Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chapter 3: Green Graffiti

     Nobody can tell by looking at it--and I didn't even realize it at first--but what I'm really doing as I plant my mint, is marking my territory.  It struck me one night how much friendlier the streets seem to me since I've started doing this experiment.  Maybe it was obvious all along: the more work I put into planting the mint, the more I put at stake, the more I care what happens downtown, the less frightening downtown seems, the more I feel at home.  It's as if I am extending my living space as I tend to my scattered street-garden.  I expect in the future, street gangs will adopt this method of tagging and abandon their spray cans.  Turf wars will begin when a mint plant is uprooted and replaced with oregano.  But enough about the future:
     As we pass from summer into fall, there's a sort of miniature spring that is occurring, where the temperature and rainfall are just right for small plants to thrive.  And as mint has proven to be very resilient, it seems to be able to grow in anything that is brown and crumbly.   Staying true to their namesakes, Spirit and Opportunity continue to survive longer, and produce more, than expected:

(~2 1/2 months)

(~2 1/2 months)

And joining the one-month-and-over club, I present to you (in keeping in tradition of naming the mints after Mars landers and rovers) Viking and Pathfinder.

(~1 month)
(~2 months)
     The season of growth is now coming to a close as the days get colder and colder.  Will they survive the winter?  My prediction is that the leaves and stems will die and fall away, but that energy will be stored in the roots so when the warmer weather returns, small mint sprouts will emerge from the dirt.  Of course, that's only if they escape from being uprooted by gardeners, or bulldozed by construction workers.  The city is a constantly shifting landscape and there are no guarantees.  

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chapter 2: An Attempt to Hide in Plain Sight

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” -- Greek proverb

     One of the side effects of doing this project is that whenever I'm out walking in the city I catch myself searching for, and evaluating, dirt. So it should come as no surprise that this pristine little area caught my eye:

     But the fact that it's pristine also told me that it's someone's job to keep it that way. The area is also very exposed and anything I plant there, no matter how small or pushed to the side it is, will stick out like weed that needs pulling.
     I walked passed this dirt oasis a few days in a row, annoyed that it could not be used, until one day I had an idea: What if I made the mint look like an important plant that had been purposely planted there? I would only need a few supplies:

     I used the longest sprig that I had and prepared it to look like a brand new sapling:

     With the mint "tree" ready and my supplies on hand I set out in the night to plant my mint.

     The next morning when I approached the dirt area I saw a man in a suit, a security guard, and a guy in a reflective vest standing around the newly planted mint shrugging their shoulders.  This wasn't quite the kind of attention I was hoping the mint to get, but the three men soon went on with their jobs and left the mint alone.
(Yep, just another tree...)

     It seemed that I had succeeded in my plan, and every night, and sometimes in broad daylight, I would walk my dog passed it and throw water onto it from a bottle.  I had asked my wife to water the plant one day while I was at work.  She later told me that a security guard started asking her what she knew about the plant.  She pretended to know nothing about it and said she just thought it looked thirsty.
     Then one rainy Monday, after a loud and boisterous weekend, I noticed that the mint looked to have been stepped on and kicked; the supporting rod was broken and the mint lay outside of the caution tape.  I was disappointed, but I noticed that the caution tape remained in place for the next couple of days.  So I planted another mint in its place.  It stayed there for a few days and then was removed, along with the caution tape.  This time the message was clear: we own this dirt, and you can't use it.
     I'm not sure why they didn't remove it right away.  Maybe they were hoping to catch the person who did it, or maybe they were just lazy about it.  I like to imagine that I gave someone the task of going through the history of recent tree permits, or some bureaucratic nonsense.   

     In the end, this slab of good soil ended up being as useless as a slab of cement.  So what did we learn here?  Beats me.

