Guerilla gardening: A horticultural revolution

Written by Jen Wilton
Originally published by Contributoria

Kensington Market's famous Garden Car in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Jen Wilton
Kensington Market’s famous Garden Car in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Jen Wilton

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe”, legendary guerilla soldier Che Guevara once said. “You have to make it fall.” Guevara helped popularise the notion of guerilla warfare, a range of hit-and-run tactics used by a small group of combatants fighting a larger and better-equipped adversary.

Guerrilla gardening draws on some of the same principles, albeit without the violence. The act was defined as “the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land” by British author Richard Reynolds, in his 2008 book, On Guerrilla Gardening. The term was first used in New York City in the early 1970s by Liz Christy, who formed the radical gardening group Green Guerrillas. The troupe initially planted illicit sunflowers in the median strips of busy New York streets and soon afterwards created a thriving community garden out of a vacant city lot.

“The Green Guerrillas began rallying other people to use community gardening as a tool to reclaim urban land, stabilise city blocks and get people working together to solve problems”, explains the Green Guerrillas website. “Today more than 600 community gardens grow food for families and neighbours. They connect city kids to the earth. They give seniors cool green spaces to pass summer days.”

Increasingly people are reclaiming private and public spaces for the greater good. Author and self-styled de-growth activist Charles Eisenstein argues that private property, when viewed in its historical context, largely arises from the theft of the commons, which is land or resources that once belonged to a whole community. He calls for land to be utilised in ways that work best for people and the environment. “Everyone benefits when resources go toward those who will use them the best”, he asserts in his book, Sacred Economics.

It is not hard to see the logic of this argument – while fertile land is left barren, chronic food poverty is a serious issue around the globe. So-called food deserts, where fresh and healthy foods are hard to access, exist in many poor urban neighbourhoods, with the associated health costs borne by local residents.

Taking back the food supply

South Los Angeles (LA), formerly known as South Central, is well known for race riots and gang violence. Despite the name change in 2003, chronic poverty has persisted in the area. South LA is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a food desert, one of thousands across the country. Approximately one in 12 people in the US live in a food desert.

“Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options”, USDA official guidance explains. “The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Fashion designer and South LA resident Ron Finley has been dubbed an “urban farming hero” by theHuffington Post. In 2010, Finley co-founded LA Green Grounds, a volunteer-run group that aims to “help turn South LA yards into edible gardens”. With the group’s help, Finley started growing fruit and vegetables on a small strip of public land outside his home. He then developed the space into a community garden, despite initial opposition from local authorities.

“It’s a great model for a neighbourhood, and it really starts conversations and interactions among people, making the community safer and people more involved with each other”, LA Green Grounds co-founder Florence Nishida told a University of California publication late last year.

Finley points out that using the seeds from your plants ensures an exponential return on your initial investment. “One dollar worth of green beans will give you $75 worth of produce”, Finley said in a widely viewed 2013 TED talk. “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” LA Green Grounds continues to advocate for local land reform and encourages people to occupy underutilised space and plant food crops for local neighbourhoods to share.

Even when food is plentiful, British author Reynolds says that growing edible crops on someone else’s land still occurs for idealistic reasons. “For many it is a symbolic gesture”, he says, “demonstrating that there is a more sustainable way to live than relying on agribusiness. Ecological and political motivations are increasingly important for guerrilla gardeners, even if most do not describe themselves as eco-warriors.”

Reclaiming neglected land

In all its varied forms, guerilla gardening is a challenge to how we use land. It can serve as a form of protest, a source of nutrition, or simply as a way to beautify derelict or unused spaces. At its core it is a defiance of authority.

Perhaps one of the most striking cases of guerilla gardening took place at the infamous United States detention centre Guantanamo Bay, located at the south-east tip of Cuba. In 2006, a group of prisoners defied authorities by creating a small garden. The men gradually softened a patch of earth using buckets of water, plastic spoons and a mop handle. They then planted seeds they had saved from meals. Soon enough watermelon, pepper, garlic and cantaloupe plants started to sprout.

One of the men responsible for the illicit garden is Saddiq Ahmed Turkistani, an ethnic Uighur who lived in Afghanistan prior to his detention at Guantanamo. He informed his astonished lawyer Sabin Willet about the fledgling garden, who told British newspaper The Independent, “I could not believe it. These people have been put in such a hellish situation and yet, somehow, they have found a way to create life, literally.”

Guerilla gardening projects are springing up in cities across the globe. In Europe, Berlin has become a hotspot of illicit urban gardening. Well known in certain circles, the Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden), located in the central Kreuzberg neighbourhood, was established on a plot of land abandoned since World War II. The garden boasts an extensive array of fruit and vegetables and the public are welcome to walk around or buy a coffee from the small café nestled amongst the greenery. Most of the plants are grown above ground in large plastic sacks or crates. This mobility is useful as the seasons change, but it also safeguards against losing the garden if the plot of land were to be taken away.

Lynn Peemoeller, an urban planner in Berlin, is also keen on mobile gardening and she provides lessons on how to use abandoned shopping trolleys to grow vegetables. “Berlin is the only European city I know of that will allow guerilla gardening”, Peemoeller told German publication The Local. “It gives the people different kinds of connections to their neighbourhood.”

British author and guerilla gardener Richard Reynolds began illicitly cultivating flowerbeds around his drab south London neighbourhood 10 years ago. He has since been responsible for many eye-catching public horticultural displays and he has helped to establish a network of guerilla gardeners around the world. “For me it’s not just about the gardening, it’s about doing it in my local area in a place which I walk past every day, which is really visible, which can therefore give me immense satisfaction”, Reynolds told Vice magazine. Reynolds sees guerilla gardening as “waking people up”.

He says: “Society isn’t as controlled and policed as we might believe it is, and that’s a really good thing. We’re actually much freer than many people believe we are.”

As long as fertile land is left fallow and unsightly vacant lots continue to blight our cities, it seems there will be people willing to sow the seeds of change. “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city”, says Los Angeles urban farmer Finley. “Plus you get strawberries.”

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