Everything You Need To Know About Guerrilla Gardening
One morning, Ron Finley peered out the window at the long, ugly strip of dirt hugging the curb in front of his home in South Los Angeles, and saw a Garden of Eden– an opportunity to transform his neighborhood into a place where healthy food could be found (let alone obtained) by locals.
Like 26.5% of other Americans, Ron Finley lives in what is known as a “food desert”– a community where fresh, healthy food is hard to find or impossible to get. Even though Los Angeleans enjoy a balmy Mediterranean climate– perfect for growing everything from artichokes and oranges to tomatoes and avocados— and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has named California the largest producer of agricultural products in the country, Ron Finley was blighted by a problem that too many Americans face. The produce at his local grocery stores– if there was any fresh produce at all– was picked over, genetically modified, and gross.
California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit devoted to the issue, estimates that 42% of low-income adults in Los Angeles lack regular access to fresh, healthy food (a disturbingly majority of them children). The reasons for this disparity are myriad– over development is a leading contributor, along with the ubiquity of fast-food restaurants as primary food purveyors in low-income areas. At any rate, if you, like Finley, had a craving for a tomato in the middle of South LA, you’d have to drive to a grocery store in a far-off neighborhood to get it. For Finley, the prospect of getting fresh produce entailed a forty-five minute drive.
How would you feel if you had no access to healthy food? If every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood?
Motivated by his frustration over the curable diseases that were killing his neighbors, Finley planted carrots, arugula, tomatoes – anything else he had a hankering for– on the curb in front of his home. Before long, the neglected dirt bore sprouts, then shoots, then fruits. As the months passed, neighbors and passerby began to notice his urban garden, fragrant and overflowing with flowers and vegetables. Sometimes, the neighbors would take samples with them; Finley awoke one night to find a mother and child sneaking tomatoes from the vine. And that’s when his gardening project took on a whole new meaning.
In a matter of months, Finley had sparked a revolution, and began to spread the gospel of the garden – to his neighbors, to visitors, and most importantly, to the kids. “We need to teach our kids that Gardening is Gangsta,” he said with a laugh. Finley had a “gangsta” moment not long after he planted his garden, when the city issued him a citation for gardening without a permit. Thanks to a successful petition, the city relented and Finley was able to continue, and a revolutionary tone had been set– one resounding loudly into generations past. Even though Finley may be the latest champion of the “guerrilla gardening” movement, he is by no means the first.
The guerrilla gardening movement as it is now understood got its start in 1973 on New York’s Lower East Side, down by the Bowery. A local resident named Liz Christy, fed up with the lack of green space in her neighborhood, began planting window boxes and lobbing “seed grenades” – biodegradable balloons filled with tomato seeds and fertilizer – over fences, into vacant lots, or anywhere else where she wanted plants to grow. One day, she and a team of like-minded others came across a large, abandoned lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston, littered with trash. The activists went to the city with an idea: instead of dust and dirt, why not populate the space with vegetables, flowers, and trees? And so, on April 23, 1974, the “Bowery Houston Farm and Garden” – the first of its kind in an American metropolis – was born. In addition to planting experimental plots to test the city’s potential for harboring unusual plants, Christy and her partners ran workshops to teach locals how to grow their own food, and brought in local gardeners and horticulturalists to advise (and later, to return to their own communities with all the new ideas and techniques they’d learned). Such techniques became known as “guerrilla gardening”: the conscious choice to plant flowers where they didn’t belong, to bring beauty to ugly, old spaces – and to breathe new life into community spaces that had fallen into disrepair as a result of civic neglect.
Despite the strong association between guerrilla gardening and local food initiatives, the movement is by no means restricted to the vegetable garden. It can be as simple as planting some sunflowers on railroad ties, chucking a homemade seed ball out of the window while driving on the freeway, or embellishing a tree pit with wildflowers. A project becomes “guerrilla” as soon as it occupies land (typically publicly-owned) that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to tend. The caveat, of course, is that such land is generally regarded as unwanted or abandoned.
Some guerrilla gardeners paint the walls in a slurry of moss and buttermilk, which in turn blossoms into green graffiti. Others descended upon old magazine bins and filled them up with daisies. One of the most interesting projects came into being in during Milan Design Week in 2012, when British gardener Steve Wheen planted fourteen small-scale gardens in potholes around the city, adorning the plots with toy cars and signage so as to create the illusion of a rural lilliputian paradise. The movement is so wide-ranging that the first day of May each year– which is now known as International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day– occasions several public gatherings in which civilians embark on a day of planting sunflowers in places where they don’t belong. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook and Reddit, guerrilla gardeners have more platforms than ever to share their ideas and strategies, and to receive others in return.
Still, as difficult as it may be to understand the rationale behind many city governments’ disdain for beautification projects, it remains an unavoidable truth that if you sneak onto an old lot to plant roses, you’re breaking the law, no matter how good they may smell. Fortunately, guerrilla gardeners have developed a variety of methods to circumvent this process: planting their plots in the dead of night, or filing petitions like Finley’s to earn civic recognition. Often, no communication is even necessary-– a business owner may very well see the petunias in his back alley and go about his business.
Thanks to the persistence, patience and passion of plant-lovers like Finely, Christy and Wheen, America’s cities are looking great and tasting better– and more importantly, their former enemies are noticing the benefits. While they may lack the punkish soul of the guerrilla gardeners themselves, cities all over the country continue to co-op of guerrilla gardening in some shape or form by developing vacant plots into new community gardens. Baltimore, for instance, has the “Adopt a Lot” program, which auctions off abandoned land to potential gardeners. In San Francisco, there’s a generous tax break for property owners who are willing to convert their unused plots into farms, and in New York City, the Liz Christy garden (dedicated to the pioneer following her death in 1985) represents both the spirit of the path and edenic possibilities for gardens worldwide, from South Los Angeles to a back lot in the United Kingdom. Thanks to guerrilla gardeners like these, there are lush plots and budding orchards where there once were dirt piles and cinder blocks.