Should you raise your voice to raise your crops?


Sometimes I abuse my crops. I scream at the spinach for growing too slow, and rattle the cages of tomato plants that refuse to set fruit.

There is method to my madness. Research suggests that plants respond both to voice and vibrations. I believe it. Screamed spinach tastes awfully good.

Each week, I walk down the garden rows, fussing like a football coach at the players that aren't producing. I bark at the beets and cuss at the cabbages.

"Don't you onions go soft on me," I'll say. Or: "You peas are too immature. Grow up!"

The tirades seem to work. The plants perk up, particularly if I've chosen to nag them on a rainy day. Most vegetables try to listen; the corn hears every word.

Bullying the garden around also helps relieve one's tensions. The yard is my domain. If I leave work frustrated, I can go home, bad-mouth the broccoli and not get fired. Gardening is part of my stress-management program. A man's loam is his castle, I say.

But times are changing. There is a growing movement to deny free speech to gardeners in their own back yards.

In Colorado, for instance, it may soon be unlawful to criticize fruits and vegetables: A bill has passed the state legislature which would make it illegal to slander fresh produce.

Lawmakers are serious about this.

Proponents of the legislation, which is supported by commercial produce growers, say it would protect farmers from the consumer backlash that affected the apple industry during the Alar scare in 1989. Under the proposal, anyone who spreads "false and unscientific information" about Colorado's crops could be sued.

But the bill might affect homeowners as well. Any gardener who belittles a 5-foot row of bush beans in the back yard would be liable for his or her comments. It could happen, says Bob Briggs, a spokesman for the Colorado Greenhouse Growers Association.

If a gardener is overheard complaining about his vegetable plants, "there is a remote possibility that he could be hauled into court," says Mr. Briggs.

Clearly, our right to speak frankly to our plants has been threatened. The First Amendment has been breached. Had there been such a law in George Washington's time, he would have been put in stocks for abusing the cherry tree, and probably would have never become president.

These are perilous times for gardeners in Colorado. I'm glad I don't live there. Every summer I get upset with the tomatoes that start to ripen just as we leave on vacation. Disgusted, I head for the shore shouting, "Damn the tomatoes, full speed ahead!"

I couldn't say that in Colorado. It's not fair. Vegetables don't deserve rights. We're talking about Lima beans, not human beings.

My crops and I have an understanding. I growl and they grow. Complaining is half the fun of gardening. I cannot imagine working in a yard where never is heard a discouraging word.

Consider the scenario if the Veggie Rights Bill became federal law:

* All backyard banter stops, creating a silent spring. Fearful neighbors quit discussing their garden problems over the back fence: Video cameras may be lurking in the bushes.

* Garden clubs meet secretly and form a resistance movement.

* Zucchinis take over the world.

A Veggie Rights Act would raise interesting legal questions. For instance, how does one define vegetable slander? Is it OK to yell at a tomato's leaves instead of the fruit? Can I fuss if the seeds fail to germinate? Can I spit out hot radishes?

Does the law apply to harvested crops? Can I complain about a bitter cucumber after tasting it? How about home-canned produce? Can I take umbrage with a jar of tomatoes that failed to seal properly?

Can I poke fun at a potato shaped like a duck? Or a tomato that has an appendage (let's call it a nose) protruding from its side?

Can I bully the garden plot instead of the plants? Can I yell at the soil? A bug? A hole? A rock? Where will this stop?

As gardeners, I suggest we fight the Veggie Rights Bill. We can start a grass roots movement, if it's all right with the grass. We can march on the Colorado statehouse and express our concerns to the legislators there.

I'll bring the rotten tomatoes.

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