Guerilla Gardening: The Bizarre Art of Subversive Urban Planting

Richard Reynolds hates to see weed-filled, disused spots of land – whether they’re traffic medians, sidewalk parkways or vacant lots. Richard, the founder of GuerrillaGardening.org, sees potential in each of those barren, nearly lifeless plots of land: potential for beauty, food, medicine and community pride.

As part of the guerilla gardening movement, Richard and other activists seek to take back those forgotten areas and turn them into lush gardens, regardless of who actually owns them. Also called “pirate gardening”, guerilla gardening is all about improving public spaces and making sure that potential garden spaces don’t go to waste.

Though it’s technically illegal – akin to squatting in an abandoned building – most of the time, guerilla gardeners don’t meet much resistance from landowners. It’s easy to see why. Unless the property owner has an immediate plan for the site, they often don’t mind seeing it beautified, so long as the gardeners aren’t profiting from it. And guerilla gardening isn’t about profit. Most food that is planted gets eaten by the people who tend the gardens, and given freely to the community.

All the same, guerrilla gardeners often work early in the morning or late at night, dodging the authorities whenever possible, who occasionally stop by to ask questions. Many guerrilla gardeners have been threatened with arrest, though there don’t seem to be many cases of that actually happening. In Britain, digging up land you don’t own is classified as ˜criminal damage”, so guerrilla gardeners there have to be a bit more careful.

There are the occasional landowners who don’t take kindly to the planting, and serve cease-and-desist letters or simply rototill the entire plot. In public spaces, the law isn’t clearly defined – most cities and parks and recreation officials aren’t sure whether they would have recourse against citizens who planted gardens on public land. Often, they leave well enough alone – guerrilla gardeners save them money by tending spaces their staff doesn’t have time for.

The biggest problem guerrilla gardeners face is irrigation. For many gardeners, finding a source of fresh water on the property is first priority; water use usually only amounts to $1 or $2 over the course of a month, so landowners often don’t notice it on their bill. Others bring watering cans or try to set up the gardens so they catch rainfall more efficiently. Drought-tolerant native or succulent gardens are also common.

Guerrilla gardening isn’t always about well-tended gardens full of food, herbs and medicinal plants. Some forms of it, like seed bombing, are used to surreptitiously improve areas that guerrilla gardeners can’t get to places like vacant lots secured with locked chain-link fences, or steep banks. Seed bombs are little balls made up of clay, compost and seeds that are thrown onto disused areas. They break apart over time, and eventually, flowers and foliage sprout where before was nothing but dirt and weeds.

In Cuba, guerrilla gardening has grown into a countrywide tradition. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the country experienced an economic crisis that led to food shortages. As a result, Cubans began growing food wherever they could, and what developed was a culture of organic urban agriculture. Today, up to 70% of Cuba’s fresh produce is grown in these urban gardens.

As the world’s urban centers become even more densely developed and populated, and land for urban farming grows ever more scarce, guerrilla gardening continues to rise in popularity. The website GuerrillaGardening.org provides information on getting started and a means to connect with the guerrilla gardening community and join in on ˜troop digs”

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