Ultimate Guide to Guerrilla Gardening

Where some people see an eyesore, others see potential. See more pictures of gardening.

Under dusky yellow streetlamps on a balmy night, a car eases gently next to a desolate curb. Within minutes, others quickly slip onto the scene, armed with the implements of guerrilla warfare. But these weapons are a far cry from the machine guns and machetes one might typically imagine when hearing about guerrilla fighters -- instead you'll find them equipped with trowels, shovels, trash bags and, above all, plants.

Part of a worldwide movement, this group of guerrilla gardeners is about to get down to business cleaning up litter, churning soil and changing an otherwise deserted and scrubby patch of urban landscape into a flourishing garden the neighborhood can be proud of. The catch? They don't own the land they're about to beautify and, in most cases, they haven't asked the owners for permission to conduct their clandestine horticultural mission.

So what motivates these fans of flora and generally civic-minded folks to actions which, in many municipalities, still fall under the long arm of the law? It varies from person to person and from group to group -- with reasons seemingly as diversified as the plants themselves -- but there are some themes that are frequently repeated among the guerrilla gardening ranks.

­­Among the ideas espoused is the desire to actively contribute to public spaces in order to beautify cities, fight the encroaching neglect that so often befalls urban -- and not-so-urban -- areas, and build a sense of community among neighbors. Often, guerrilla gardeners are fed up with living in litter-coated concrete jungles and want to restore nature to their surroundings. Some guerrilla gardeners are more politically motivated and focus their efforts on planting on derelict private land to protest issues like capitalism. Still others focus on growing fruits and vegetables to challenge the ideas of proper urban land management, combat rising food prices and food miles (the distance food must travel from farm to dinner table), and provide nourishment for people in need. Acts of guerrilla gardening are even done to memorialize loved ones or simply to satisfy gardeners who don't have their own land.

Guerrilla gardening might seem like a green fad of the 21st century, but it actually goes back further than that. On the next page we'll take a look at some of the prominent arenas where guerrilla gardening got its start.

Green Guerrillas and Other Gardeners

These Angelenos are about to turn this unused patch of land into a groomed garden.
These Angelenos are about to turn this unused patch of land into a groomed garden.

Modern guerrilla gardening took root in New York City in the early 1970s and grew from there, but there have been earlier cases noted throughout the world. Community gardening, a similar concept, also has a broad historic base, some examples being the Vacant Lot Cultivation Societies of the late 1800s and the Liberty gardens and Victory gardens grown during World War I and World War II. To learn more about community gardens, take a look at How to Start a Community Garden.

­The inception of the modern guerrilla gardening movement is often credited to New York City resident Liz Christy. In 1973, she founded the Green Guerrillas, and the first lot they revitalized is now a flourishing park located on the northeast corner of Bowery and Houston streets in Manhattan. The group was also known for planting window boxes and distributing seed bombs (we'll learn more about those on the next page), as well as educating interested members of the public through workshops and consultations. At first, the organization was at odds with the city government, but in time, the municipality legitimized their efforts by establishing Green Thumb, an official urban community gardening program that now boasts more than 600 gardens.

Nowadays, green guerrillas are almost everywhere. One popular Web site, www.GuerrillaGardening.org, acts as the unofficial clearinghouse for these soldiers of sod. The site features blogs, forums and tips, with thousands of registered users from all corners of the globe. Many local clubs exist in different cities, from Los Angeles to London.

If you think guerrilla gardening might be the thing for you, click to the next page to learn how to instigate your own clandestine troop dig.

Becoming a Guerrilla Gardener

This before-and-after shot shows a median prior to guerrilla gardening and after. With time -- and a little watering and weeding -- the plants will grow into a luscious garden.
This before-and-after shot shows a median prior to guerrilla gardening and after. With time -- and a little watering and weeding -- the plants will grow into a luscious garden.

