Mantras for Plants: Talkin’ Weeds and More with Artist/Agriculturalist Vanessa Smith

August 9, 2011 · Print This Article

Tomato growing as a weed in a sidewalk crack near downtown, Chicago.

 

What makes a weed a weed? It’s a question that goes beyond horticulture to take on broader cultural and even philosophical implications. I love weeds as much as I love to garden. Sometimes those two loves are in conflict with one another, other times they’re in harmony. My desire to learn more about weeds, along with other forms of backyard horticulture led me to Vanessa Smith, an agriculturalist, artist and arts administrator who is the exhibition programmer at The Presidents Gallery at Harold Washington College. Vanessa recently gave a workshop/lecture on the history of house plants and their culinary and medical uses at Cobalt Studio as part of the latter’s Hecho en Casa/Home Made exhibition. Unfortunately I only learned of the talk after the fact, but so eager was I to talk weeds with Vanessa, I asked her if she’d engage in a longer conversation with me about weeds, plants, backyard chicken and bee-keeping and a whole host of other projects she’s involved in, and she generously agreed.

Claudine Ise: You’re interested in narrative, specifically in narratives related to plants – the stories we tell each other about plant life, and how those stories help to keep certain heirloom fruits alive, and maybe even help restore varietals that have been “lost”. Can you talk about the importance of story-telling to (for lack of a better term) plant-growing and cultivation in general?

Vanessa Smith: Stories give importance and connections to the food that we eat so that we are not only getting our daily food, but we are linking ourselves to our past and to other people.  The experience of hearing a story can shift our understanding of the past. So doing, it shifts our lives in the present and the future.  This can apply to stories of any subject, and in fact all stories blend many subjects, but here I am most concerned with stories about plants, particularly food plants and plants considered weeds.  The “story” of these plants could include their origination, who first named them and why they were named that, how they were used, what family or group used them, an aside about anything involving the plant, and etc.  But it isn’t just about this data that could be compiled into a spreadsheet.  The experience of eating or growing or even walking past something that has significance will change the way you eat, grow and walk past other things. 

CI: I am always wanting to know the names of the different weeds that come up in my backyard or I encounter while taking walks. How did you start learning about those plants that are typically identified as ‘weeds’? What are some good ways for people to learn more about these types of plants?

VS: I first learned about them by working on my parent’s farm, especially in their vegetable garden.  Weeds were simply identified by their out of place-ness, that they didn’t belong where they grew, according to what we wanted to grow.  Because we were trying to grow vegetables and not weeds, I learned an antagonistic relationship to weeds.  The way I thought about them started to change with the short time I spent with a forager.  He made his modest living by driving his used Toyota through the dirt roads of southern Minnesota to find wild edibles that he could sell to restaurants in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.  I accompanied him once out of curiosity, and it really opened my eyes to pay attention to the plants growing on the margins.  When you are foraging, you look for something in particular, but in the wildness of where you are looking you always notice a plant you aren’t expecting.  I also did a few weed-centered workshops and forages with Nance Klehm in Chicago, which increased my attention to the ecology of the urban landscape.

Vanessa Smith giving a tour of "Domesticated Feral Plants" at Cobalt Space, June 2011.

The most ideal situation to learn about plants is from someone who can show you what is what in the place where they are growing so you can get a sense of its whole environment.  Outside of that, there are many books and websites that can be helpful, I don’t have specific recommendations, but look up “wild plant identification books” online or at a library.   Many have ways to guide the search by leaf shape or flower color and shape.  I think it easy to get overwhelmed with all the plants out there.  Perhaps it would be helpful advice to just identify one or two plants and learn about them, find them in different places, observe their changes through a season.

In identifying plants, the more you learn, the more connections you can make between related plants, wild or domesticated.  And there are many connections to make – for example, wild lettuce is a very common weed in Chicago.  The endless varieties of lettuce that are grown all started with that wild plant. 

CI:  I’m really interested in the cultural processes by which a plant comes to be identified as a weed. What makes a weed a weed? Is it the plant’s tendency towards rampant, spreading growth? Or it’s lack of flowers (although many weeds bear flowers)? I’m also interested in the status of plants that are sort of in-between being the kind you garden-cultivate and weeds – like lamb’s ear, lemon balm or spider wort. I have all three of these in my backyard right now which I planted or kept (or transplanted) specifically because I like them so much. What are some of your favorite weeds? How easy is it to grow them as houseplants? Can you provide those of us who are interested in this with a few “how to” steps/tips that you shared during your urban foraging session/lecture at Cobalt?

VS: “Weed” is a very relative term – it is a word used to denote a plant out of place.  It can refer to a plant that is an invasive species – one that spreads quickly and out-competes native plants because it doesn’t have any evolutionary checks to its growth.  Most of the invasions are from the hands of people – due to bringing the plants in for food, medicine or cultural reasons and then they escape from the garden and run wild.  Many weed-empathizers say that the best way to eradicate weeds is to love them to death.  Imagine what our dandelion-filled lawns would look like if everyone were edging in on the spring greens for salads, the blossoms for dandelion wine, and the roots for roasted dandelion root coffees!

For the project at Cobalt space, which was a group show and performance program on the topic of “home,” I foraged for some commonly found weeds in empty lots and along railroad tracks and brought them into the space in pots.  I wanted to give the weeds the value of houseplants by the simple act of bringing them inside.  It was also interesting to confuse the distinctions of domesticated and wild.  I gave a tour of them to talk about their history and some uses that they have.

