Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Guerilla gardening is the act of finding a small piece of land that is ugly and making it beautiful with plants. It is an act that intentionally uses public or private space to plant flowers or edible plants to be used in a community. It is rebellious, and sometimes illegal, but often worth it.
If you aren’t familiar with the term guerilla, it’s a play on words based on guerilla warfare. The term is summarized as a group of unofficial soldiers taking on a more distinguished military force.
So guerilla gardening is an individual or group that is gardening as a rebellious act against a more prominent force. It’s human vs human as guerilla gardeners are often repairing a human issue.
Motivations for guerilla gardeners can vary. Some may choose to benefit pollinators in unused land, others want to combat food desserts and bring food to communities that need it, some just wish to create beauty, and others wish to make a statement.
There is a profound message when someone can take something discarded, ugly, broken, or wasteful and morphs the same space into something welcoming, imaginative, helpful, or useful.
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Guerilla Gardening in History
Many people have heard the story of Johnny Appleseed, but before there was language for it, he was an early guerilla gardener. There are some differing opinions about his story or motivations, but the agreed part is that he planted apple orchards along his journey, sometimes also selling or giving away apple seeds.
Born in 1774, John Chapman became a young traveler. He was an apprentice on an apple orchard in his 20’s. As he traveled the west, he planted orchards which was a ‘legal’ way to claim territory at the time. He also introduced people to medicinal plants to grow.
Whether his gardening was investment-motivated or motivated by other intentions, that is uncertain. However, history shows he seemed to care about people and animals, too, and used his unorthodox planting for good as well.
Once the term ‘Guerilla Gardener’ gained traction, it was connected to Liz Christy and her Green Guerrilla group in New York in 1973. Liz and her crew turned a run-down private lot into a garden that is still beautiful and now protected. In 1973 Liz petitioned the city of New York for access to make the lot a community garden for $1 a month.
They cleaned up the lot and transformed it into a beautiful garden, it has now become a protected community garden by law and won awards including the Urban Forestry Award and listed in the Bowery Historic District, and National Register of Historic Places.
In the middle of all the bustle of New York, the garden became an intimate and magical place with mature plants, trees like magnolia and weeping birch. With ponds for fish and turtles, and a beautiful display of flowering plants, the garden is kept by volunteers who see the value of gardening. This is what guerilla gardening is about.
In 2010, a South Los Angeles resident in a small town considered a food desert, found himself tired of having to travel 30 minutes for fresh produce. Food deserts are towns that don’t have reasonable access to healthy and fresh foods. It may be an abundance of fast food, or small markets, but all the larger grocery stores carrying produce are more difficult to travel to.
Ron Finley took matters into his own hands and planted a vegetable garden in the space of lawn between the sidewalk and the street. The City of Los Angeles tried to stop him, but that fueled this guerilla gardener to make changes.
Finley founded a non-profit called L.A. Green Grounds which included hundreds of volunteers ready to also guerilla garden. The quest was simple, they would look for unused public land to turn into high production vegetable gardens for the community.
Finley became a head to the campaign against the city to allow unused land to be able to be used for vegetable plants, and the city started to listen. Though Finley has been met with challenges and financial consequences due to his guerilla gardening, the community has been able to raise enough money to buy their community garden and he has continued with his mission and passion.
Finley has been a part of Ted talks on the benefits of guerilla gardening and the effects of food deserts. This type of rebellious gardening feels like an act of social justice when it is providing nutritious sustenance for a community that otherwise struggled to obtain it.
Should YOU do it?
To answer this question, explore your motivations. There are so many reasons to consider being a guerilla gardener, which one appeals to you? If there is an appealing reason, is that enough to risk consequences of being caught?
In most cases, a guerilla gardener is better off asking for forgiveness than permission and that will likely be the worst of consequences when caution is used. Looking at history, there are some guerilla gardeners who faced fines or were asked to buy the land that they used.
If you plan to create a movement within guerilla gardening, reach out to your local community to find other like-minded garden cultivators to take a part in the process so if there is a financial consequence you have others to share the load.
Typically, if a guerilla gardener is planting on a small level like a hollowed tree, or an abandoned piece of garbage like a car or tire, it is especially unlikely anyone would protest. Likewise, if the land is completely unused and a guerilla gardener has thoughtful planted things that would benefit the ecosystem or community, this type of garden is also difficult to object.
The larger your garden you may want to consider what type of upkeep will be necessary to keep it thriving. If you need to revisit, will that be an issue due to people who may object?
