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The lockdown walk that inspired an experiment

Why do garden plants suddenly become invasive? One scientist couple turned their balcony into a lab to find out.
Florencia A. Yannelli is a researcher in the Ecological Novelty Group at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.

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Wolf-Christian Saul is a researcher in the Ecological Novelty Group at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.

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Small plants growing in plastic cups on a balcony

No lab? Don’t let that stop you — you can still do science in unexpected places, such as your balcony.Credit: Florencia A. Yannelli

We are a researcher couple who work in invasion ecology. The coronavirus outbreak and lockdown have been a challenge for us not only as a family (we have an eight-month-old baby), but also as scientists. Even as containment measures are slowly relaxed where we live in Berlin, the lingering pandemic continues to have an impact. Running experiments or doing fieldwork when the use of laboratories and university facilities still remains limited is very difficult, just as is staying on track with project milestones while keeping a child (or children) happy in a home-office situation. However, we have realized that this crisis could be a great opportunity to find new inspiration for research in our surroundings, away from what used to be our normal work routines.

And we are not alone: alongside great pictures of homemade bread and other delicacies that have been posted by academics on Twitter, we’ve seen many colleagues and non-academics taking the time to carefully observe and document, for instance, the bird, insect and plant species they find around them (check out the Twitter hashtags #backyardbiodiversity and #urbanecology). Amazing species, which we might know are there but never take the time to properly examine, are now being recorded, photographed and shared over social media.

We’ve found ourselves doing something similar: during our daily, socially distanced walks around our neighbourhood with our baby, we started discussing what might be the reason why certain plants commonly grown in gardens become invasive. Your Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) or garden lupin (Lupinus polyphyllus), for instance, can often spread, without further human help, far beyond your garden — and could even displace other plant species. Given our experience with invasive plants, we wondered whether they might change the soil conditions where they grow, and whether this could help them to outcompete other species, eventually dominating our gardens or escaping into adjacent areas.

We sat down in our kitchen and planned an experiment to test this, and worked out whether we could actually do it on our balcony. We used plastic cups and jar labels found in some neglected cupboard, bought commercial ornamental seeds and then collected soil and seeds of invasive plant species in the area surrounding our home. Now, the experiment is running on our balcony, which is keeping us both entertained and engaged, as well as brightening our home’s exterior. In a few weeks’ time, when the seedlings have grown high enough, we hope to be able to collect several measurements to compare the soils we collected from different parts of the city. And it’s all in the comfort of our home — with no commuting and no extra risk.

A baby looking towards a front yard

Florencia and Wolf-Christian bring their baby on their walks.Credit: Florencia A. Yannelli

There’s more: we are using our experiment as one example in a project we have named ‘alien escapists’ (@alienscapists on Twitter and Facebook). It has two main aims. First, we hope to bring together a community of international researchers interested in performing studies that, like ours, strive to explain the success of invasive plants in urban environments. Second, we want to communicate invasion science and our experimental approach to the wider public by sharing information on invasive plants we find in Berlin, as well as the progress of our experiment, on the project’s social-media pages, translated into our family’s languages — English, German and Spanish — for wider dissemination. Ours is only one of many possible ideas for experiments and hypothesis testing that could be done during lockdown within the limits of our balconies, gardens or even kitchens. We hope that people will share their own ideas on our social-media spaces and motivate others to join in.

These are undoubtedly challenging times. Although there might be value in being forced to take a step back, slow down and re-evaluate working plans, scientists are interested in the natural world. Our experiment, and connections with other colleagues on social media, has helped us to get through lockdown by keeping us engaged with science while creating opportunities for research collaborations and engagement with the public. We have learnt that, despite the limitations and difficulties that come with lockdown, we can still ask interesting questions and explore our — sometimes overlooked — immediate surroundings. This has been an encouraging experience for us, especially considering that similar lockdown circumstances could arise again if the current situation worsens, or during other pandemics that we might confront in the future.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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