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Beautiful vandalism

Guerrilla gardening is the act of cultivating someone’s land without permission.

I remember the first time I saw the words guerrilla gardening paired together. My immediate thought — random acts of beautification? While seeing our personal project of beautifying our San Francisco office come into fruition, I grew inspired to take a closer look.

Historically, class struggles have set the stage for organized takeover of private land for farming. Gerrard Winstanley of the Diggers started a movement in 1649 when he occupied and grew crop on public land in protest of private estate.

The first highly publicized act of modern guerrilla gardening took place in 1973 when Liz Christy and the Green Guerrillas converted a forlorn lot into a luscious garden in the Bowery area of Manhattan. Soon after, guerrilla gardening spread as a subculture movement that stretched as far as Los Angeles, Toronto, London, and Tokyo.

These days, many guerrilla gardeners share their work on Flickr groups and online forums. Headed by Richard Reynolds, a rising figure in the movement, Guerrillagardening.org is a resource center that features tips, a blog, and community forum.

Though a lot of guerrilla gardeners prefer to work early in the morning or under the cover of night to avoid confrontation with the law, public authorities often welcome the eco-activism. Some are not quite sure of what to make of the covert activity. A spokeswoman from the London Borough of Hackney comments, “Environmental vandalism would be illegal, but it’s hard to argue that gardening is vandalism.”

Not all guerrilla gardening acts are welcomed. In 2007, Carol Cosgrove, a San Francisco property owner, discovered that her derelict slab of unused property was being converted into a vegetable garden when she noted a huge spike in her water bill. Even though she was opposed to a public garden being built on her property, she insists that she would “love it if someone wanted to garden the area,” but would prefer flowers.

Though I like that vegetable gardens promote community involvement, vegetable gardens are at their best when community members have ready access to properly care for the plants. Without permission from property owners and proper provisions, I question the quality of the soil and the yielded produce. I admire the spirit of these guerrilla gardeners but question some of their practices, especially when they undermine public safety or negatively affect nearby businesses.

Experienced guerrilla gardeners avoid legal confrontations and practice responsible and hassle free eco-activism by selecting plants that are non-invasive, need little water and are native to the area. They tend to avoid private property and choose public locations that receive good water run-off, aren’t part of a development site, and are in good view of heavy human traffic. Mynativeplants.com and plantright.org are excellent botanical resources for anyone interested in greening their own front yard or garden.

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