Anyone else fed up with eco-evangelists?


Here's a guest column from Toronto Star garden writer and author Sonia Day. Watch for our review of her new book, The Untamed Garden. (The heirlooms in the photo were grown by a Buffalo-area gardener.)

Heirlooms can provide a successful crop—and sometimes not.

Happens every year. Regular as clockwork. The moment I mention heirloom tomatoes in my Toronto Star column, I get a nasty email from a woman I’ll call Martha.

Martha doesn’t like my stand on these kinds of tomatoes.  I tell my readers that they can be cranky (for a variety of reasons) and advise them to plant a modern hybrid too, so they’ll be assured of a good crop.

Yet Martha objects. Strongly. This year, she called me “ a ridiculous joke” who knows nothing about gardening.

I didn’t bother to reply to Martha (although I used to, because I love getting feedback about my columns and  answer every email I get). I didn’t bother to tell her that I’m a master gardener, the author of six books on gardening and that I grow just about everything I write about, so I can give readers solid, practical advice.

No, I ignored her email for the simple reason that Martha belongs to a tribe of zealots who increasingly make me see red. They are the eco-evangelists, the plant purists, the plant Nazis, the well-meaning but misguided people who insist that the only good plant has the tag “heirloom” attached to it.

Whatever. I have another name for these folks. They are the new Puritans. Because hasn’t the environmental movement taken on all the trappings of a new world religion? To me, its dedicated adherents are exactly like the original Puritans— that is, a bunch of humorless, preachy, politically-correct purists who insist that their views are “the right ones”—and that anyone who dares to disagree with them on any topic is destined to fry in hell.

For example: These new fundamentalists have dissed me for saying there’s nothing wrong with having a lawn. (Let’s face it, guys like lawns. And living in the country, with a whopping area to care for, I actually enjoy my lawn, too. It’s easier than flowerbeds and keeps bugs down, although I do point out that expecting pristine turf is unrealistic and using noxious chemicals to achieve that goal is definitely out.) And last year, I created an uproar in my column by saying that a few invasive plants—periwinkle, for instance—could be useful in places where absolutely nothing else would grow. One gent was so enraged by this suggestion, he tried to get me fired from the Star.

Then there are the faithful who insist that “foreign” plants are the bad guys, but native plants—ALL native plants—are angels from heaven, because they don’t get out of control. Well, bollocks to that, I say. Because what about the Manitoba Maple? (a.k.a. box elder or Acer negundo).  This tree gallops everywhere it can, in my experience. And the Indian Cup Plant? (Yes, the native Indians loved it, so we’re supposed to love it too, I guess, but this towering perennial is so bossy, I’ve decided to banish it from my own garden.)

And about those contentious heirloom tomatoes. Sure, I grow them. They’re delicious. I love their flavour. After much experimentation, my faves are Black Krim, Costoluto and Persimmon. (Get seeds from Renee's Garden because Calfornia-based Renee, bless her heart, sure knows her stuff and personally tests everything she sells.) Yet other kinds, I’ve found, can be cantankerous—prone to bacterial disease, cracking badly on top, their shoulders stay green, and they take far too long to mature in the chilly Zone 4 area where I live.  So I always plant a modern hybrid too, to be on the safe side.

But don’t tell Martha, will ya? I think she wants to kill me.

Sonia Day is gardening columnist for the Toronto Star. Her column, the Real Dirt, appears in the Friday edition, Living section, usually from the April until mid-December.  Read it here. Her seventh book, The Untamed Garden, A Revealing Look At Our Love Affair With Plants, is being published by Random House in the U.S. and McLelland & Stewart Canada on Nov. 8, 2011. Contact her at

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Sonia, I pretty much agree with you! I like heirlooms a lot. In fact I primarily plant them but they don’t always perform like I want them too. I mostly plant them for the taste, the uniqueness of the fruit, or the fact that I can save the seed which helps with our bottom line. The native plant thing is good but with some common sense. Natives can easily spread out of control. It’s all about plant selection, finding the right one for the right purpose. I have no issues what so ever with foreign plants that aren’t invasive but I will replace those that are on my state’s invasive pest list. I enjoyed the post, but don’t tell Martha that… 😉

  2. Last summer my heirloom tomatoes did great. This year, thanks to the weather, not so much; even the flavor was affected. But the two hybrid tomatoes I planted produced tasty bumper crops. Lesson learned! I’ll still grow some heirlooms, but will fall back on some hybrids too.

  3. Hah! I also have a garden column at the Orange County Register. Remembering the native plant people who insisted (with a snotty attitude too) that their events NOT appear in our garden calendar, “because growing natives is not about gardening.”

