Plant Life
June 29th, 2010

Dr Cathrine Degnen and Michiko Nitta


Photo by Nick Ballon

Relating To and Relating With Nature

Cathrine and Michiko have a shared interest in the relationships people forge with and through nature. We are also both provoked by questions about whose knowledge and expertise comes to ‘count’ socially. As a speculative designer, Michiko seeks to challenge and disorient her audience’s assumptions in order to open opportunities for future change. As an ethnographer, Cathrine seeks to recalibrate her own assumptions via the worldviews of the people she works with in order to better understand cultural processes and everyday experiences.

While we have both previously conducted research that feeds into this current project, we have focused here on ethnographic data collected by Cathrine when she worked with British gardeners. This research sought to contextualise British debates over genetically modified food by asking about grounded knowledge: how do people with everyday knowledge about plants and about growing food make sense of genetic modification?

Initial stages of this research led to a host of related questions: How do gardeners conceptualise and understand the plants they work with? How is this expertise built, developed, and shared? How can we explain the ways in which gardening practice insists on reciprocal parallels between human bodies and intentionality and those of plants? While gardeners do not equate humans with plants, plants are incorporated into a worldview that is not straightforwardly dividable into ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Indeed, this research revealed a number of mutually implicating parallels between plants and people in both the English language and in gardening practice and knowledge. The research demonstrated the highly social and autobiographical aspects of gardening and plants, encompassing a writing of social relations, memory, experience, and personal history onto individual plants and gardens. Consequently, the relationships evoked between humans and plants in gardening practice, knowledge and technique surpass a simple ‘human-other’ divide of Western ontology.

Seeding Knowledge

Plant Life is comprised of two related design objects: Let’s Grow a Plant Together and Optostirps. Both projects were created to involve people in the natural world via gardening but in ways new to them. Both projects also draw on vernacular ideas about plants and gardening in British culture that emerged from the research described above, and employ them as foundational principles.

Let’s Grow a Plant Together is a collaborative plant growing and learning experience for beginner gardeners. Gardening is deeply social: gardeners learn through trial and error, but also through sharing success stories and problems with each other. Beginner gardeners however often have difficulty accessing this knowledge. To solve this problem, this project created three teams of beginner gardeners in London and Newcastle and invited them to grow a plant from seed together. Each team has a blog where members post pictures and comment daily on the plant. Team members were provided with each other’s contact details, a pot, soil, seeds, and no other information. The project has brought individual team members and the three teams into a network as they can observe each other’s progress, dilemmas, and solutions.

Optostirps is a project working with established gardeners. It offers the chance to open up discussions on the potential futures of gardening and plants by asking gardeners to imagine what sorts of wishes could be expressed via plants. Optostirps plays on the classification conventions of plants in the Western world whereby all known plants have two Latin names. The radish is, for example, Raphanus sativus. Raphanus is the plant’s genus name and sativus is its species name. Optostirps, or “I wish plant”, is the genus name for this collection of future plants. Each plant also has a corresponding species name that reflects the issues raised by the gardener consulted.

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