As environmentally conscious growers, we can face conflicting aims in choosing the fruit and vegetables for our gardens. On the one hand we want to maximise the use of our precious plots, to minimise our reliance on supermarkets and reduce the fuel miles that provide our food. On the other hand, we want to support biodiversity, growing what comes naturally in our local eco-system, keeping rare and traditional crops alive for future generations. Native and traditional plants aren't always the easiest or most efficient growers, and what is and isn't native might surprise you. So how do we strike that balance?
A complex heritage
Where ever you live in the world, it's likely that most of the fruit and vegetables you can grow originally came from another part of the world. As an example I'll use British fruit and vegetables.
Nearly all the food plants grown in Britain could be said to be exotic. All our cereals, along with our version of agriculture, come from south-west Asia. Even the wild oats native to these isles aren't cultivated - the oats farmers grow are an exotic import. That most emblematically British of fruits, the apple that fell on Newton's head, originally descends from the mountains of Kirghizstan.
Some fruits and vegetables have been developed from wild strains within Britain. Cabbages, cherries and raspberries have all been bred from native strains to the ones we know today, as have other berries and brassicas. But they are in a minority, and don't provide the staple produce that fills our bellies.
Where does nature end?
Mentioning descent raises an awkward question - when does a plant stop being natural? When does it stop mattering whether it's native, because it's effectively man made? Selective breeding is not the same as genetic modification, but neither is it doing things nature's way.
One reaction against the bland sameness of modern fruit and vegetables is the growing popularity of heritage strains - rare and distinctive varieties that have come near to extinction, that show the imperfections that make them feel more real. But even these were originally developed, and are now being revived, by human meddling.
Thinking about the future
More disturbing is the consideration of what's appropriate in a changing age. Global warming will transform the climate in many regions, and what grew there a hundred years ago may not be suitable in another century's time. To return to the example of Britain, new oak trees may no longer grow in southern regions in fifty years time. A British icon falling not to a rhetorical point about its origins, but to a future for which it was not prepared.
Mixing it up
There are no easy answers. Do you grow what has been considered native in your area? Do you grow what will thrive best in your garden, just avoiding GM? Do you plant only heritage breeds, ensuring their survival but taking a few more trips to the shops? If we want to protect bio-diversity and the wider environment then the answer may lie in mixing things up. Plant some local produce, plant some aliens, and see what survives in the climate you now have.
Whatever you choose, good luck, and I hope that it thrives! And please leave a comment on how you decide - it's interesting to hear different people's priorities.
Photo by Andy Roberts via Flickr creative commons