    Oh really?

  4. I once had someone tell me that they were only growing heirlooms instead of hybrids because hybrids are GMO’s… seriously?!?!?!? When I tried to explain it to her she took on that “puritan” attitude and I just gave up…. (and yes I grow both – have to cover all bases!)

  5. Agreed! And “SUSTAINABLE”! If I hear the word “sustainable” one more time, I think I will scream! Seems like every talk, every conference for those of us in the landscape industry is about “sustainable!”, “Eco-!”, etc. Sheesh!

  6. I follow my own three strikes theory for garden plants. If I buy it and it dies or under performs for the third time whether it be native, exotic and whatever category it fits in I do not buy it or recommend it. Amish Paste tomatoes are now coming close to being excluded in my vegetable garden.

  7. Amen, sister. And don’t forget the organic purists – no matter that some organic products are more toxic. Sometimes black/white ideology trumps reason and evidence.
    And yes, it’s the holier-than-thou attitude that really galls and sours the whole discussion.

  8. i find it amazing that someone can use the title Master Gardener to justify their superiority in the horticulture world. i have a BFA and an associates degree in horticulture and landscape design, along with going thru the extremely difficult test of passing the CLP, certified landscape design thru PLANET. but for some reason the public thinks a Master Gardener has top merit. bull pucky. i went through the master gardener program and became one. the courses are EASY and the people who participate are VOLUNTEERS. who have the time to dedicate themselves to learning and sharing with others. there were volunteers in the program that knew practically nothing about plants and had no higher education degrees, but had time to volunteer and learn. i think it’s not right to use the word MASTER. the public assumes you have a Master degree. i’m not kidding.

  9. Som day, what we call hybrids today will be cocnsidered heirlooms and Martha’s descendents will have something to complain about.

  10. I have nothing against hybrids, but if you plant a variety of heirlooms it seems mighty unlikely that they are all going to fail in any given season while the brave hybrid soldiers on.
    I have to agree with Susan, that there are issues with the ‘Master Gardener’ qualification for the reasons she states.
    I’m amazed that Sonia Day gets her seeds from California! Nothing against Renee, I’m sure her product is excellent, but why wouldn’t you support producers closer to home and in your own climate zone? There are countless fabulous seed sources right here in Ontario. The Seeds of Diversity website makes it easy to find what you’re looking for.
    Taking any philosophy to extremes is likely to result in a skewed perspective.

  11. Actually, what troubles me is people who use labels such as eco-evangelist or Nazi (!) to describe a very small minority with rigid views.
    For example, I know a lot of people are into native plants. I don’t know a single one who thinks some natives had better be kept out of the garden because they’re too aggressive. And almost all mix non-invasive exotics with beautiful natives in their garden. I expect that Martha is an exception among tomato gardeners as well (and what’s so “eco” about heirlooms?).

    Well, I guess it only makes a rant if you pick out the extremes. But let’s leave the labels out, please.

  12. I have nothing against Master Gardeners, and would like to go through the program myself if I could (the waiting list in my county is not even open anymore b/c it is so long), but I also agree wholeheartedly to Beth’s points.

    And Sheri is right on about philosophy extremes!

  13. I would just say that avoiding calling someone a Nazi is a good idea. Once you do that, any point you may have is gone.

  14. There are always going to be people on both sides who’s opinions are loud, obnoxious, and overreaching.

    Like claiming that only heirlooms are good. Or that native plant people are all crazy purists. Neither argument is sane or conducive to rational discussion.

  15. Booty on them. They’re more like Garden Dunces than nazis.

    If they were so pure and perfect, they would only grow native CROPS in their garden as well; no tomatoes at all unless you live in Central or South America! Peppers? Maybe if you live in the Southwest. Watermelons? Sorry, only for Africa. “Native” is such a weasel word anyway.

  16. My name is Sarah and I grow heritage tomatoes. Do I have to admit to being a plant nazi too?
    I live in zone 4 ish, in a mountain climate so hail and snow can happen pretty much anytime. I got most of the seeds from local seed sellers so they are adapted to my climate. I get a crop every year. This year was cold and wet followed by a drought….still got tomatoes. I save my own seeds so maybe I have super adapted tomatoes. I often find that so called hybrids are pretty stable when they are grown out so that hybrid vigor maybe somewhat exagerated.
    Fell free to grow what you want, just don’t inflict it on me. Which is how I feel about religion and other belief systems

  17. It seems to me that anyone with that rigid a view of the world must have an awful lot to be angry about. You likely are just one of the targets of her Puritanical wrath.

