/Mitigating “Plant Blindness” through a Photographing a Community Garden

Mitigating “Plant Blindness” through a Photographing a Community Garden

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

As readers probably know, plant species are suffering just as much as animal species are (if species can suffer; perhaps they do). The BBC, just yesterday:

Of course, as anybody who has read Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire knows, plants aren’t dumb; they are, in fact, quite adept at getting us to co-evolve with them through cultivation (corn, hot peppers, roses, marijuana, opium, etc.) Pollan writes:

Matters between me and the potatoes I’m planting really aren’t any different. We, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as we have been since the birth of agriculture [and before! –lambert]. Like the flower, whose form and scent and color have been selected by bees over countless generations, the size and taste of the potato have been selected over generations by us—by Incas and Irishmen and McDonald’s customers. Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness for the bee, heft and nutritional value for the human.

The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of these desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato. All the plants care about is what every organism cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error, these plant species have discovered that the best way to accomplish that is to induce animals—bees, people—to spread their genes far and wide. How? By playing on those animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply[1].

So did I choose to plant “my” potatoes or did the spuds make me do it? Both. I can remember the exact moment the fingerlings seduced me, showing off their knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. The tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” sealed it. A trivial, semiconscious event, it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter had any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. But evolution consists of countless trivial, unconscious events, and in the continuing evolution of the potato, my perusal of that catalog is one of them.

However, for plants to seduce us, first we must be aware of them.That is what eliminating “plant blindness” is all about. From Sarada Krishnan, Tara Moreau, Jeff Kuehny, Ari Novy, Stephanie L. Greene, and Colin K. Khoury, “Resetting the table for people and plants: Botanic gardens and research organizations collaborate to address food and agricultural plant blindness,” Plants, People, Planet:

Of the myriad gifts plants provide to humanity, food is among the most visible, as everyone needs to eat, every single day. Due to their universal importance, food and agricultural plants would appear to represent ideal entryways to address plant blindness. Yet increasing urbanization worldwide and decreasing proportions of the global workforce in agriculture are limiting opportunities for people to have direct, hands‐on experiences with food and agricultural plants outside of retail purchasing, meal preparation, and food consumption. This disconnect is troubling, especially as the challenges to the sustainability of our future food supply necessitate that society, and certainly elected decision‐makers, have the capacity to understand the potential benefits, risks, and tradeoffs inherent to agriculture and its advancing technologies.

The term plant blindness was introduced by Wandersee and Schussler in 1998, and since then numerous studies have reported on its negative consequences with regard to plant conservation (Balding & Williams, 2016) and have outlined methods to address it (Balding & Williams, 2016; Frisch, Unwin, & Saunders, 2010; Krosnick, Baker, & Moore, 2018; Pany, 2014; Pany & Heidinger, 2017; Strgar, 2007; Wandersee & Schussler, 1999,2001). Plant blindness has led to the devaluation of plants with regard to their impact on the economy and culture, environmental sustainability, and public health (Krosnick et al., 2018).

So my simple plan to help mitigate “plant blindness” was to go to my local community gardens, and photograph[2] a lot of plants. Unfortunately, my mental picture of this splendid garden was at variance with ground truth: This horridly wet and cold May and June is just as horrid for them as for me — all we really seem to be able to produce in bulk is mosquitoes — and so they more than a month behind, too. The essay that follows will feature what plants there are, but will concentrate also on garden infrastructure. Which might give you some good ideas too, even if only for next year, whether you garden or not.

* * *

A fine pile of rich mulch, since soil is the foundation of everything.

Hay to cover the beds

A very colorful compost bin.

A sanctuary for starts.

I’m not sure what this is for. But it would look good covered with morning glories!

I believe these lovely frames are meant for cukes to climb over.

Raspberries (the sign said) with pretty blue flags so nobody steps on them.

A lovely bed of winter leeks (because what else could they be).

Frames for tomatoes, mulched with straw.

Greens, I believe. Well along!

Raised beds, covered with translucent non-woven fabric floating ow covers over hoops. I’m not sure why this particular geometry, but it’s pleasing to the eye. Generally, I deprecate wood-chip paths, because they remind me of horrid chemically treated bark mulch, but clearly I am wrong and these gardeners are right. Look, no weeds!

An artsy close-up. I also like the use of a handful of woodchips to prevent the fabric from blowing; it’s very ermaculture-esque to use what comes to hand.

A lovely bench. All gardens should have a place to sit.

* * *

I’m not sure how to conclude, except to exhort you to look closely at plants, and if possible to grow them. At least for the natural world in which we play such a perilous role, it’s better to see than to be blind.


[1] It has just occurred to me that Genesis 2:15-2:17 is a story about a food forest; and that the Fall is the transition to agriculture, humanity’s greatest mistake. Not a new thought, I am sure, but new to me.

[2] I’m experimenting with a new camera, and with something a little more lively than setting up on a tripod and taking long exposures. So some of these images may be less than perfect, because I am not controlling my depth of field very well.

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