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Daniel Macnish experiments with the use of plants as “living billboards”.

Written by: By Megan Backhouse – Saturday Age, July 16. 2016

FAR FROM MINT CONDITION

Spare a thought for the normally hardy herb that is helping deliver a message about the health of our cities.

What happens when you upend the usual laws of gardening – feeding, hydrating and generally cosseting – instead go in for a spot of horticultural torture?

Daniel Macnish has been doing his worst to a hapless mint plant in a bid to spread a message about the health of our cities. This mechatronic engineer, who works across mechanical, electronic and software processes, is actively mistreating this normally hardly herb.

In a windowless room in Space Tank Studio in North Coburg, he first gets his two Mentha spicata plants in tip-top health. He lets then thrive in an expanded-clay-ball medium, applying a nutrient with a perfect pH level (5.5 to 6) to retain all the essential elements for healthy growth.

But last week he stopped feeding the plants for 24 hours. Within 10 hours the mint was limp and wilted. It perked up as the temperature dropped overnight but only made a full recovery about half an hour after Macnish restored its nutrient-solution supply.

Next time, he wants to starve the plant for twice as long, allow it to recover and then immediately stop feeding it again. Macnish is also thinking about tampering with the solutions pH level, cutting the length of time the plants are under lights (currently 14 hours a day) and changing the room temperature in a bid to make the mint turn yellow or otherwise look like it’s about to die.

Macnish is experimenting with the use of plants as a “living billboard” to convey information about the cities we live in. In an age where people are feeling increasingly isolated from natural processes, Macnish would like to see information about air quality, traffic congestion, water storage levels and other data imparted through plants.

“I would like the plants displayed publicly so that passersby would at a glance, see current air pollution levels (for example) by whether a plant is wilted or healthy looking. It’s not that plants aren’t useful in the first place but, being an engineer, I am thinking about how to add functionality to them.”

The idea of linking a plants appearance to data you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the specimen took hold a few years ago when Macnish was living in Shanghai and became struck by the dearth of public green space. “Plants were not seen as having much utility. They were just sidelines because shop signage and billboards and other things were seen as being more useful. It made me realise how important it is to your mental wellbeing to have plants around,” he says.

“I do a lot of rock climbing and being in natural spaces is really important to me and that is all tied up in this idea in using a plant where you would normally use a sign or some form of electronic billboard.”

Manipulating a plant’s environment – and consequently its appearance – in such a way that it reflects the health of a city is a way of bringing people into more contact with the living world,” Macnish says.

During last week’s experiment, the mint was photographed every 30 seconds over the 24 hours it was denied its nutrient solution. Macnish is now “doing some maths” with the results.

While the fast wilting and quick recovery of mint work well at this stage, ultimately he would like to use a more showy species that will respond, but not permanently, to the mistreatment he is planning. Irreversible wilting – as in what happens to your hydrangeas and tomatoes when left to their own devices at the height of summer – is not what he is after.

By taking a cue from gardeners who rush to the aid of a failing leaf – and fix it – Macnish wants people in shopping malls, train stations and other public places to have the opportunity to observe plants and draw their own conclusion about the air they are breathing, the weather, traffic levels, or other state-of-the-city data.

“In my head this is all tied up with the mental health benefits of plants,” he says.

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