 

One of the plants I had at Cobalt that I am most fascinated with at the moment is Japanese Knotweed, or Polygonum cuspidatum.  It was brought in to this country from Japan as an ornamental plant (probably under the name Japanese Bamboo to market it, though it is unrelated to bamboo) and for erosion control because it grows quickly.   It is spreading rapidly now and is very hard to eradicate, even using chemical control.  It is an interesting plant because of its initial desirability as an ornamental, and because it has many edible parts – shoots, stems, flowers.  In the spring, the first tender shoots look like asparagus, but have a tart, rhubarb flavor.  The plant contains high amounts of resveratrol, an antioxidant that is also found in wine.

I don’t keep many houseplants, domesticated or wild, because I don’t have great light in my living space, but I am incorporating weeds into my backyard garden where I can.  The first weed I deliberately planted was stinging nettle, or itch weed as I grew up calling it.  I remember being a kid of maybe 4 years or so just walking through a patch of it and it stinging my bare legs.  I was scared and in pain, not knowing what was happening, so all I could do was cry.  My mom was close by and she scooped me up, took me to the house and washed my skin with soap to soothe the sting.  I learned from Nance’s workshops how valuable this plant is despite its tendency to cause skin irritation!  The plant contains many minerals and it makes a delicious simple tea.

Weeds are so resilient that if given the opportunity, whether it is in a pot in your apartment or in a sidewalk crack, they will give it their best effort to grow.  Sun is the major consideration, though, if you wanted to create a wilderness in your apartment.  They should have as much sun as possible.  I don’t know how difficult it would be, but I love the idea.  In one respect the commonly kept houseplants are selected because they are very forgiving if they don’t get constant attention, and this describes weeds as well!

CI: You also keep bees and chickens in your backyard. I’m curious about how Chicagoans are able to keep chickens in their backyards, given our climate. What does a person need to be able to keep backyard chickens safely and humanely in terms of space needs, chicken coop construction, etc.? What do you do during winter or periods of extreme heat?

VS: I do keep chickens in my backyard, but I keep bees on my friend’s rooftop and at an orchard outside of Chicago.  The chickens do well in the wintertime, given that they have plenty of food, access to unfrozen water, and a dry, draft-free living space.  The essential need is a good coop structure, and access to dirt is great if possible.  It feels more natural for hens to have access to dirt, but there are a number of great examples of people keeping chickens in Chicago in unconventional spaces like the balcony of a condominium or a rooftop.  In some Chicago backyards, soil contamination, the major one being lead, is an issue, so care should be taken in regards to this because chickens end up eating a lot of soil as they scratch around looking for bugs and small rocks to help their digestion. There are some great sources of information on chicken keeping in the Chicago Chicken Enthusiast Google Group moderated by Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center. 

Vanessa's hens getting elderberry snacks from visitors on the fall 2010 Chicago Chicken Coop Tour.

 

The two top-bar hives Vanessa Smith and Dave Snyder keep at an orchard outside of Chicago. Here Dave is starting up the smoker.

 

CI: Tell me about your work with the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) and what the group is trying to accomplish. How long will it take for the trees to grow large enough to bear fruit?

VS: We are a group of six people from different backgrounds working to establish a community rare-fruit orchard in Chicago.  Our focus will be mostly apples, some pears, apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, and some lesser-known fruits like paw paws and medlars.  All the fruits will be heirloom varieties, to increase awareness of crop diversity and to popularize these specific varieties.  We are working with the city of Chicago towards securing a lot in Logan Square for the orchard.  The site plan includes space for the orchard as well as planters along the sidewalks and a large public plaza.

Spring 2011 grafting day for the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project. Pictured here, left to right: Garrett Hohimer, Dave Snyder, Vanessa Smith.

It is a longer-term project – while we have been creating trees of these hard-to-find varieties ourselves by grafting for the last three years, we probably won’t see any fruit for the first three years of having the trees in the ground in the Logan Square site.

CI: And how about the Pedestrian Project that you and Alberto Aguilar are starting at the President’s Gallery at Harold Washington College, and the Green Roof Project that Harold Washington College is initiating?

VS: Pedestrian Project is the new branding of the collaboration at Harold Washington College between programming of the President’s Gallery, which I run, and the Visiting Artist Program, which Alberto runs.  We both work out of the Art and Architecture Department there, and bring in artists for gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops and residencies.

 
A dozen “Earthbox” planter boxes were donated to the college to grow vegetables in, and I was asked to plant in them a few weeks ago.  There are long-term plans for permanent green roof development that would involve greenhouses and outdoor classrooms for which they are still raising money and getting support, but they wanted to get started with what they could in the short term.  We got started late in the growing season, and if there is a sizeable harvest, we will give it to a community service organization that has a fresh market for low-income families.   We are going to connect the programming of Pedestrian Project to the planters on the roof in an exhibition next spring that will be of ecologically- focused art and events.  Stay tuned!

 

CI:  You’ll be in residence at Karolina Gnatowski’s apartment space in Chicago this year. I know you’re still in the conceptual stages, but is there anything you can share about what you’re planning? How long will the residency last?

VS: The residency will be a few weeks from mid September through the beginning of October.  The residency project is called WorkWork and it is about collaborations based in her home studio.  I will hold a dinner event, which will be a potluck encouraging people to bring a foraged dish or a dish that has a narrative of significance to them.  I also want to help Karolina and her partner find a system that works for them to compost their kitchen waste.  An earlier resident, Daniel Lavitt, created a mobile book-making station with Karolina, so it will be tempting to do an artist book, or short-edition multiple around the themes I have been working with.  A continuation of the houseplants project started at Cobalt will be there in some form as well!

All photos are courtesy of Vanessa Smith.