What Exactly is Guerilla Gardening?

Throughout history, mankind has staged acts of rebellion against laws or societal ills that many view as tyrannical or unjust.

Sometimes, this type of social mobilization has culminated in riots and bloodshed. Other times, it has spurred social change, if not an increasing malaise with society at large.

Civil disobedience remains an integral part of a country’s democratic system – and one way that malcontented gardeners express their discontent with blighted areas is through guerilla gardening. 

Guerilla gardening is a term that refers to an attempt to improve public spaces by growing plants, despite the lack of authorization.

What was once relegated to a fringe activity, guerrilla gardening has since evolved into the worldwide phenomenon of reclaiming derelict and abandoned spaces. There’s even a subreddit, r/guerillagardening, dedicated to it.

Despite its illicit undertones, guerilla gardening is a rather innocuous act of rebellion that shows a willingness to better the planet for the greater good. 

The origin and etymology of guerrilla gardening

The term ‘guerilla’ traces back to a type of warfare that relies on ambush attacks and traps spawned by small groups in an attempt to hinder a much larger enemy. In fact, the very term, which means ‘little army’ in Spanish, was popularized by Cuban revolutionaries led by Che Guevara. 

Though most guerilla gardeners probably do not have the comportment of a Cuban revolutionary, the similarity lies in the way that both are willing to take a stand against an established government.

As such, guerilla gardeners are juxtaposed as lone gardeners dissipated across the globe, united only by a loose desire to reconnect to nature, working to counter the grotesque urban sprawl.

Their method of warfare? Casting seed bombs (seeds packed into lumps of soil or compost) over fences surrounding a vacant area while evading the watchful gaze of city officials. More complex methods entail cultivating larger patches of land and tending to them regularly.  

A chamomile plant sprouts from a seed ball alongside two seed bombs 

The history of guerilla gardening and its legacy

Guerilla gardening reached its stride in the 70s, at the height of the counterculture movement, when a band of gardeners led by New Yorker Liz Christy scattered seed bombs, planted sunflowers seeds, and transformed a vacant lot into a lush community garden.

Other environmentalists, lamenting the loss of nature, decided to take action against the urban decay that besieged their city. As a testament to their enduring work, over 600 community gardens are now interspersed among the chrome and skyscrapers of New York. 

Even earlier, Johnny Appleseed was sowing apple trees in the rural Midwest. Although much of Appleseed’s life has been mythologized, and he can hardly be counted as a guerilla gardener, the sentiment of tending to rank land is universal. 

The psychology behind guerilla gardening

If the leshy, a shapeshifting creature of Russian folklore, were real, he would probably approve of guerilla gardening – plants cropping up in unexpected places are signs that he is near. As a nature deity, the leshy would not take lightly to those that tread on his domain with disrespect. A practice that reclaims and beautifies unsightly plots of land would be an attempt to win his benediction. 

It’s easy to dismiss guerilla gardening as a hippy-dippy movement, but revitalizing urban spaces has always had profound psychological and physical effects.

Community gardens can be healing spaces where people of all walks of life mingle among both florals and herbs grown for medicine. Some take up the activity to improve aesthetics or to grow food, while others, like Ron Finley, use it as a way to combat the deleterious effects of food deserts. 

Today, self-proclaimed ‘gangster gardener’ Ron Finley has worked hard to revive neglected spaces in his South Central community. Like many guerilla gardeners, he doesn’t believe that the act of providing citizens with sustenance while turning eyesores into oases should be punished. Whether out of goodwill, defiance, or for sport, guerilla gardening is here to stay – it’s proven to be as intractable as the wildflowers that grow in the cracks of the sidewalk.

The legality behind guerilla gardening

In Neal Shusterman’s dystopian series, the Unwind trilogy, two nurses trade arguments regarding ethics and morality. “You can’t change laws without first changing human nature,” one nurse argues. The other claims that, “You can’t change human nature without first changing the law.” Granted, they are referring to a dystopian state that harvests the organs of minors, but the point still stands. 

Laws are not inviolable truths, nor are they infallible. In a world where more serious crimes are given priority, guerilla gardening is generally overlooked, as it’s hard to prove the culprit. Indeed, it’s a two-way street: humans are shaped by laws, and they, in turn, create and enforce the very rules that dictate society. 

In LA, a resident, through tenacity and perseverance, managed to overturn a local ordinance, allowing gardeners to garden in city-owned land without a pricey permit. While guerilla gardening is often regarded as harmless, there are other legal consequences that you may incur if you decide to sell the produce grown without a permit.

Legal guerilla gardening

While legal guerilla gardening may seem like an oxymoron, you can technically plant in your neighborhood if you ask the city government for permission.

If you belong to an academic institution or non-profit, consider partnering with Vego Garden’s Giving Back Program. Many community gardens can benefit from functional raised garden beds, which have been designed to withstand the temperamental conditions of urban gardening. 

Even though the legal aspect may make it less intense, there’s various ways you can make guerilla gardening exciting. Tackle tough plant roots with our weapon of choice: a hori-hori knife. And there’s even a hi-flow retractable hose that might mimic the thrill of dropping seed bombs – perfect for thirsty plants or water fights. 

The true warriors of guerilla gardening are perennials and native plants that have adapted to a frugal existence where a dearth of water and nourishment reigns. A garden of native plants will attract beneficial wildlife and improve the ecological diversity of the area.

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