Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: The importance of talking to plants


For the Recorder

Published: 01-23-2023 4:37 PM

A few years ago I was having coffee with my two sisters-in-law at a family gathering in North Carolina. Both of them had recently built new houses and were quizzing me about how to create gardens in the bare dirt surrounding their homes. The question got me thinking about how I had come to have the multiple garden beds that I’ve slowly developed around our house. I mentioned that an important part of the process is figuring out where plants will be happy and not being afraid to move them if they’re not prospering where originally planted. “I always talk to my plants when I’m digging them up and replanting them,” I said offhandedly.

Both women looked at me as though I’d sprouted a third eye in the middle of my forehead. “Whaat? You talk to your plants?” they asked incredulously. “Of course I do!” was my response. “They’re like friends,” I explained. “I have relationships with them.” Again, astonished looks.

This exchange got me thinking about how I relate not only to my garden but to nature in general. I have always had animals – cats, dogs, horses – and I talk to them all the time. They don’t talk back, but I know they’re listening because they respond non-verbally to my utterings. When I’m walking in the woods I often greet squirrels and rabbits (and the occasional garter snake) with a casual “Hey buddy!” I’m not expecting an answer, of course, so why do I do this? What does this say about me? Am I foolishly anthropomorphizing animals or am I expressing some weird sense of inter-species kinship?

I recently picked up a book called “Life in the Garden” by Penelope Lively, a wonderful British writer who happens to be a passionate gardener. In discussing how gardeners invariably attribute human characteristics to plants, she mentions that King Charles, a dedicated environmentalist and gardener, believes it’s crucial for people to talk to their plants. “I just come and talk to the plants, really,” he said in a 1986 interview. “Very important to talk to them, they respond.”

Charles’s remarks were met with howls of skepticism at the time, but it turns out there’s some scientific basis for his claims. In 2007, a Korean scientist said that when he played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to rice plants, they grew faster and blossomed sooner. In 2013, the Royal Horticultural Garden conducted a month-long experiment to find out if voices make plants grow faster, and if so, which voices have the best results.

Thirty people auditioned for ten spots to read to tomato plants. A range of voices, male and female, were chosen and assigned to read from either works of fiction or science. The recorded readings were played to the tomatoes for eight hours a day through headphones attached to their pots.

The same tomato variety was used and the plants were grown in identical conditions. The experiment included a control group of two tomato plants that were left in silence. The plants’ growth rate was measured each week. According to the home and garden website thespruce.doc, the results of the experiment showed that read-to plants did grow faster than those in the control group, and that a female voice was more effective than a male voice. The reader whose tomato plant grew the largest — by two inches — happened to be Charles Darwin’s great-great granddaughter, Sarah Darwin, who read from Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Darwin himself believed that vibration affected plant growth. To prove this, he had his son play the bassoon to seedlings in his greenhouse. The results of this experiment have not survived.

Another experiment seeking to show that plants respond to sounds, was conducted in 2009 by the television show MythBusters. Pea plants were grown in 7 different greenhouses with different sounds in each. Two were given encouraging sweet talk, two were given trash talk, one classical music and one heavy metal rock. The seventh had no sound at all. I have no idea if this program has any scientific validity, but it was definitely entertaining. After five weeks, the plants were weighed and inspected for yield. The plants that were spoken to did better than the control group and it didn’t seem to matter whether they were being praised or insulted. The classical music group did better than the spoken to groups. And surprise! The plants that rocked out to heavy metal grew best of all. The more vibration the better. At the end of the show, the MythBuster team concluded that connection between sounds and plant growth was “plausible.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Mystery shrouds case of injured moose euthanized in Sunderland
Montague lands $4.92M EPA grant to demolish Strathmore mill
Propane explosion causes no injuries, but destroys Northfield camper
‘Such a great honor:’ Greenfield’s Kelly Doton to be inducted into the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday
$338K fraud drains town coffers in Orange
48th annual Bernardston Gas Engine Show expected to be biggest event yet

It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from such scattershot research. I’m not about to wire my gardens for heavy metal, but I’m not about to stop talking to my plants either. Maybe gardeners who talk to their plants like old friends tend to take better care of their plants. In any case, I hope that King Charles won’t consider it beneath his dignity to talk to his plants now that he’s wearing the royal crown.

I’ve never asked my two sisters-in-law whether they whisper to their plants from time to time. Given how they scoffed at my garden chattering, I’m not sure they’d admit it even if they did.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.