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Seeds of Change: a ballast seed garden for Bristol

Plans for a Ballast Seed Garden by Maria Thereza Alves

Ballast Seed Garden plans, 2010; Maria Thereza Alves

Photographs of ballast sites on the Avon by Maria Thereza Alves

Photographs of ballast sites on the Avon; Maria Thereza Alves

Maria Thereza Alves and Arnolfini

Professor Peter Coates
Environmental Historian, Department of Historical Studies

Bristol’s trading past and the stories of the people affected could soon be brought to life in a permanent public artwork – a garden planted with seeds that came to the city in the ballast of ships.

Ballast was used to stabilise merchant sailing ships, usually stones, earth and shells, along with the seeds native to the area where they had been collected.  Upon arrival in port, the ballast was unloaded and in many cases the stowaway seeds germinated.  Seeds from ballast may germinate even after 200 years and they bear witness to a complex world history that is often presented in a more simplified way.

Seeds of Change is an ongoing investigation of ballast flora in European port cities by artist Maria Thereza Alves. The project was part of the 2007 Arnolfini exhibition Port City, with the artist undertaking a period of research to find and photograph possible ballast sites around the river Avon and Bristol’s Harbourside.

A site for the Ballast Seed Garden was identified and outline approval to use the land has been received from Bristol City Council. The identified site is at the point where the ‘cut’ and docks meet the river Avon. Plants would be seeded from the original ballast, protected by small wind breaks and signage providing information would be developed maintaining the essential character of the space.

More about Maria Theresa’s work

The following organisations are working in partnership with Arnolfini on the project: Bristol City Council; Bristol Museum, Galleries and Archives; University of Bristol; Create Centre, Transformations Project.

Professor Peter Coates

The Ballast Seed Project aims to re-establish the intimate connection between Bristol’s cosmopolitan floral history and the port city’s economic and social histories. One of my research interests is human relations with non-native species of flora and fauna, and the role of non-scientific considerations, such as ideas of nationality, in shaping perceptions. I’m intrigued by how attitudes to human immigrants intersect with approaches to non-human immigrants.

Non-native plants and animals receive an increasingly bad press. Bio-invasion is a prime cause of species extinction worldwide, second only to habitat loss. The media is awash with stories about the McDonaldization of  ecological systems – not just terrestrial but also aquatic. And this is where ballast enters the controversy. Ballast became a medium for the influx of invasive creatures when the new generation of metal ships switched from solid to liquid ballast in the later nineteenth century.  In fact, ballast water is now the main source of invasive species in coastal freshwater and marine ecosystems, and ballast tanks of modern inter-continental ships have been described as floating aquariums. Busy ports are invasion hotspots.

The temptation to anthropomorphize is clear from the language used to describe the creatures that get sucked up into ballast tanks. They are hitchhikers and stowaways; illegal immigrants that sneak in. Terms like these, so heavily weighed down with cultural baggage, are not helpful when it comes to the dispassionate assessment of the ecological and economic impacts of non-native species. The Ballast Seed Garden shows that the majority of non-native flora do not become naturalized, and that even fewer actually become invasive. So a project like Maria Thereza’s can act as a powerful advertisement for ‘multihorticulturalism’ – an antidote to the widely held view that all non-native plants, unless firmly under control in a garden, are a menace to our natural national heritage.


Peter Coates is professor of American and environmental history in the Department of Historical Studies, School of Humanities. His books include American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land (University of California Press, 2007) and he is currently working on British attitudes to American species ‘over here’ (not least the grey squirrel).

More about Professor Peter Coates.

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