Guerrilla Gardens: The Grassroots Fight Against Blight


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Guerrilla Gardens: The Grassroots Fight Against Blight

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Guerrilla Gardens: The Grassroots Fight Against Blight

  2. 2. aA The grassroots fight against blight S A POSTAL CARRIER IN THE CITY of Long Beach, Calif., Scott Bunnell sees some of the city’s most neglected plots of land: the vacant By Matt Villano for USA TODAY The land is there. Why not make it beautiful? Scott Bunnell, postal carrier and guerrilla gardener, Long Beach, Calif. lots, the dilapidated buildings, the overgrown yards, the dusty traffic make communities around the like: patches of dirt planted with medians. country a bit more green. flowers suited to the climate and For more than 15 years, Bunnell Most of these activists say they area. The latter are a bit more took mental notes on these do it to beautify run-down portions complicated and involve plants eyesores, thinking about how he of their neighborhoods. Others say that don’t need to be watered to could make them nicer. Finally, in they do it to grow free food. thrive, such as succulents. the late 1990s, he decided to do Bunnell’s gardens, which can be something about it. Sprouting up found on traffic medians, freeway In the years that followed, Nobody knows exactly how or off ramps, and bike paths, fall into Bunnell and others have met when guerrilla gardening began. the xeriscape category. He plants under the cover of darkness and Some say it was in the 1960s, drought-tolerant succulents that stealthily converted almost a when peaceniks in West Coast he grows in a greenhouse in his dozen vacant spots into beautiful cities such as Los Angeles and San backyard. gardens. The guerrilla gardeners Francisco took it upon themselves When he selects a site for a became Robin Hoods of the Los to brighten up some of the most garden, he first tests the soil Angeles area, a band of merry men dilapidated lots in their com- composition. Next, he draws and women who worked to make munities. Others say it wasn’t a sketch of his vision for the the gritty look good again. until 1973, when Liz Christy, an garden—typically big plants in the “The land is there,” Bunnell says. activist, formed a group called back or center and smaller plants “Why not make it beautiful?” Green Guerrillas and turned a in the front and on the edge. He The gardeners’ work is private lot in New York’s Bowery then selects the plants. Most of remarkable. Passersby marvel neighborhood into an elaborate his gardens feature agaves, aloes, at the gardens without knowing garden. Still others insist that flowering cacti, oak trees, and who created them. The catch? modern interpretation of the palm trees. Bunnell is cultivating land without phrase started in London, where Finally Bunnell sets a time to permission and, in some cases, Richard Reynolds has become plant the garden and announces breaking the law. a mini-celebrity. Reynolds also the plan to other guerrilla Welcome to the world of guer- launched, gardeners through his website, rilla gardening, where flora-lovers which many guerrilla gardeners enter a legal gray areaI in the use to organize their campaigns. On planting day, Bunnell arrives name of green. Though no official Today, the vast majority of at the site with a truck full of statistics exist, anecdotal evidence projects involve two basic kinds supplies: plants, water, and shovels suggests that hundreds if not thou- of gardens: flower gardens and for all. He oversees an exhaustive sands of gardeners just like Bunnell xeriscape gardens. The former weeding job and then instructs have flouted local ordinances to are exactly what they sound CO N T I N U E D GREEN LIVING 29
  3. 3. participants on how and where to Mark Winne, an author based Another one, in Youngstown,place the plants. He encourages in Santa Fe, N.M., spotlighted this produced 190 pounds at peakthem to pick up trash and asks phenomenon in his 2010 book, bloom.everyone to take a bag of trash Food Rebels, Guerrilla Garden- “If you’re ready to plantwith them to throw away. ers and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: something beautiful, you have “It’s not just about the garden. Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial to ask yourself, ‘Can people eatIt’s about changing the whole Agriculture. Winne says that after this?’ ” Small says. “When peoplelandscape,” he says. “If we can years of reporting, he concluded are hungry, when they can’t affordclean up an entire block through that guerrilla gardening is a way to buy their own food, tomatoes,this process, we’ve done the for people to feel like they’re collard greens, onions, and lettucecommunity a great service.” taking control of their lives and can be things of true beauty.” their communities. The way Small sees it, there arePlanting for produce “It’s simple, but it’s true: Guer- two secrets to his success. First, In recent years, a new kind of rilla gardening is just making the he grows all of his own plants andguerrilla garden has sprouted in most of the resources and tools brings them to the gardens asthe national scene: the fruit and at hand to give your community seedlings. Second, he makes a bigvegetable garden. what it needs,” he says. deal of compost. He and his adult In these instances, gardeners Without question, the star son work with local restaurantsplant, cultivate, and manage of Winne’s book is 47-year-old and community members togardens in underprivileged urban Maurice Small. Since the