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Growing Plants and Skyflowers: The Choreography of Urban Gardening



For the past few weeks when the sun is out skyflowers (aka butterflies) fly in the garden outside our loft. These Gulf Fritillary butterflies are happy-making creatures who flutter through the updrafts in spiraling clumps before diverging in multiple directions.


The garden is home to these butterflies and is tended with care. Over the past three years, my partner SkyE diligently maintains and cultivates this urban garden. Our loft space is mostly concrete, and we have limited access to earth. Most of the plants in the garden live in pots but some can thrive in a few inches of dirt laid on top of concrete, especially the passionflower vine which has grown up the side of the building in the past six months.


This garden has gone through numerous iterations filled with bright flowers and the loss of plant friends who did not survive the harsh conditions. Between the months of October and March the interior garden (see image above) only receives a few hours of direct sunlight each day. The sun passes behind a giant neighboring building at about 2PM that casts our entire loft in shadow for the remainder of the day. A grow light set to shine in the morning and afternoon contributes to the plant's survival. To adapt the leaves slowly move, easing towards the light while navigating one another’s shadows in a living choreography that responds to the sun’s passage. As they grow their roots are supported by high-density nutrients from vermicomposting. Over the course of the year the choreography of care shifts in the blistering Los Angeles summer months. A misting system is used to keep the plants green (and the loft cool) when they are hit with the heat and SkyE makes sure the plants don’t bake in the sun.


A portion of each day is devoted to plant care and garden maintenance. SkyE attends to their well-being including the removal of dead leaves, checking on their vibrancy, noticing how they are getting along with each other, coaxing the plants to grow in various directions, and providing care for sickly plants. We had plants that lived for years at our previous home that did not survive the move to the loft in 2020. Thankfully succulents can be clipped and scattered around in hopes they take root. Some of the parent plants have said farewell but their offspring (parts of them) live on and even live in our neighbor's gardens. Others like the lovely hibiscus flower plant have lived for over a decade. Many of the plants alive and thriving were grown from seed or brought home and cultivated from the farm store nursery that is part of the university at which I teach.


The garden takes work and is living art. When we open our studio for Artwalk many people visiting the gallery comment on the garden. Ooooos, ahhhhs, and other affirmations fill the air. The garden art installation is an important feature of the studio. Functionally it provides a space for meditation, outdoor showering (the water from which drains directly into the garden), and site-specific performance. The garden includes water features that SkyE built that help to mask some of the sounds of 24/7 commerce that surrounds this space. The sights and smells of the garden space also attract bees and hummingbirds and is a home for worms that escape the worm bin, jumping spiders, and tiny geckos.


Adapting to the seasons throughout the year while working within the limits of our urban industrial context life can thrive with labor, care, creativity, and heart.


- J


Visit www.jandsarts.com/earthart to learn more about the garden’s transformations over the past three years.

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