    BTW – I’m amazed it took 8 comments before someone objected to your use of “Nazi”. Usually that’s a hot-button someone pounces on right away.

    @Gail – Too bad about Amish Paste. I’ve had nothing but success w/ it. Have you tried Banana Legs ? Excellent flavor, though you won’t get bright red sauce since, as the name suggests, it’s on the yellowish side. Or Stupice (not a paste type, however), if you’re in a somewhat cool zone.

  18. I’ll also add that I gave up all faith in the Master Gardener certification when I saw (on more than one occasion!) someone say “Well, *I* am a master gardener, and *I’ve* never seen (fill in blank) be invasive.”

    Uh-huh. And you’ve lived everywhere in the country, I imagine? Including my wooded area, where I’m tearing leatherleaf mahonia out going “What the hell and where did it come from?” (one of those fill-in-the-blanks.)

    Over-reaching jerks can be found with all KINDS of qualifications…

  19. Amish Paste has done miserably for me in 2 different climates. Stupice IS fabulous. I am right with Sonia on this rant. We can achieve a much saner approach to all this if we actually open our eyes and ears to what other people have experienced, done, learned.That’s how gardeners learn. As for titles and degrees, in addition to trial and error in my garden, I learned the most of what I know from a lifetime nurseryman with no more than an 8th grade education and the elderly customers who bought seed from the shop where I worked. Experience counts, no matter where you get it.

  20. Where I have a problem with the zealots is when they seem to influence marketing trends, making it more difficult to find things in the nursery and garden center. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to ignore them. I used to argue with them when I happened into a conversations with them, now I just say something like “Oh, is that how you do it at your place?” You’d be surprised how many “true believers” don’t even garden…

  21. speak on….the world need more moderate views , and fewer zealots and preachers. Also , @ Beth, I know lots of people with horticulture degrees who know far less than the “lowly” master gardeners I work with. Titles and degrees aside, it is often experience and willingness to learn that make the better gardener, you will know the good gardeners when you meet them regardless of where they “graduated” from

  22. On the hybrid versus heirloom issue. Everyone should grow what does best for their situation. However, hybrid seed is the result of the combination of at least 2 inbred lines. Usually each line is inbred for at least 6 generations for tomatoes. That is at least 6 growing seasons that arable land and resources are not used for food production. If you happen to farm or garden in a country where the limiting factor in growing something is water, land or labor, there is a question as to whether greater hybrid yield is actually a greater net yield when factoring in the extra resources required to make that seed.

    Beth, Master Gardeners exist to help people who know nothing about growing things to learn gardening. If someone calls about a deadspots in their lawn the Master Gardeners help them out. I have grave doubts that your BFA taught you anything about IPM, grafting, or how chill hours apply in Southern California. Southern California Master gardeners do know these things. I agree that many Master Gardeners are a little dull and not deeply into modern or classic garden design and know little to nothing about how to handle drainage around a home. Many Master Gardeners, however, have incredible depth and breadth of knowledge, especially of the particular part of the country they garden in. Many Master Gardeners have advanced degrees, generally not in horticulturally related fields. Master Gardener is an avocational, not a vocational certification. By the way, I am not and do not want to be a Master Gardener.

  23. That is so true!
    This summer I planted about 10 varieties of “heirloom” tomatoes. Only two of them didn’t rot right on the vine. One of them is Brandywine and another is Green Zebra which is not exactly a heirloom.
    Sungold F1, on the other hand….

  24. Funny how one size doesn’t fit all. We grow what we can grow–no GMO, but what’s the point in drawing a hard line between traditionally bred hybrids and heirlooms? At some point at lot of these heirlooms were backyard hybrids–indeed, we grow one we call “backyard inbred” that heralds back to a bushel of unknown, probably hybrid paste tomatoes we bought from the Amish in 1999. Volunteers emerged from sheet (lazy) composting in 2000 and we kept a few that turned out to be tart, tasty and reliably high yielding. Who knows what kind of genes have been insect-bred into these bad boys. I prefer heirlooms only because they’ve stood the test of time and usually offer a quality (taste and texture) I demand. But, at what point do we accept a hybrid like Rutgers, which is older than I am? Never? That’s absurd.

    My local zealot wraps herself in the cloak of superhero–if we don’t “save the heirlooms” who will? There’s a point there, but then there is the point that we eat out of our garden hard–like the freaking deer–and a crop failure is cause for significant economic hardship. If a hybrid plant–like one of the Jim Baggett hybrids, since we’re talking tomatoes–can get me a couple of weeks earlier harvest I’m going to throw a pair in the garden and see what happens. Every day I’m harvesting tomatoes and lettuce (my kids won’t eat the raw kale and chard salads I’ll eat in the summer) I figure I save $4. That’s $28 a week.

