Beautiful vandalism

Written by hanh


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, 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. and are excellent botanical resources for anyone interested in greening their own front yard or garden.

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  1. Lisa

    I wish the author had also mentioned the inapropriate nature of drive-by seeding (people who scatter wild flower seeds at random, thru a car window)
    Such practices really don’t take into consideration the natural habitat, and many of these flower seeds become invasive to the indigenous plant life.
    That’s my two cents 🙂
    I like the idea of Guerrilla gardening, for areas of blight. There is one such place near my home (off the freeway ramp in Emeryville, California. It’s great to even just look at when stopped at a red light!

  2. Mr. Stamen

    Check out the Guerrilla Gardeners of Los Angeles!
    They do seed bombing but they use seeds from the Thedore Payne Foundation which only uses California natives. They also have a few gardens in the Hollywood area that are on public property.

  3. Robin

    Watch out for those vacant lots in Emeryville, CA — there was a lot of heavy industry in that area, and much of that soil is very polluted, to the point of being unsafe to eat something grown on it. That would be my main caveat about veggie gardens on unused plots — try to find out the history of what went on there, and whether it would be safe to eat what you grow there.

  4. Anonymous

    Glad to know there are responsible types out there, using indigenous plants! Thanks for that 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    I’m sorry, you misunderstood. There is a lot in Emeryville that is VISIBLE from the car, when stopped at a red light, that has been turned into a community garden, full of flowers and such.
    I no more eat anything from it than I know what the heck they are growing or whom is responsible for growing it.
    I know a welder/sculptor lives across the street and I see her sculptures in there, and so forth, so I assume she’s done some of the work.
    Thanks for the concern; I don’t even drink out of plastic bottles, or eat any food that isn’t organic…you needn’t worry about me.
    I just thought it was nice to look at.

  6. NastyN8

    There are a few public properties is the Cornfields Specific Plan Area of Downtown LA. We need gardeners, guerrilla or otherwise. The main goal of our Mission is to have city approval of which I have the contacts to make it an Urban Reality!! We have a garden comming on line at the Southern tip of the Cornfields State Historic Park; keep your eyes and ears open for an Earth Day Celebration. Call me any time. 714.262.5177

  7. Bill Wheelock

    Now is the time! Artist Anne Hars will be braving the rain at the Long Beach Convention Center today [2/6/09] outside of the TED conference to pass out free clover garden bombs! Clover can fix the nitrogen in brown landscapes and prime it for more successful follow up crops. The seed bombs are works of art themselves made from “Barrons” financial newspapers-photos are on view as a part of the “Emergence Enchanted” show from Phantom galleries in the Pike Mall. You can also check ’em out here: