Author Archives: Erin Despard

Collective gardening as research (it might not be what you think)

Last summer, my husband and I built a small garden-on-wheels: it was a large rectangular planter mounted on the wheel base of an old wagon, planted with three tomato seedlings, a kale plant, a marigold, sage and parsley. After it was finished, we posted a message to our neighbourhood Facebook group, asking if anyone had a sunny spot where we could park the garden for a couple of weeks, at which point we promised to find another home for it. We asked the hosts to water it for us, but other than that, and a bit of staking and periodic fertilizing (by me), the garden required little care. It toured the neighbourhood for the summer, producing a healthy crop of heritage tomatoes and fresh herbs that we then shared in various ways with the hosts and other people in the neighbourhood. It was a fun thing to do, and everyone who helped out seemed to enjoy it. We met some of our neighbours and discovered a shared interest in gardening that we might not otherwise have known about. But it was more than this–or at least, I think it could be.


I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out what that ‘more’ could be, and specifically, whether it might constitute a kind of research. Obviously it would be a different kind of research than gets done in universities. But after spending the last eighteen months or so on a partial hiatus from the academic world, I am very interested in that possibility. What if research was done by people whose contribution was motivated by something other than an academic career? Would it produce a different kind of knowledge? This is of course not to discredit academic research, but to treat it as a foil for the production of something else. After this little experiment, I don’t think I am qualified to say exactly what that something else is, but I am beginning to have an idea about where it might lead.

Let’s say that, in a general sense, the point of research is to produce knowledge. Any project undertaken by human beings in settings where there are unknowns, will produce knowledge of some kind. But I am not, for example, talking about local or horticultural knowledge (what gardeners learn about growing particular plants in a given location). And though I think there is important social and practical knowledge gained through this kind of undertaking (e.g., how to share the work involved, as well as the food produced), what I am after is more than this, too. I think that, undertaken in an open-ended fashion, and accompanied by a certain amount of reflexive discussion about how things are being done and why, collective gardening might be a way to develop new ways not only to do but also to think about gardening.

For example, the successful cultivation of our orphan tomatoes, tended by a series of strangers in several different locations, showed that gardens can do things other than what some garden historians and theorists have argued they most fundamentally do (i.e., stake a claim to territory or express an attachment to place). In fact, if we are being generous, these tomatoes turn the whole history of agriculture on its head: staying in one place and ‘putting down roots’ is supposed to be a way for human societies to increase the efficiency of food production and therefore the quality of life. But the orphan tomato plants produced bigger fruit in greater quantity than those I grew on my back deck, which had a head start but received less sunshine, and were also somewhat neglected while we were on holiday for two weeks.


A ripe ‘Black Seaman’ tomato, with ‘Blanche du Québec’, not quite there yet.

They demonstrated not only the importance of sunshine and attention from a human being (which every gardener already knows about), but also that these needs can be met collectively, on the basis of resources other than that of arable land, which is where much research on the politics of collective gardening has so far focused. Though this focus is perhaps due in part to the way differences in access to land overlap with environmental and economic inequalities that are in themselves urgently important to address, it might actually conceal a more fundamental condition of collective gardening: the coordination of attention to the needs of plants. In times and places where arable land for collective cultivation is in short supply (i.e., in cities), the problem of how to source and coordinate an adequate amount of sunshine and attention deserves research and action alongside work on improving access to land.

It is important to note that this preliminary, partially-formed insight into the socio-political dimensions of collective food gardening, started with a relatively disinterested doing. I wanted to garden with others, but I live in a city where there are few existing opportunities to do so–in part because many people have space to garden in their own yards. We had an old wagon, and extra tomato seedlings, so a garden-on-wheels presented itself as a straightforward but fun thing to try. It was not only an altruistic act (which is how many of our neighbours saw it), but also a socially speculative one. To the extent that it can lead to the development of knowledge, it’s going to require more doing, of a similarly open-ended nature but with a greater involvement of others–including I hope, more discussion about what it is we are doing. However, if we succeed, and manage to refine or correct or extend what I have sketched out above, it will be because we wanted to, because we enjoyed doing it, and because the work–as well as the talking and thinking–could be integrated into our everyday lives.

This means that the knowledge we produce will be something that we share–not only as an accomplishment, but as a sense of belonging and purpose and competence that might enable us to do other things together. Like stand up for our local environment, or convince more people in the neighbourhood to grow food too. Then knowledge might have value not only in itself, or for what other knowledge it enables, but also because of what it allows and motivates and sustains the researchers to do, with others.



The work of gardening

For the first time in my life, I have my own garden. That is, my first garden larger than a recycling bin or whisky barrel. I have spent many hours caring for other people’s gardens, making and tending collective gardens, and, more recently, many hours writing about gardens, but this is the first time that I have land of my own to plant and care for. It is an exhilarating time of my life. Also a daunting time–how do I do this right? That is, how do I garden in such a way as to recognize and somehow make good on the privilege this land represents?

Perhaps it is not surprising that I find myself paralyzed by indecision in certain moments, or even that I should find ways to avoid working in the garden (that is, the area that will eventually be recognizable as a garden). Not because I don’t want to do it, but because there seems to be so much else to do. Gardening is what I do instead of watching tv, or reading a novel or going out for a drink with friends. In some ways, I find this is appropriate. We are living in times where there will never be enough time for all the things we should be doing. Increasing inequality, racism, environmental degradation, runaway corporate power–these facts of contemporary life demand our attention. Finding ways to contribute in some way to the struggle to make things better–or at least, to preserve the possibility that we might one day have the chance to do so–is an urgent problem of the everyday. On the other hand, how is it that filing my taxes on time, getting windows washed, purchasing birthday gifts or installing moth traps are items that reliably make it to the top of the list, and create a never-ending reserve of anxiety and/or guilt? Maybe this is what some gardeners mean when they say, ‘gardening is resistance‘.

Gardening as a leisure activity is not at all in line with my vision for a better future. If we saw and talked about the work of planting and caring for plants as vital and productive activities, then we might have the impetus to create more spaces for the pursuit of those activities by greater variety of people. Then we would have, not only more gardens, but more abundant and diverse green spaces. Even better, we might find the support to work together in their creation and care–at which point, gardening could become visible as a solution to some pretty big problems (e.g., food insecurity, social isolation, pollinator decline, biodiversity loss). Of course, particularly in times when social relations are so strongly structured by property ownership and economic competition, working cooperatively and inclusively, in a way that doesn’t burn people out or depend on temporary, outcome-oriented funding, takes a lot of time.

In fact, maybe it is less a question of finding time–as if all the other things did not have to be given up–and more of actively making the time in which to tend to plants and their environments. That is, for a start, by changing the things we give importance to on a daily basis. For example, can we consciously (and hopefully graciously) decline to do certain things, or at least, refuse their false urgency?  Rather than saying, ‘in an ideal world, I would have more time for gardening’, say ‘in an ideal world, I would get the windows washed, but for now it is more important to plant a pollinator garden, or talk to the neighbours about getting some fruit trees planted in the park.  There are some people who actually believe that clean windows are more important than pollinators or freely available fruit, but we might find that they are not so many, if we start putting our time where our hope, as opposed to our fear is.

In order to do that, some of us–those who are otherwise susceptible to pressures to be ‘good’ at tending to the status quo (in the realms of home ownership, personal finance, social norms etc.)–are going to need support in re-organizing the values and expectations that structure our lives. This is going to involve some apologies, and some difficult, politicized discussions.  The world needs our time and energy right now. Gardeners can make a substantial contribution to a lot of problems, but to do so we have to figure out how to turn gardening from an individualized leisure activity, into a collective work of cultivation and care. Its going to take practice.


Le jardin des nations, collective food garden in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

What does it mean to think critically about plants and landscape and why should we keep doing it?

I have been doing a kind of plant-focused landscape criticism for a number of years now. Plants are essential to human survival as well as the well-being of ecosystems in general, but it can sometimes be hard to justify this research from a humanities as opposed to a scientific perspective, as it involves the production of knowledge useful to social and cultural critique rather than government policy or direct intervention. It is tempting to suppose that it is more important to know what to do about plant well-being, than how to think about them.

This is even more true today than it has been in the past, when collective attention is consumed by more immediately pressing social and cultural problems (e.g., the rise of racist ideologies and misogyny, the decline of truth and reason, etc.). However, while critical thinking about things like plants and landscape cannot substitute for acts of resistance and solidarity, this does not mean it should be abandoned, even temporarily. Plants and landscape provide a window through which we can see social and environmental problems in new ways, and this in turn, can help us develop gentler, more creative ways of living together. If the deepening of collective concern for the world necessarily causes a certain narrowing of perspective, we have to insist on the value of this kind of insight in order not to lose it altogether.

The social and cultural value of plants has long been thought of primarily in terms of the restorative and ethnobotanical uses of plants. More recently, artists and scholars in the humanities have begun pursuing questions about the underappreciated agency of plants (e.g., their intelligence, capacity for communication, etc.), often via an engagement with plant science.  All these ways of studying and engaging with plants are enormously important and worthy of continued exploration. However, in my work, I attempt to do something different by tapping into their critical or mediatic potential: what can they help us to see about the way vegetated landscapes mediate social relations (and vice versa)? Studying the ways in which plants and people are mutually (if not equally) implicated in particular landscapes, we can develop a different kind of insight, and some practical ways of intervening on their behalf. The thing about plants in a world where truly pristine ecosystems are practically non-existent, is that their presence, their patterns of growth, their vigour and their interactions with other beings, often tell us something about human social relations and cultural values as well as environmental conditions.

The problem of ‘invasive species’ provides a particularly good example. Not only are most invasive plant species transported to their new locations–and often deliberately planted there–by human beings, they thrive under conditions left behind by other human activities (e.g., disturbed soil, removal of competing species, etc.). To re-interpret something Jussi Parikka has written about animals and communication technologies, the cooperation of plants and people in producing ‘invaded’ landscapes, makes the plant species involved emblematic of a breakdown in the practices, relationships and values associated with tending and caring for the land.  Writing the history of invasive plant species and their movements across particular landscapes not only helps to identify the role of human activities in co-producing those landscapes, it points us toward new avenues for responding to them–that is, by rebuilding or better yet, reinventing the social relations required for their care.


Rhododendron ponticum. This large evergreen shrub is widely considered invasive in the UK, despite the fact that it takes 10-20 years to produce blooms and set seed.

This is why humanities-based research about plants continues to be important: not only can it help to enhance their social and cultural value–which is important to their protection and to the continuation of scientific research–it can also refine the way associated environmental problems are perceived, and identify strategies for developing alternative solutions.  To the extent that these strategies call for new social practices of cultivation and care, such research may also contribute indirectly towards a work of learning across social, cultural and perhaps even political divides. This is of course not enough on its own to address the rise of the right in numerous places around the world, but it may in the long run be part of what enables us to move on to something better.


On Leaving Scotland

Life in Quebec is easier than life in Scotland, and therefore happier; it feels like home. I am not sorry we left, but I do miss Scotland. I miss the stimulation of living in a landscape that is not home–in this case, a wild but also deeply historical landscape for which I was frequently missing a good part of the story. Now that I am gone I can see this as a specific kind of pleasure–the pleasure of innocently taking places for what they are–or at least, for what they appear to be. It is similar to reading a novel that takes place in a place you have never been. Though everything you come to know about that place is imagined, you feel as if you understand it. It is not an understanding that would withstand being spoken about, even in cocktail party conversation, but something that makes up a layer of what you know about the world–something you draw on to make sense of other people’s lives. I feel lucky to have this feeling about Scotland, even if it is already too late to write about it knowingly.

The last place we visited before we left was Easdale Island, a tiny little island south of Oban covered in abandoned shale quarries and gardens overgrown from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We rented a cottage there so we could have time with friends after we had moved out of our flat and shipped all our belongings. It was the beginning of July: wet, windy and sometimes sunny; a wilderness of shale and salt spray, low skies and indigo water, cascading fuschia, foxglove and orange freesia. We walked the footpaths that criss-crossed the island, skipped stones, marvelled at the sky. We were there for five days, just enough time for coming to know what you cannot know about a place.



I miss Easdale now, though it is not the specific place so much as the time of being there. There is privilege in living outside what you know, in a state of perpetual openness to the world. Of course there is also vulnerability in that openness, which takes it toll, and which is part of why we decided to move back to Canada. Of course, as anglophones, we can never be perfectly at home in Quebec either, and I am reminded that for us the true gift of Scotland was being there with friends–with others who knew how we felt, and who were in a similar state of not knowing. So when I say I miss Scotland, it is never separate from missing them. All the important things I know about those landscapes, I know with them.


Reading urban plants for soil conditions

I have been helping out with a public arts initiative during Glasgow International (festival of visual arts). Soil City is an urban laboratory and series of events organized by the Open Jar Collective. It is designed to initiate a multifaceted conversation about soil as if it matters to life in the city. I have been helping in particular with site visits by the mobile laboratory, which includes a pair of purpose-built bikes designed to enable the collection of all kinds of ‘data’ pertaining to the material diversity, social uses and meanings of soil at sites around the city. These events provide a visually and socially engaging way of approaching a variety of social and environmental questions; of greatest interest to me, is the plant surveys which provide some of the data being collected.

I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in these surveys. This includes a short list of plant species selected for their widespread presence in Glasgow, and their relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). In other words, by identifying whether any plants from the list are thriving at a given site, you can learn something about the soil there. Some reflections about that process can be found here. The guide itself (minus photographs) can be found here.


Gorse (Ulex europaeus): suggestive of poor soil, in which it can thrive due to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root nodules.

Although I have yet to finish thinking about this little project, probably the most interesting observation it has raised so far, is this: while the ‘indications’ provided by plants with respect to soil are often mixed or inconclusive, the ‘reading’ of plant presences at a given site, and particularly the kinds of relationships this identifies–not only between plants and soil, but between different plants, and between plants and human activities (such as gardening, dumping of organic material, etc.)–initiates a new mode of perception. Not only is it a way of seeing more in the urban landscape, it also reorganizes the perceptual field ever so slightly. For someone like me, who was already always on the look-out for plants, it causes me to see them in terms of their groupings, or past events, rather than individual species. It is hard to fit into words how modest-yet-profound a difference this is.

Glasgow City Council’s planning committee visits the North Kelvin Meadow

For eight years, a property developer called New City Vision (NCV) has been trying to gain permission to build condos on the North Kelvin Meadow. The campaign to prevent this development from going forward has gained significant momentum in the last couple of years, due in part to the activities of The Children’s Wood. Last week, members of the City Council’s Planning Applications Committee visited the meadow in response to a request from the Children’s Wood, who have submitted an application of their own to retain the land for community use and outdoor education. Hundreds of people of all ages, including several groups of children from local schools and nurseries, came to the meadow in the midst of high winds and heavy rain to show their support for this alternative application. The councillors arrived a half hour late and toured only a small portion of the site, their heads down or turned towards the planning officers who led the tour. Then they returned to Council Chambers where they deliberated for approximately two hours before granting approval to NCV’s application.


Waiting for the councillors to arrive. Photograph by Chelsea Lowe


Immediately following this decision, an alternative proposal submitted by The Children’s Wood, was also granted planning permission. The fact that two conflicting applications could be granted planning permission for the same site is a surprise for many people (myself included)–one that bears some consideration. As was repeatedly emphasized both within the committee meeting (which I attended as an observer) and in the planning officer’s report (available here), planning decisions are not supposed to be political. The decision to sell land rests with the landowner (Glasgow City Council), and they are only beholden to consider the opinions of residents on land use designations as part of the process for approving the City Development Plan. But official review of the new Plan is not yet complete, which means that objections to the zoning of the NKM for housing do not bear on this decision. Whether the ninety houses and “executive suites” are built thus depends solely on whether the application is judged to be in alignment with current planning policy–a supposedly objective process that requires councillors with a strong opinion one way or the other to absent themselves from the proceedings, but nonetheless resulted in a clean split along party lines (with all the Labour candidates voting in favour of the application, and the Scottish National Party voting to reject it).

Consequently, the key weakness of the NCV application–that the loss of opportunities for nature education, imaginative play, food gardening and community events can be compensated with an upgrade of football pitches at another location–is considered resolved by the assertion that current uses of the meadow are illegitimate (i.e., “informal/ancillary”) in relation to its original designation as a playing field. In other words, even though policy at the municipal and national levels favours the protection of urban greenspaces–for which the meadow technically qualifies–it need not be treated as a greenspace since it is not officially designated as such. At the same time, should the landowner decide that current uses of the meadow are desirable, they could grant permission for their continuation, thus (I think) providing the basis for recognition of an alternative “established” use. Except that the council has already signed a contract for sale with NCV, which means that the application will have to be rejected at the level of the Scottish Government for this response to become conceivable (which is apparently, what happened to an application from a different developer in 1996).

Working through the absurdities and injustices of this situation has been a useful but painful education. Leading up to the site visit, hundreds of person hours were invested in preparing the meadow and Children’s Wood for inspection: volunteers spread wood chips, repaired composters, built new raised allotments, weeded and removed debris. We worried that councillors would not see the meadow’s beauty or vibrancy in the depths of January. Colourful signs were painted, trees decorated with knitted fruit and flowers and large format photographs of the gardens, smiling children and fruiting apple trees were printed, laminated and distributed throughout the meadow on the morning of the site visit. Nobody knew the route the councillors would take across the site, and so there was some confusion about where to stand, how to make sure our signs and banners and children would be seen. But we were mistaken in all this, for in the end it mattered very little what had been made visible; the councillors were not there to look–at least not at us, our signs, or the fruits of our labours. These were after all, unauthorized and therefore irrelevant augmentations of the property in question. And so it was that rather than standing before the councillors to be seen, we followed behind them, chanting and shouting our message as opposed to showing it–only to be prematurely dispersed due to confusion about the visit’s itinerary.


In some ways this was a profoundly disheartening experience–a direct and bodily confrontation with the disenfranchisement that is built into the planning process. On the other, I think that some people understood from the moment the site visit was granted, that this was a different kind of political opportunity. A moment in which we could be seen, not by politicians–or at least, not by the members of the planning committee–but rather by an audience of journalists and voters and community members whose hearts were still available to be won. The site visit and the committee’s decision has been very well-covered in the local and national media. A petition to the Scottish government, asking them to ‘call in’ and reject NCV’s application, gained over 1200 signatures in its first 24 hours. Most importantly, and even before the visit happened, the number and diversity of volunteers actively involved in the campaign increased noticeably. I arrived on the day of the visit ready to face my fears about the meadow’s future, but I found that standing there in the rain with so many others–family, friends, neighbours and strangers–was a comfort and an inspiration even as hopes for a different outcome were so quickly disappointed. And while the work of preparing for the visit made us all more vulnerable to this disappointment, it also produced a collective experience of hope–and that is what journalists are writing about now; that is the light in which everything we have done may finally become visible in a lasting way.



On living the urban good life, elsewhere. Or, what bikes and plants can do.

We moved to Glasgow from Los Angeles, which many people imagine must have been a difficult move. We did (and still do) miss life by the beach, but I was actually ready to leave Los Angeles’ desert ecology. I love the comparatively moist, vegetal abundance of Glasgow. What I miss more than the beach, is stress-free cycling. Glasgow is a terrible city for cyclists (surprisingly, much worse than Los Angeles, or at least West LA). I won’t get into all the reasons it is so bad here (though the rain and high winds are definitely part of it); what I want to write about is the kind of intangible good that can come from giving bikes more room–actually, of using plants and bikes together to reorganize urban spaces.

I just returned from a three month research trip to Montreal. While I was there, I stayed in the socially and environmentally progressive burough of the Plateau-Mont-Royal, where gardens and bike lanes alike are plentiful. I had lived in Montreal before, but not since recent additions to the city’s considerable cycling infrastructure. I spent some time towards the end of my visit trying to articulate exactly what this changed about my experience of the city, and also to see some of the inequalities that the urban good life seems to imply. Another work in progress…


One of the Plateau’s many ‘ruelle vertes’

On riding to work in Montreal

Most days I ride up Rachel to the George-Étienne Cartier monument at the base of the mountain in parc Mont-Royal, where I turn left and ride downhill into the McGill ghetto. An unnecessary climb, but worth it, not only for the exercise (by the end of my stay I am noticeably more fit!) but also for the view of the mountain, which in the fall, provides a continuously changing spectacle from St-Denis all the way to the park. It is at once inspiring and comforting, since its beauty is a surprise that I remember. As the leaves change colour, the face of the mountain visible from the street increases in density, each tree showing itself as an individual with its own timeline. It becomes briefly a kind of magical other place that is both within and above the city, and I become much more convinced of its mountain-ness—it seems to grow in size as it gets brighter with colour, and then, once the leaves begin falling, to shrink again, but leaving its topography more clearly visible. By the end of my visit, it stands as a promise of winter’s proximity, and all that entails. I do not, consequently, mourn the leaves’ passing, even though I will leave before the snow comes, and won’t ski or skate or toboggan there even once this year.

The mountain so captures my attention, that I barely notice the two rows of planters lining the pedestrian approach to the mountain, which are tall with ornamental ginger and overflowing with annual flowers. The bike path goes around this pathway; the planters are there to mark and beautify a different time—that of walking, and sitting rather than riding. Such plantings appear almost overly indulgent from a bike. Do we really need all this beauty in one place?

In contrast, many of the bike paths are planted with trees and ornamental grasses—plants large enough to produce an effect from a distance, or at speed. At the end of November, the grasses make an audible rustling on windy, traffic-calmed streets. From a bike riding through the Plateau-Mont-Royal burough, it feels as if we are actually in a new kind of city. It is not one with which I am in all ways comfortable—I wonder for example, at the effects of the growing disparity in the quality of public spaces across different buroughs of the city—but the way it feels is nothing short of inspiring. We feel healthier, happier—in fact, we are healthier, and we have at least, more moments of pleasure in public. At this stage in my life—with a young child, and a chronic health problem, these are not incidental differences. A good quality of life may help to sell real-estate, and is thus contributing in many parts of the city to a rather remarkable pace of gentrification, but it also makes it easier to be a good parent, to do a good job, and to take care of your health. It is therefore, no small thing to encounter beauty, and to be surrounded by the vitality of other living beings, on a daily basis.

I remember asking one of my interviewees if she thought that the enthusiasm for urban agriculture in Montreal was due in any way to the quality of the urban environment and the (often very generous) use of plants in public spaces. Maybe, she said, but pointed out that some of the most interesting projects come out of a lack of action on behalf of the city, because then people have to work out new ways of getting things done. Although I feel somewhat protective of what has been done in the Plateau, for bikes and for plants, I also wonder whether similar effects (of inspiration, health and happiness) might be produced, with less problematic socio-economic implications, through more collective, less institutionalized efforts. But this is of course to imagine another city again—one that does not yet seem quite possible, even here, amongst the tree-lovers, cyclists and alleyway gardeners. People may be healthier here, but many of them are also overworked and underpaid. There is no camaraderie to speak of on the bike paths; it is possible that many of the people who ride up Rachel, towards the mountain with me, do not have time to enjoy the beauty of its changes.