Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guerrilla Gardeners

There was a time far back in our country's history when gardening was an integral part of the lives of the majority of our citizens. Even city dwellers, at least those with access to a plot of land, grew their own vegetables and often had a pot or two of geraniums that received loving care.

During WWI and WWII, Liberty Gardens and Victory Gardens were both practical and patriotic. Wikipedia explains:

"Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, with the occasional vacant lot 'commandeered for the war effort' and put to use as a cornfield or a squash patch. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London, to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant Riverside were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park."

Although avid vegetable gardeners remain among us, somewhere along the way the ease of purchasing food at the local supermarket changed the way the majority of the population thought about home vegetable gardens (even though homegrown food tastes a million times better than supermarket produce and you can actually harvest it when it's ripe). Eventually gardening in general gave way to landscaping, with appearance playing a more important role than function. For many people, it often became just another chore, eagerly handed off to hired help by those who could afford it.

Coming from a gardening family, I was delighted to read an LA Times article by Joe Robinson about the rise of guerrilla gardeners, brave souls who take on street medians, traffic islands and vacant lots, planting them with everything from greenery to flowers to food. Robinson reports:

"Part beautification, part eco-activism, part social outlet, the activity has been fueled by Internet gardening blogs and sites such as GuerrillaGardening.org, where before-and-after photos of the latest 'troop digs' inspire 45,000 visitors a month to make derelict soil bloom."

I was even more delighted to read that this is an international phenomenon: the Guerrilla Gardening website founder is Richard Reynolds, who lives in London and refers to his plantings as "weapons of mass beautification." His site has links to groups in Canada, Germany, France, Italy and the U.S.

With both the rising cost of food and increased awareness of the fragility of our environment, this is a perfect time to rethink our relationship to the land in urban areas. Using the land as a source of food or a source of beauty is a crucial part of humanizing our cityscapes.

In another post I wrote about green roofs which are environmentally sensitive as well as a wonderful way to beautify our cities. Here, in addition to the Guerrilla Gardening website, are some links to get us all thinking about creating green public land that is otherwise ignored or forgotten:

Homegrown Evolution - Los Angeles urban homesteaders planted a vegetable garden in the parkway across from their home.

Green Guerrillas - a New York group that mixes advocacy, education and the involvement of youth to cultivate community gardens on public land.

Public Space - a Canadian group based in Toronto that has as its slogan: "Graffiti with nature."

Disclaimer: Guerrilla gardening is illegal. You are commandeering land that you don't personally own for the purpose of planting veggies or flowers or other greenery. This action, depending on where you live, will either be appreciated or prosecuted. Although I confess that the political statement made by citizens turning derelict public land into a lovely garden appeals to my sixties sensibilities, if you have concerns about the legality of guerrilla gardening, check out The American Community Gardening Association for ideas about getting your civic leaders to cooperate with your efforts.

Although I'm no longer a gardener, I have fond memories of the small vegetable garden in the backyard of my childhood home. I was thrilled every time I pulled up a carrot I had planted myself. The neighbors shared raspberries from their bushes across the alley, a grape vine draped along another neighboring fence, and we had a small peach tree that, as I recall, gave us very few peaches over the years but still looked lovely. My parents continued to garden after moving to another town, filling their yard with flowers, vegetables (including a few rows of cornstalks!) and strawberry rings. My father chased away crows regularly. Even when they moved to an apartment, Mom kept planters of onions and chives on the balcony.

Today, my mother finds it quite annoying that her current apartment managers won't allow her to keep a small container garden on her front porch. But, unstoppable at almost age 86, she and a few of her neighbors are successfully guerilla gardening the building's courtyard with flowers. Come next summer, I wouldn't be surprised to find an onion or two hidden amongst the marigolds!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

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