since I adore maroon flowers verging on black, I highly approve of monster he created out of the merely purple and red, and have a great, prominent spot picked out for it in my yard. Daylily

Another of my kids’ crosses was flagged by Slate Hill’s favorite critics as one of the most interesting new hybrids of the season.

Obviously, Mary Barnes is a spectacularly nice person to be following my kids around with clipboards and markers for an hour in the rain while they waft stamens over pistils.

But my kids are truly gripped–this is science made real–and beg me to stop at Slate Hill every time we drive by. They can now tell you all about daylily genetics, diploids and tetraploids and how one becomes the other.&nbsp

I wish there were more such local breeders and growers for us to visit.  As it is, I think the Barneses might turn my kids into botanists.


  1. Thank you for the whopping dose of “Humanity doesn’t always suck.” I needed it this morning. This made me a little teary, in the good way.

  2. The daylily is very pretty, but to me, the coolest thing about this post is that your kids are begging you to stop at a daylily nursery AND they are hybridizing plants. That is awesome.

  3. Wow! What a wonderful gift you are giving your children. To turn them on to gardening AND science at the same time is a treasure. They will have “warm and fuzzy” memories of this forever.

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