You've made up your mind to join the ranks -- now what? The first thing you'll want to do is identify where your garden will be. For this, keep a couple of factors in mind. If you're a beginner, you'll probably want to start small. Spend some time scoping out your target, maybe an empty concrete planter near your home or a patch of weeds on a vacant corner that you pass on your way to and from work. Second, it's usually not enough to just plant the garden; you'll also need to see that it's maintained. So make sure the plot -- often called orphaned land by guerrillas -- is somewhere accessible. It doesn't hurt to choose a place you think neighbors might be willing to pitch in and help maintain, whether by weeding or watering. Putting up a friendly sign on the lush spot can help encourage their participation. You might be surprised how a cheery garden can get neighbors chatting.

Now that you've acquired your target, start making battle plans. Get some troops together -- whether existing friends or sympathetic comrades -- and schedule a covert mission. Guerrilla gardeners often perform their missions under cover of darkness. This not only helps protect the troops from unwanted interference, it also enhances the surprise for neighbors the next day. In some places, guerrilla gardeners have taken to working in the daylight hours, but until you've got some experience with the situation in your area, you'll probably want to find a low-traffic time of day to get working.

Next, get the plants lined up. Nurseries and wholesalers may donate some plants or at least offer you a discount if you explain your aim. Once you're an established guerrilla gardener, you can often collect plants from flourishing gardens for use in new ones. It's important when choosing plants to select indigenous, non-invasive, hardy plants that can survive the local climate. Drought-resistant and other low-maintenance plants are good bets. Perhaps most importantly, target plants that bring beauty and color to an area. Draw out plans for the garden's layout ahead of time; it'll make the dig go more smoothly. Once you arrive at the site on the big day, clear everything away and get planting.

If you're looking for a more low-key way to guerrilla garden, try making seed bombs. There are several different recipes available on the Internet for making these seed-filled missiles. Most include clay, some form of compost, seeds and a little bit of water to bind everything together. After drying for a few days, the gumball-size seed bombs can be tossed into places like empty fields and vacant lots, and then simply let be. During a good rain, the clay will melt and the seeds will be released amidst the fertilizer to help them get sprouting.

If you're itching to get your hands on a trowel, check out the next page for info on your fellow guerrilla gardeners.

How Does Your Guerrilla Garden Grow?

These two guerrillas work quickly to get their plants in the ground.
These two guerrillas work quickly to get their plants in the ground.

Guerrilla gardeners can strike both public and private land with varying degrees of success. In some cases, private owners enjoy the free improvements made on their property. Others protest because of issues pertaining to liability or basic private property rights -- the land might be an ugly blight, but it's their ugly blight. If, for whatever reason, private owners take offense to your handiwork, they usually have the law on their side, and it's sayonara seedlings.

­When it comes to public land, the story changes somewhat. In some places there are laws against planting on public property; in some places there aren't. Some police officers, lawmakers and city workers take a hard line approach against guerrilla gardening, while others accept the logic that a lush planting on what was previously a scrappy patch of public land isn't such a bad deal. It's hard to argue with the idea of free flowers and free labor. With funds for landscaping often lacking in city budgets, many guerrilla gardeners are eager to fill the gap, while at the same time sharing their artistic talents and imaginative flair with the community.

A guerrilla garden can even become validated and sanctioned. What begins as an effort to beautify land sans the red tape, transforms into a permissible activity. Less covert ops perhaps, but the hours are usually better. On the other hand, you might end up with your hands full trying to save your guerrilla garden from the mower. Many of these warriors against weeds have seen the fruits of their labor trampled by the likes of unappreciative citizens or callous companies. Food gardens often cause the most complaints, as the issue of accountability comes into play if anyone becomes sick after eating tainted fruits and veggies.

So how do you know if that pretty new patch of flowers you recently noticed on your drive to work is the opus of a local guerrilla gardener? The best way to find out is to go online and check out the forums for troops in your area. If you live in a major city, chances are good some local guerrillas are already in operation. And even if you have to pioneer operations for your city or town, it's likely others won't be long to follow.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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