Can a Gardener Become a Plant Whisperer? Talking to your Tomatoes

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on June 23, 2011

Research conducted at the fringes of any field often appears wacky, if not downright absurd. But is it really?

2011-06-23/LarryR/fe7b98The history of science shows us that sometimes work considered wacky or worthless turns out to be quite useful. Consider the following two examples:

• "The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable…" Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's "Rockets in Space", NATURE, March 14, 1936

• When conducting their point-contact experiment, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were told by their boss, William Shockley, to stop pursuing such nonsense. They persisted, in spite of Shockley’s warning, and assembled their experiment on a wheeled cart that they could quickly shove into a closet whenever Shockley was nearby. In 1956 Bardeen and Brattain won the Nobel Prize for their invention of the transistor.

When it comes to wacky-sounding experiments, the field of horticulture has its share as well. One that I came across recently involves talking to plants. The UK’s Royal Horticultural Society has been doing research on the effect of the human voice on tomato plants. Here are the step-by-step procedures detailing the conduct of their experiment:

1. The Society placed a classified ad in The Times, inviting members of the public to audition for roles as “plant whisperers.”

2. Society researchers selected ten different voices, some male, some female.

3. The volunteers read passages from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The readings were recorded.

4. Each plant “heard” a different recording, which played a continuous loop for a month through the headphones of an MP3 player that was attached to the plant’s pot at root level.

5. All plants shared the same greenhouse environment.

6. The plants were measured before, during, and after the experiment.

7. Control plants of the same variety were grown in the same environment, but without exposure to a human voice.

                                            University of North Texas
      Sarah Darwin on a scienific expedition

The one-month experiment produced some interesting results. Tomato plants exposed to the human voice grew faster and more robustly than the control plants. Among the former, those exposed to female voices grew faster and more robustly than those exposed to male voices. And here is the clincher: The fastest growing and most robust tomato of all had listened to Sarah Darwin, great-great-granddaughter of Charles! She was the one who read his revolutionary work, On the Origin of Species to her tomato.

So…should you talk to your tomatoes on a regular basis? Read them the passages used in the research? At this point I don’t think I’ll waste my breath. Our vocally deprived tomato crop is doing quite well on its own, thank you very much. Having spent 25 years as a research administrator, I’d want to see this research replicated many times. If the results are consistently positive, I’ll change my tune.


The tomato graphic is the author's.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Oh No!! Sharon Jul 18, 2013 11:09 PM 5
Good thing I talk so much... Trish Jul 1, 2011 5:14 PM 11
Headed outdoors Maridell Jun 27, 2011 4:27 AM 15
Hi Larry pajonica Jun 24, 2011 2:10 PM 5

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