When you plant, consider that guerilla gardening is intended to be a rebellious act that produces something good where maybe there was a void or even damage created from humans. By cultivating beauty, or resources, a guerilla gardener makes a powerful statement of beauty, kindness, and goodness.
Knowing that being a guerilla gardener requires some intentionality, don’t pick up the hobby unless you’re willing to do some careful planning work. Because this type of gardening is meant to be good, do not invite invasive species into new land.
Only plant native plants to your region, or pollinator annuals that will not do harm, or edible plants in a place where they are accessible to who you aim to reach.
If you’re planting a vegetable garden, take time to consider who will benefit from the space and how you will communicate it. Vegetable gardens do require some care like watering, pruning, and picking.
If you aim to plant this type of guerilla garden, make plans on how to continue to help it thrive. The fastest way to turn this positive statement into a negative one is to poorly manage your new garden.
In general, when you ask yourself the initial question of whether to partake in the guerilla gardening movement, follow-up with this next question: who or what am I doing this for?
The core of this cultural initiative is not simply to break rules or plant more gardens when you’ve run out of grass to dig up; the purpose is always externally located with a motivation that benefits others. Even if you can’t think of a good reason right away, maybe guerilla gardening can help you find a good cause in your local area.
How to Guerilla Garden
Humans have had an invasive impact within much of the world and nature. Our impact on the planet cannot be denied. This movement of beautification is a way to counteract some of our footprint, and to restore some of the nature that we’ve taken away through waste, pollution, and carelessness.
Whether this is on your walking route, at your local park, or even in your own subdivision, guerilla gardening allows you to look at your day-to-day world a little differently and to make nature a lifestyle.
As you are out, spots to look for may be a pothole that’s on the side of the road, a hollowed tree stump, unmovable litter (like a car, heavy tires, etc..), abandoned lot, or unused land. You don’t need to go out of your way, either.
Think about your weekly routine (perhaps a dog park, a weekend disc golf course, an old, abandoned building next to your local grocery store, etc.) and filter the locations through the heart and essence of guerilla gardening.
When you spot an area that you feel might be a good option for a guerilla garden, consider what type of planting would work best. If this is an area that you feel you can access to work the ground itself, you can just pack in supplies.
There are some spots where you might not have access to the ground (like when it is fenced in), or that you risk being caught by planting for too long. In these locations, you may want to make seed balls (sometimes called green grenades, flower grenades, or seed bombs) that you can drop that will provide soil, compost, and seeds to germinate naturally with a little bit of rain.
Lastly, many guerilla gardeners didn’t work alone. Consider friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors who may have the same heart for the beautification of local spots and invite them to come along.
Some of the most enjoyable times spent in a garden are often spent with others, and who knows, you may even start a local movement of your own!
Guerilla Gardens to Visit
It’s likely with a little bit of research you can find a guerilla garden, or guerilla gardening group near where you live. If you’re interested in the concept, it might be helpful to team up with others that are local with a similar vision.
There are a few unique ones worth the visit if you ever have the opportunity. As you travel be respectful of the gardeners space, and be a helpful presence or a harmless observer.
Manhattan, New York
Visiting Liz Christy’s famous garden, that was the original to help start guerilla gardening as a movement, is a must. This garden was very successful in having longevity and volunteers who maintained the garden in part due to becoming a protected site.
Twin Cities, Minnesota
Guerilla gardens are a social justice impact, a protest, a statement. After the deaths and surrounding protests of several black community members like George Floyd, Winston ‘Boogie’ Smith, Philando Castille, Deona Marie Knajdek, and Daunte Wright, guerilla gardeners took the opportunity to create spaces for people to process, and heal, that were peaceful and beautiful.
This website has more information on how to visit the gardens and why they were created. “People need a place to heal. We got 400 years of PTSD,” said Jay Webb, who has been tending the gardens every day at George Floyd Square since it was established in the wake of the unrest that followed Floyd’s murder. “This is just a seed, a tree for everyone to root in and rest in. The prayer is these other trees sprout up around the nation and around the globe. … It’s just a seed of hope.”
Take the time to do a quick internet search of your area to see if you can find a group near you. Sometimes the gardens are big and noticeable like those mentioned, but sometimes its so minor that they are kept to potholes. It’s likely you’ve passed the work of a guerilla gardener without even knowing.
Guerilla gardening is happening in more cities, and more parts of the world being traced to more than thirty countries. It makes sense, as more of us learn the power of plants, nature, and collective voice, this intentional act fits with a purpose.
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