Taming the domestic frontier

An opinion column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Vincent G. Barnes (Friday, Feb. 11, 2005) makes an interesting argument about the uses of genetic engineering. The basic point is that there may be a lot of money to be made in creating customized plants for use in suburban yards. The column raises the possibility of fall foliage in colors like violet or blue, and grass that grows only two inches and then stops.

Of course some of these miracles are already available through good plant choice and breeding. Many of the yards in Western Kansas where I'm from are buffalo grass, which really does stop at around three inches, and wouldn't need mowing at all except to keep the weeds down. But my yard in Wisconsin grows six to eight inches a month in the summertime, and buffalo grass doesn't work in this climate, so I can see the point of genetic alterations.

I think this probably will be a growth industry in the future. Homeowners don't have the same necessity for pest-resistant plants and high-yield crops as farmers, because they lack the scale to make such innovations really economical. But grass is an area in which large landowners and commercial installations would begin to see an economy in easier lawn care, and the development for those purposes would translate to products for residences. But then, it would be an interesting problem to work out just how a genetically engineered strain of grass could be maintained on a yard, since the smaller plants would probably do poorly in competition with wild-type plants that could grow much larger and collect more energy to spread.

As far as herbaceous plants go, most homes that include them in their plantings do so because it is a hobby of the homeowner--they are just too labor intensive to do without taking an interest in them. I would guess that some kind of labor help--like personal yard robots--would be necessary to make economies of scale on non-grass plantings practical. So the columns suggestions about sprucing up maple trees or fall colors would be maybe the first areas in which genetic alterations would become practical for landscaping plants, just because trees and bushes are the least labor-intensive: you just plant them once and forget them except for pruning and watering, and even those aren't strictly necessary.