mid- collect materials for composting.areas for the explicit purpose of 1980s, Small has helped create They add these materials togrowing food. Throughout each more than 500 gardens in and biodegradable waste and use theseason, as gardeners harvest around Cuyahoga County, Ohio, finished product as a supplementoranges, kale, lettuce, peppers, and near his Cleveland home. One for soil and fertilizer.other produce, they donate the of the gardens, at an abandoned Small insists this compostfruits and vegetables to local food school in Elyria, produced 285 boosts everything in his gardens.pantries. pounds of produce per week. CO N T I N U E DSetting off seedbombs Much like guerrilla fighters, guerrilla combinations of seeds.gardeners have an arsenal of weapons at Since 2010, Greenaid has blitzed thetheir disposal. Traditionalists generally stick market with seedbombs, selling them onlineto the basics: seedlings, compost, and water and in vending machines located in super-by the gallon. Others have taken advantage markets and home improvement storesof a new tool: a gumball-sized grenade of across the country. greenness called a What’s more, Greenaid provides seedbomb. customers with interactive maps that detail Technically speak- locations in various cities and regions where ing, seedbombs are people have used seedbombs. The maps compressed bundles of also allow users to suggest locations for soil and paper pulp that reforestation—introducing plants to a plot of future bombs. contain live vegetation. land from the air. “We’re really trying to build a community,” The bombs provide The tactic has been around since the says Daniel Phillips, co-director of the a quick and easy 1930s, when planes used the method company. “That way, people help each way for guer- to plant new flora on remote hillsides other.” rilla gardeners that had been ravaged by fire. It became Numbers indicate the plan is working. to engage in popular in the 1960s, when peace-loving In less than two years, the company has COURTESY OF SEEDBOMBS something activists used aerial reforestation to make distributed more than 100 vending machines botanists green, not war in areas of urban blight. around the world and sold about 100,000 refer These days, seedbombing has become so seedbombs. That equates to more than to as sophisticated that gardeners can purchase 50 million individual seeds being spread aerial pre-made bombs containing different worldwide.30 GREEN LIVING SPRING 2012
  4. 4. To solve this conundrum, many guerrilla gardeners strive to establish personal connections in The the communities they serve. The hope is to inspire residents to care nature of for the gardens once they take root by assuming watering duties a guerrilla and protecting the gardens from garden is vandalism and theft. Guerrilla gardeners also risk transient. run-ins with local police and They are other forms of law enforcement. Reynolds, the London-based meant gardener, has a colorful history to call of interacting with police. Here in the U.S., gardeners report attention fewer incidents, though most say they’ve been accosted at least to an once or twice. Bunnell’s group issue and has had a handful of run-ins with workers from CalTrans, the state confront agency in charge of the freeway aesthetic off-ramps on which gardens have been planted. Thankfully, he tyranny. notes, none of his gardeners has Emily Eisele, been arrested yet. activist, Detroit What’s next Most guerrilla gardeners say their efforts make tangible differ- ences in their communities. They vow to continue their work in the His secret ingredients: “Love and lot in the city of Hamtramck, name of the greater good. Other tenderness,” he says. Mich.. In the spring of 2010, the gardeners, however, say that as garden was removed to make way materials and land become more Inherent challenges for a new housing project. expensive, under-the-radar efforts With all of the benefits of guer- “The nature of a guerrilla garden likely will be taken over by formal rilla gardening, it’s hard to imagine is transient. They are meant to call community garden groups. a downside. But it’s there. attention to an issue and confront In New York, for instance, the No. 1 on the list is the problem aesthetic tyranny,” she says. “If Green Guerrillas organization, of impermanence. Because local change occurs—if a real park is formed in 1973, no longer focuses governments rarely sanction built when the community defends on guerrilla work. Instead, the guerrilla gardens on public land, the space, much needed housing group’s members support the gardens lack protection is erected, or the owner begins established efforts in community from destruction or removal. taking care of their abandoned gardens across Manhattan and Guerrilla gardens on private land lot—then something has been other boroughs. face a similar challenge. Any accomplished.” Steve Frillman, who heads the time property owners decide to Watering is another constant organization, says the transitionCOURTESY OF JENNIFER SANTILLANA wipe out a garden, they can, no headache. Many flowering plants was inevitable. With more than questions asked. need water to live, and it can 600 community gardens now in Emily Eisele, an activist from be difficult to come up with New York City, citizens have ample Detroit, planted a garden of irises, reliable watering strategies in opportunities to beautify their daylilies, yarrow, autumn joy, and illicit gardens where no irrigation neighborhoods without fear of other perennials in a trash-strewn systems exist. breaking the law. GREEN LIVING 31