    The same woman who condemned me for the crime of hybrid nonchalance harped holy hell this year because we finally sucked it up and used copper spray after two devastating years of blight took out our tomatoes–all of them–in both 2009 and 2010.

    We have had great luck with Amish Paste, by the way, as well as Costoluto Genovese, Opalka, Silitz, and Oregon Spring.

  25. I have six conventional tomato plants in my backyard and they seem to be happy every year. As a matter of fact, they produce so many fruits that there is enough to feed my entire family, the whole neighborhood, all of my friends and there is still enough left over for canning, stewing, etc.

    Then last year I tried heirloom tomatoes and failed. I only got two tiny fruits which where shriveled up and tasteless. What am I doing wrong on these while I do so well with their contemporary cousins? And advice would be much appreciated.

  26. Sonia’s use of the expression Plant Nazi was totally appropriate for the zealot she described. These rude, insensitive, politically incorrect , and obnoxious know-it-alls have no place in the newly emerged garden culture that encourages each of us to do our own thing. If Sonia had capitalized the word “plant” along with “Nazi” perhaps more readers would have understood her intent. Furthermore, did everyone here forget about the hilarious Soup Nazi featured on the Jerry Seinfeld show? No one, back then, though the word ‘Nazi” was offensive, when it was used in the context of a sit-com script.

  27. Love your rant and your credibility comes from your gardening experiences… I know you to be a thorough person and value your opinion on just about everything. Heirlooms and hybrids can grow next to one another in the garden in peace. Why can’t we? Zealots are people who just need a bit more education.

  28. I think this was just a poor yielding year for me personally for tomatoes. Potatoes on the other hand-150# from four varieties! And *gasp* I use my leftovers from the winter instead of buying new ones! Lat year good tomato yield and poor potato yield-go figure!
    I was involved in the local Master Gardener program for years and was a founding state board member in Wisconsin. Like any organization one gets good volunteers and bad ones.

  29. I’m glad someone else brought up the “Master Gardener” issue. I’ve always been suspicious of people who throw that around.

    So I did the Master Gardener program to try it and see what I could get out of it. The program was overcrowded (I think no one is turned away, no matter how tough they make it sound), completely introductory. If I used latin plant names in class, people rolled their eyes.

    Even now having done the program I’d be embarrassed to flout such a title as “Master Gardener.” I mean, what does that even mean, “Master Gardener.”

    I think the program is worthy for what it is and does, but it should be more honest.

  30. I like to think of master gardeners as Passionate Lifelong Learners. I’m retired and am looking for place to share what I know and learn what I don’t know in the company of fellow passionate gardeners. I think the master gardener program will be a perfect fit for me. In my horticultural career I’ve been around people with all kinds of specialized degrees in various horticultural fields and ya know what? Some people know some things and others know other things and no one knows everything. We can all learn from each other and isn’t it all about being happy digging in the dirt and growing things?? No degree at all is necessary for that kind of love and enjoyment. Let’s share the wealth. There should be no room for snobbery in the garden.

  31. I appreciate the fact that Master Gardener training is all volunteer and represents a sacrifice of time that I for one have been unable to make. We all become knowledgeable in our different ways. It’s all good.

  32. ding ding ding, we have a winner
    It took only : < quote from above > “BTW – I’m amazed it took 8 comments before someone objected to your use of “Nazi”. Usually that’s a hot-button someone pounces on right away.”
    Could it be the Garden Rant readers have finally heard about Seinfeld humor ? NO HEIRLOOM TOMATO SOUP FOR YOU.

  33. I am rather tired of the cliché ridden rants against anything that isn’t “properly” done. This includes your dislike of an eco-evangelist’s over the top way of getting their opinions into, the middle of the road on everything, mainstream. Diversity is a good thing and I wish there were more people concerned not less.

  34. A few years ago when I became semi-retired, I volunteered to be a master gardener, thinking I’ve been gardening for 25 years and now have some time on my hands to give back to the community. Years ago I volunteered as a master canner and assumed the MG was a similar program. Boy was I mistaken. The MG interview process was more rigid than a job interview with such silly questions as ‘What can you bring to this program?” Uhhh, my time? Anyway, about halfway through this very serious and intimidating interview I simply stood up and noted that I was obviously not suited to whatever their program is and we would all be wiser to not waste any more cosmic energy. Wheww – dodged that bullet.

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