Atomic gardening is a form of mutation breeding where plants are exposed to radioactive sources, typically cobalt-60, in order to generate mutations, some of which have turned out to be useful.
The practice of plant irradiation has resulted in the development of over 2000 new varieties of plants, most of which are now used in agricultural production. One example is the resistance to verticillium wilt of the “Todd’s Mitcham” cultivar of peppermint, which was produced from a breeding and test program at Brookhaven National Laboratory from the mid-1950s. Additionally, the Rio Star Grapefruit, developed at the Texas A&M Citrus Center in the 1970s, now accounts for over three quarters of the grapefruit produced in Texas.
The popularity of atomic gardening coincided with a postwar society seeking to put newly discovered atomic energy to use. Many scientists and members of the public believed that atomic energy could be harnessed to address a great number of worldwide issues, including famine and energy shortages, leading them to embrace the new atomic era. Some scientists that had worked on the military application of atomic energy in the past invested in or sponsored programs dedicated to bringing more peaceful applications of atomic energy to the public domain, and this included atomic gardening. As public skepticism of atomic energy grew, and as nuclear arsenals continued to increase in size across the globe, atomic gardening fell out favor, along with other Atoms for Peace initiatives.