It was ten past midnight. I could feel cool air graze the hairs on the back of my neck as I wrapped one sweaty palm around the lump in my pocket. The streets were empty; it was just me in a vacant lot, one that would be unrecognizable after the act I was about to commit.
One deep breath and I threw. I lobbed the seed bomb high over the rusted wire fence and ran until my legs gave out. I was a maverick, fleeing from the law and leaving nothing but flowers in my wake.
Okay, maybe guerilla gardening isn’t that exciting, but hopefully it’s the closest I’ll ever be to an outlaw. There are no guns, no weapons (other than spades and hoes), and no Che Guevara-like leader, just some determined citizens who believe in reclaiming public land and beautifying their communities. Still, the movement is taking hold across the world and spreading a little green in even the darkest places.
Guerilla … What?
The practice of guerilla gardening goes way back to John “Appleseed” Chapman, an American pioneer who introduced apple trees to the then-virgin lands of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It became an urban movement in 1973, when Liz Christy, an artist and activist, and the Green Guerillas group started a community garden from a derelict lot in New York City’s Bowery. Local residents are still tending the Liz Christy Community Garden and the New York City parks department now protects it.
Guerilla gardening is a form of direct action for many causes. Some gardeners believe in reclaiming public and private land from perceived misuse or neglect; others feel that it is a reaction to unfair municipal zoning; and still others just want to see a little more green around their city. They may act under the cloak of night if they fear government resistance to their actions, or they may work in the open in order to actively engage community members. Some guerilla gardeners grow fruit and vegetables as a way to bring healthful and local food options to their community.
Many public lots go to waste because of problems with bureaucracy and public funding. Rather than letting these potentially useful plots go to neglect, guerilla gardeners take it upon themselves to transform them into something beautiful or practical. While many gardeners may spruce up median strips or abandoned parks with the approval of city administrators and property owners, others act more furtively, taking over abandoned properties without the consent or knowledge of the owner.
Despite the potential risks of gardening in a space that’s not your own, guerrilla gardening offers many benefits for neighborhoods. Community gardens improve the well-being of residents, encourage people to get outside, and even raise property values. In a reverse kind of eminent domain, neighborhood residents can start to have more control over their environments while enjoying the mental and physical benefits gardening has to offer.
Guerilla gardening is most popular in England, Australia, and the United States, but “cells” are popping up all over. Their tactics and purposes may differ, but their results are the same: beautiful greenery out of an urban wasteland.
Seed Bombs and Spades: Guerilla Gear
Though many guerilla gardening cells simply find a plot of land that’s been neglected and move in with their shovels to start working, those who must work more furtively choose the seed bomb as their weapon of choice.
A seed bomb is a little ball that contains everything a plant needs to grow. Most are made with clay—it helps seeds to take root—that has worm castings (for fertilizer) and seeds inside. You just throw one of these babies into a vacant lot and let the rain do its job.
Want to make your own? Take 1 part seeds, 1 part clay, 1 part coffee grounds, 8 parts soil, and 1 part water. Mix them together, roll the mixture into compact balls, and tuck them away for launching. You can just chuck them anywhere you see a bit of land that could use some green. I don’t recommend carrying these around in your pockets unless you put them in a plastic baggie first. That is, unless someone else does your laundry.
A note on the seeds: it’s very important to choose plants that are native to your area. Indigenous species are hardier and require less watering and fertilizer. They’ll be far more likely to take root than a non-native plant species.
Tie on Your Bandanna and Get Involved
Want to become a guerilla gardener yourself? You can take those seed bombs of yours and go out as a maverick, or you can hook up with a cell in your area by going to Guerilla Gardening and checking out the community forum. Join an existing cell or start your own. Start weeding a neglected sidewalk strip and prune an overgrown tree. And if guerilla gardening is just too wild and crazy for you, check out Community Gardens to start a local garden with public approval.
No matter how they arise, whether by stealth or by community organization, local gardens are essential to the urban environment. Flowers elevate mood and aesthetic pleasure, vegetables are a local produce source, and all plants improve air quality and a connection to the natural world. Wherever you are, find a way to spread a little green around you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to grab my shovel and fight the man!