Thanks for reading,

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chapter 1: Life on Mars

       As a teenager, I was utterly fascinated by the idea of  terraforming Mars.  There's something about establishing life on a hostile and lifeless planet that still captivates my imagination.  I suppose, in some way, this project is fulfilling that dream.
       That's not to say that downtown Seattle is a lifeless, or even hostile place, but from the mint's perspective there are many threats - being trampled, being consumed, various toxins from cars and garbage and cleaning chemicals, poor soil, exposure to the elements, being overly saturated in human and/or dog urine, etc.  Gardeners, as it turns out, are the biggest threat.  Out of the dozen mints I've planted this last month, half of them have been uprooted and raked over.  Apparently, the empty patches of dirt in the city are not exactly free for the taking.  I could, of course, find hidden areas in parks to plant mint, but there's no challenge in that.  And I'm not looking to actually harvest the mint; I just want to see if I can make them grow where they aren't expected.  Chances are, all the mint I plant will die, but I am hoping to be surprised.
      Two of the mints I've planted have survived over a month of life on the streets.  I have christened them "Spirit" and "Opportunity" (forgive the nerdiness), after the two Martian rovers that were expected to last only a few months, but ended up collecting data for over seven years.

(I've decided that I'll only track the progress of the plants that survive more than a month on this blog.)

(~one month)

(~one month)
Fun Fact: Soon after being planted, Opportunity was raked up by a gardener.  They made the mistake of leaving the plant on site.  I replanted it and, despite its roots being exposed to the air for over 12 hours, it now seems to be doing well.

      Meanwhile, the mint in my kitchen continues to grow healthily.  Judging by the flowers that have recently grown, and this photo, it looks like the specific type of mint I am growing is Spearmint.

Whichever type it is, I'll now refer to it as the "Mother Mint", since it is the source of all the mints I've planted, and will plant, for this blog.  The map below shows her seven surviving descendants, represented by the blue points.

(Current Survivors as of 9/9/11)

      From this bird's eye view I am reminded of the game RISK (again, forgive the nerdiness).  In the first round of RISK each player takes turns placing down one infantry token at a time until all the spaces are filled.  The goal afterward is not only to remain on the map, but also to grow in number and spread into different areas.  This, too, is my goal.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Prologue: Sprouting an Idea

     One fateful day last May I bought a bundle of mint sprigs from the Pike Place Market.  In an attempt to extend the life of the mint I placed the bundle into a glass of water.  Little did I know to what extent I would be extending their lives.  
          There ended up being more mint than I had cared to use, so most of it just sat in the water for weeks, wilting and turning brown.  When I finally got around to throwing out the mint, I discovered that the stems had grown long, white roots.  I immediately recognized this as "vegatative reproduction", a form of asexual reproduction.  Excited that something I read about in a biology textbook actually had real world applications, I searched my apartment for any dirt I could use to plant the mint in.  As luck would have it, I happened to have a pot of dirt on hand (the plants that previously occupied the pot had recently been destroyed by my dog).  I planted the two sprigs that had the healthiest looking leaves.


            I was happy to read, on Wikipedia, that mint is an "invasive species" that can grow in all kinds of shade and sun.  And, it grows best in temperate climate--perfect.  

"An invasive species," I thought to myself, "Just like me..."  I began to feel a connection with this plant.

In only a couple days, it began sprouting branches:



And then, in a matter of weeks...


     What was once a couple of twigs was now a small bush running out of space to grow.  I was feeling rather proud of myself; I don't think I'd ever grown anything successfully.  
       Later on, while walking my dog along a dirt trench that surrounds a parking lot, I had an idea: I could grow mint in this dirt trench!  And then, like the mint plant itself, the idea quickly grew: I could grow mint in every dirt trench, in every planter box, in every crack in the cement!  Seattle will become a fresh-smelling forest!  
        And this is what my blog is going to be about; my efforts to grow mint on the streets of Seattle.  I'm not sure if this is a science experiment, an art project, a strange hobby, or ecoterrorism.  But I think it's interesting.  I hope you will stop by now and then to check on the growth of this blog as it reports the growth of my mint.