Counting the earthworms

Reflections on North Kelvin Meadow, Tuesday 12th April by Kate Foster

It was raining heavily and chilly too, but Soil City’s research trip to North Kelvin Meadow left me smiling warmly. It was magic! Conversations went backwards to memories people (like me) had about how this was once a football pitch, and forward to the plans for more gardens and activities.

Meanwhile three grey worms took centre stage to be identified, in turn. Digging up a patch of ground for the worm count showed how much soil has formed over the old pitch surface. However enthusiastically kids poured mustard into the lower layers, deep-digging worms refused to be flushed out. Perhaps they weren’t there? As we exchanged experiences, we were also confronted by how much we did not know. What were those birds nesting? Crows? surely not ravens? Had anyone seen a wren? Are those ash or birch seedlings? Is there any known way of distracting kids from screens? Actually several kids were there, up for worm catching and earth-smelling. We all enjoyed watching Alex make a giant worm – to test the soil texture she said.

The next day, I landed the job of testing North Kelvin Meadow soil samples for ‘basic’ information – acidity, Potassium, Nitrogen, Phosphorus. A wee kit with different potions, measures, and pipettes.

After reading the instructions twice, and setting aside questions of why I was doing this, I filled the test tubes (1:4 volume of soil and water) and used yellow labels to make it feel more official. After a little while, you get to add liquid and powders. Then comes the best bit – comparing the mix in the test-tube with the colour chart. Greens, purples and reds mysteriously appeared. Suspiciously, all my readings were the same: alkaline, with moderate levels of nutrients. This will probably be the only day I get to be a lab chemist.

So what do I like so very much about Soil City? I think the bikes push art, and artists, into places where ideas about culture are tested. This isn’t a journey that should end when GI wraps up, and it can’t be understood simply within an individual’s autobiography or fine art practice. Different critical registers are needed to think about what the Soil City mobile unit is doing. The project’s success won’t be told simply by how many people visited the Lab. For a start, we need to count the earthworms too.

Garnethill Park

Thursday 14th April – Reflections on Garnethilll Park site visit by John Hutchinson

Despite having lived in Glasgow for over 10 years and attended many an event at the Art School, this was the first time I’d actually set foot in Garnethill Park. Although very much in the city, enclosed as it is by buildings, streets and cars, I was impressed by the sense of contemplative space that Garnethill Park offered – almost as if time was moving a little slower while the city trundled on around it. A great spot to just sit and watch people drift through and the local posse of pigeons mill around. The arrival of a local with a bag full of breadcrumbs signaled feeding time – a mad flurry of grey feathers with some opportunistic seagulls bullying their way to the front of the scrum. The birds had obviously been waiting for this regular feed – an example of how small green spaces like this can offer opportunities for people to forge connections with the more-than human.

Delving into the soil, we found a plentiful array of worms. A couple were tentatively identified with the help of a flow chart – who knew there were so many different types!? Funny to think of that hidden world under our feet – a hidden meshwork of worm-ways bisecting and intersecting like an inversion of aviation vapour trails.

Due to the park’s close proximity to the Art School, it seemed only right to try a bit of soil painting. Mixing soil from two different parts of the park with water provided two slightly differing hues of soil paint. Although I’m no artist by any means, I enjoyed painting the shapes which popped into my head without much thought. The end result was a mixture of triangles and swirling lines – a subconscious result I think of having been looking at triangular soil ID charts and wriggling worms! Garnethill Park is a great example of how a small urban green space can provide a welcome breathing space to just be – a welcome island of soil in a sea of asphalt. I’m glad it’s now on my mental map of the green spaces of Glasgow.

Reading the urban soil

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The word ‘indicator’ makes it sound as if plants can be read as signs of soil conditions, when in fact, it is more like a starting point for a more complicated analysis that (in theory at least) takes a range of factors into consideration, including not only the other conditions at the site, but also the relative quantity and vigour of the plants, and the presence of other species. It is also true that soil conditions can vary dramatically in a small area (if polluting or fertilising substances are present, if animals have been defecating there, and so on). The discovery of indicator plants in a given location thus often yields contradictory ‘results’. For example, on our site visits to date, we have observed ragwort (Senecio jacobea), which is an indicator of poor soil, together with nettle and ivy, which are indicators of fertile soil. In practice, indicator plants rarely provide evidence of soil conditions; rather, they pose questions: might the soil be more fertile here than over there? What could lead the soil to be locally basic within an otherwise acidic site?

I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in the mobile lab. This includes a short list of plant species that are common in Glasgow, and which have a specific and reliable relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). This was an interesting but surprisingly time consuming task: many of the plants that are strong indicators of soil conditions are only rarely present in the city; at the same time, certain soil conditions (e.g., dampness) are so widespread in Glasgow as to be irrelevant (since they do not distinguish between different sites). Finally, in April, many plants are still at an early stage in their growth cycle (or not even visible), which means that they can only really indicate something to experts. All this underscores the fact that what can be ‘read’ about urban soil through plants is both geographically specific and highly subjective.

Though it is important not to expect too much, the search for indicator plants is a pleasant way to get to know your local park, garden or vacant lot, and a good way to begin to see the inextricable and complex relations between plants and soil. Plants simply do not grow where the soil cannot support them. In this light, the surprising abundance and diversity of vegetation in Glasgow is worth thinking and talking about. What more could we be doing here?

Erin Despard, 14 April, 2016

Maiden voyage for the soil city roving researchers

Saturday was our first day out on the bikes. We had a welcome reception at the Kinning Park Complex community garden and Moogety Garden, a community garden in Govan. We also dropped by Plantation Park on the way and were surprised by the biodiversity of the site event though it is right next to a busy motorway.

People wanted to know more about their soil and what that meant in terms of growing produce. They were up for getting to know their soil better and sharing their passion for these small patches of land they had invested in.