Escape & Invasion

I’ve spent many hours weeding in my allotment laboratory pondering where they all come from. Thistle, dandelion, bramble and nettle are the worst but also the most obvious. Surrounded by hedges made up almost entirely of these four it’s no wonder they make up the majority of my labour. Pondering the origins of weeds has always been an idle thought, until one day I found a giant Gunnera pushing up through the soil.

Like many, native to the southern hemisphere, this plant escaped from private collections and into the wild. The mild winters and damp summers are an ideal alternative to the foothills of the Himalaya, river banks of Central Africa and the forests of New Zealand. The seeds of the Gunnera can be airborne or travel on birds and animals and cover huge distances. Categorised as a dangerous invasive species, parts of Ireland and Scotland are struggling to keep them under control.

What other invaders are floating above my head? The breeze has been weaponised and the plant with the best seed design, tolerance to the elements and speed of growth would dominate the unattended pockets of land, and thrive. Or would they?… and this was where I started designing the soil sensors.

Notebook page
Notebook page: soil sensor design

To catch the airborne invaders as they land, let them germinate, catalogue and photograph. The plan was to build a few large plant containers, fill them with sterile soil, set them in different environments and see what happens. Thankfully I didn’t think about the details before I announced I was going to do this. If I had considered shifting 3.5tonnes of soil to six locations over a four mile radius, and photograph them through rain and shine every 3-4 weeks, for a whole year….. I would have stayed at home!!

So three years from the Gunnera moment here is Escape & Invasion



Flat copy setup on soil sensor no.5
Flat copy setup on soil sensor no.5 under the fir tree

From the start I wanted to copy biologists who use a 1m quadrant to survey density of species across a given area, so I made my soil sensors 1m square. This also made it easier to build up a larger image over time as a grid or contact sheet, with the plants telling the story as you read each row across the sequence. I’ve also been influenced by Muybridge and more recently the contact sheets of Yoshihiko Ito in building up a story across a contact sheet.

I was also keen to find out how different environments impacted on the types of plants that germinated. Each grid is named by its location, some in open meadows and orchards, and some under hedges and tress. The results are dramatically different but overall the invasive’s were few and far between, a few Buddleia and that was it. No Gunnera, Giant Hogweed, Knotweed or Balsam.

But the overwhelming winner was the dominance of grass, and if this scales up it’s quite comforting to think that the grasses will inherit the earth.