Reading the urban soil


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



IMG_7892Alec Finlay reflects on his involvement in the Land Rights Night which took place at South Block on Monday 11th April

I valued how the conversation revealed the unresolved tensions – unresolved in my own mind – between the healing effects of feral-play and the task of community growing-producing. I don’t know about the other speakers, but I felt the different examples opened that up as a discussion to move towards, without seeing it as an opposition. (Maybe at first I introduced it in that way, but I thought the examples of wild huts, shelters, and the creative potential of ruins made it clear that isn’t the case, and the conversations I had afterwards suggested that).

There is a lot to think about in terms of the alternatives of preserving feral places as ‘refugia’, where wild things grow and people heal their pasts, in a locality, and, on the other hand, taking over sites, to grow things, make innovative parks, or harvest (e.g. biomass). I was left reflecting on that tension between conserving industrial ruins, and translating them into productive green sites (ideally with the addition of renewable energy).

Part of that is an artist feeing a need to analyse and criticise my own tendency to be involved in a ‘play’ activity; part of it is the duty climate change brings; and part of it is about strategies of how you preserve spaces from unnecessary development. Without becoming “something”, whether a landscaped ruin, park, garden, etc, feral places are always vulnerable. My point about the teenage den was that it tends to be vulnerable to developers, unless, perhaps, we define that evolution towards “something”. (The something can be landscaping the ruin as a ruin, productive of a feral space and healing activities, or it can be the productivity of crofts or gardens. What we need are innovative solutions to what that “something” is?

I liked how the conversation introduced these issues, and possible solutions, without finding one answer. Translating crofting into the city, and composing a “ruin” – they kind of meet in Kevin Langan’s wild shelters, or bothies, or huts – where the den becomes a dwelling, and that makes a ‘steward’ to protect a place from development. So I valued the way the other speakers opened up that discussion, and possibly hinted at a menu of solutions? For me, I think dwelling became more important than commons – though its a useful word. Access is always an issue, but what seems to protect spaces is lived presence, and maybe not even a word like commons is powerful enough, at this time, to resist development?

One thing we didn’t touch on, but which the soil project will, is the toxic soil in Glasgow, and what can be done with it. Some of it is ‘ruined’, some of it can be redeemed.

Thanks to everyone.


Fermentation Circle

Saturday 9 April, blog by Kristina Nitsolova, photos by Clementine Sandison

It is a wonderful thing to realise how much can be learned in the space of a few hours, even if the subject may be the ancient practice of fermentation (pre-dating agriculture).


It took an afternoon in the Soil City lab to motivate me to turn all the leftover vegetables (especially cabbage) from the weekly Locavore veg bag into all sorts of delicious sauerkraut experiments and to give rye sourdough bread making another go. Hearing about the different approaches to preserving and preparing food of experienced Glasgow-based ‘fermentators’ made the use of natural fermentation techniques seem less of an aspect of countryside life and more of a possibility for a healthy urban diet.

Some great books to guide the novice as well as those more experienced in the art of fermentation, are available in the Soil City library- The Art of Fermentation and Gut reveal a lot about the principles and health benefits of incorporating more naturally fermented foods into our modern diets.

Not only did we get to taste Clem’s sourdough rye bread, beetroot and cabbage sauerkraut, and yogurts, Martin’s white cabbage and caraway seeds sauerkraut and kombucha, and Lindsay’s allioli but we had a go at making some sauerkraut with seasonal (very aesthetically pleasing) vegetables, and even ferment some wild garlic.
On a personal level participating in the Fermentation Circle was a way to switch off from the politics of our global food system and its ills (which I often find thinking about and discussing) and re-connect with food as a source of nourishment and health when produced/processed/prepared using natural methods- another valuable point of engagement with sustainable food activism, in my opinion.