Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Sensing Scale in Experimental Gardens: Un-Lawning With Silphium Civic Science

Author: Aubrey Streit Krug, Ellie Irons and Anna Andersson

Publication: Ecozona Vol. 14 No. 1

By designing transdisciplinary and participatory methods of engagement, The Land Institute’s Civic Science Program harnessed public participation to visualize cross-scalar relationships in gardening projects through the medium of Silphium integrifolium, a perennial oilseed crop in development at The Land Institute. This research discusses how individual garden sites containing Silphium grown by public participants help collect data and conserve the plant’s ecotypes, all while being linked to a wider research network that builds relationships and guides public sensory engagements.


Gardening experiments are timely in the context of what many now call the Anthropocene, an era that highlights questions of how humans collectively relate to the larger Earth systems in which we are embedded. In Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, Timothy Clark reflects on the “unreadability” of the Anthropocene. He invites ecocritics to address this challenge by practicing “scale framing,” reading texts in variable and increasingly broad scales, and engaging the contradictions that emerge. We applied a scale framing approach to a story of relationships with Silphium integrifolium in an experimental gardening project. Silphium is a native North American perennial prairie plant being domesticated as a future oilseed crop. We are researchers and participants in a civic science project, in which individual garden sites are designed to collect data on and conserve silphium ecotypes while being linked into a wider network. In particular, we analyzed a civic science video story created by Ellie Irons called “Un-Lawning with Silphium.” Through our ecocritical analysis, we generated a framework to visualize nested and cross-scalar relationships in gardening projects. This framework could help inform the design and assessment of experimental gardening projects that feature the arts and humanities (e.g., digital narratives, ecocriticism, and pedagogy) and connect them with the natural and social sciences (e.g., plant breeding, botany, geography, and ecology) through transdisciplinary and participatory research methodologies for public engagement (e.g., civic science). We found that civic science gardening with silphium, and other gardening experiments in the Anthropocene, can guide public sensory engagements with scale, help spark recognition and investigation of contradictory scale effects, and motivate us to imagine and build relationships of caring responsibility.

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