There’s a funny thing about vacant lots. You never see them in the countryside.
They’re there, of course. It’s just that they’re invisible, and that’s the thing. A vacant lot becomes vacant not when it’s empty, but when lots around it become full.
Now, from a certain point of view, these lots aren’t empty at all. The indicator species of the vacant lot (aside from trash) is the weed and those weeds have a job, part of what scientists call the “primary productivity” of the earth. Primary productivity is plants doing that magic trick of converting solar power to food power so that everyone in the animal kingdom has something to eat.
People, as a species, like to channel that primary productivity into forms that are useful to us, and we’re pretty good at it. So good, that we’ve appropriated 40% of the planet’s primary productivity to ourselves. Maybe that’s why it stands out so clearly when we don’t do something to a patch of dirt. It’s a sort of signal. To a certain kind of person, a vacant lot is an invitation to crime.
The traditional vacant lot crime is dumping: tires; bodies; old shoes and so on. But there are horticultural criminals, too, which often go by the name of Guerrilla Gardeners. Often brazenly working in broad daylight, GGs nefariously plant and tend property that is neglected, abandoned or just plain wasted, such as those forlorn strips of vegetation in the middle of the boulevard. The movement, and it is one, is usually traced back to New York in the early 1970s, where Liz Christy and associates converted a derelict lot into a garden which has, decades later, become an official city park.
Guerrilla Gardening, like gardening itself, takes all kinds. The pranksters of the movement tend towards “seed bombs,” a tool for hit-and-run beautification. The seed bombs which initially made the Bowery bloom were Christmas ornaments, or balloons, or condoms (double-entendre-izers to full power) filled with seed and fertilizer. Tossed over impenetrable fences, they were a way of carpet bombing with wildflowers. Modern seed bombs are much more sustainable. They’re a mix of seed and compost balled up with clay — a dirt projectile with a seed payload.
Other Guerrilla Gardeners are in it for the long haul. Novella Carpenter, noticing that the landlord of the empty lot next door to her apartment in the Oakland ghetto never put in an appearance, began to plant a few vegetables on his land. One thing led to another and it turned into the real farm, hogs and all.
In Copenhagen, a group called Ecological Initiators spent a full year planning and then, in one night, used a team of 500 to transform a vacant lot into a park, complete with masonry planting beds, lawns, a lake with bicycle-powered fountain, a children’s merry-go-round and a greenhouse.
On the more political side of the coin, an outfit by the name of Take Back the Land guerrilla gardened and guerrilla built the Kew Bridge EcoVillage in London. High on responsible living, low on aesthetic charm, the permaculture village of 32 people existed for almost a year on a one-acre brownfield site, abandoned for 20 years.
Now, in the eyes of the law, all of these GG actions — parks, food, flowers, villages — are the crime of trespass. You don’t even need to set foot on someone’s property. Just throwing a seed-bomb is a trespass no-no. And maybe that’s part of the charm.
There’s something wonderful about the mix of criminal and fanciful in Guerrilla Gardening. Consider the moment the victim discovers the crime. Not only have some miscreants trespassed but they’ve… planted tulips? Sowed eggplant? Installed a nice ornamental border? It’s almost worthy of a Monty Python skit.
The gentle mischief of GGs helps us smile when we’re confronted with what would otherwise be holes in the fabric of our cities. That’s a good thing because, culturally, vacant lots are somewhat disturbing. Ever since Peter Minuit “bought” Manhattan from a native tribe in 1626, real estate has been the foundation of American prosperity, the room for all that growth to grow into. But “growth,” desperate prayers of the political class notwithstanding, isn’t really making the scene these days. The sight of an unwanted plot of land is an unmistakable reminder that not all is well.
Take Cleveland. It has 20,000 vacant lots. It’s a big enough area that a group of scientists has taken to studying it as an ecosystem. Cleveland also has the Hunger Network, which does the noble job of feeding 60,000 people every month, 25,000 of whom are children.
The City of Cleveland’s strategy for its vacant lots is to take possession and then sell them. The problem is, no one’s buying. So, until the day that the number of Cleveland’s vacant lots begins to decrease instead of rising by 1,000 per year, city workers mow them, aiming to keep the grass less than eight inches high. The price tag of this manicuring: 3.3 million per year. That’s a bit more than it costs to keep the Hunger Network running.
This problem is provoking some imaginative approaches in Cleveland, but one approach that’s not happening is abandonment. Cleveland might be the second poorest city in the nation, but they’re going to keep mowing those lawns and the foreclosing banks are going to retain title. Land, it seems, is like a dog. Either it has an owner and a license, or it’s wild and potentially dangerous.
This, it seems to me, is where the real message of guerrilla gardening lies. Even the most mischievous seed bomber is demonstrating — wittingly or not — that our relationship to the land can have a category outside of owner or renter. If you think I’m reading too much into this, consider: GGs get away with it. In a time when people are threatened with jail time for growing food on their own property, the GGs somehow avoid the limbs of the law. And it’s not because they’re that stealthy. No. It’s more like no one can gather the will to prosecute someone engaged in the crime of… working the land.
It’s almost enough to make me think that guerrilla gardening stirs a deep cultural memory of the Commons, of land which was neither yours nor mine, but which “belonged” to those willing to invest their own work into it. The real gift of the Guerrilla Gardeners is that they’ve rediscovered something that everyone once knew and which nature never forgot: if you want growth in hard times, look to the weeds.
— Christian Ford
Guerrilla Garden & Guerrilla Landscape by 24oranges.nl
Seed Bombs by Aida Mollencamp
One Happy Warrior by Michael Soron
The Original Seed Bomb by Jessica Lucia
Recruiting Poster by Elly Blue
Guerrilla Recycling Gardens by Kellan
A Guerrilla Garden Sprouts by Toastwife