If you’ve ever seen wildflowers sprouting out of cracks in an abandoned parking lot, you might’ve witnessed the results of guerrilla gardening.
Guerrilla gardening is a planting technique used by gardeners around the world to fulfill various intentions. No matter what, it involves growing plants or crops on land owned by someone else.
It can be used as a political statement or simply to fulfill the desire to beautify one’s neighborhood.
Guerrilla gardening has become a popular method of community revitalization worldwide. In fact, it might be happening right under your feet.
In this article, we’ll discuss the following about guerilla gardening:
- What guerrilla gardening is
- History of guerrilla gardening
- Legal implications of the practice
- How to become a guerrilla gardener
- Benefits of guerrilla gardening
- The difference between guerrilla gardening and urban farming
- Indicators of a guerrilla garden
What Is Guerrilla Gardening?
The term guerrilla refers to a small group of unofficial soldiers ambushing or fighting a more prominent, organized armed force.
Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist and leader of the Cuban revolution, defined guerrilla warfare as a way for a small oppressed group to stand up against an established government. Guevara’s 1961 book, Guerrilla Warfare, explains that the fighting style is “used by the side which is supported by the majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression.”
So, how did a historically significant military tactic become associated with gardening?
The term guerrilla has acquired different connotations over time, sometimes referring to topics unrelated to warfare.
Guerrilla gardening means growing plants on land owned by another person or establishment.
Some guerrilla gardening tactics are:
- Seed bombing – Seed bombing involves packing seeds in a ball of compost and throwing them into vacant areas.
- Vacant lot gardening – This tactic involves finding an abandoned lot and planting flowers or crops in the unused space.
- Landscaping neglected public spaces – Guerilla gardening in public spaces is often the most secretive of the tactics. It involves placing flowers or crops in neglected public areas like sidewalks or medians.
What Are Seed Bombs?
Guerrilla gardening beginners often start with the seed bombing technique. It’s less daunting than scaling fences or planting shrubs in the dark, making it a more approachable method of guerrilla gardening.
According to Ball State University, a “seed bomb is a compact mass of organic peat-free compost and seed” that’s “handmade from recycled, organic, and biodegradable materials.” Seed bombs provide an alternative to high-maintenance planting methods that need substantial time and care to grow. They can be placed in neglected areas to propagate on their own.
Seed bombs – alternatively called seed balls – are especially useful in guerrilla gardening because they can be thrown over barriers or fences to reach inaccessible areas. The compact nature of the bombs prevents individual seeds from blowing away in the wind or washing away in runoff.
Once the ball lands in its resting spot, the seeds will begin sprouting roots that break through the ball’s outer layer. Rainfall will further break down the outer layer and help seedlings establish root systems.
The Wildlife Trusts recommends making your own wildflower seed bombs to provide vital resources to “a wide range of insects that couldn’t otherwise survive in urban or built-up areas.”
Making seed balls is also a fun, kid-friendly activity to try at home. Once you’ve made the seed bombs, throw them into dreary areas of your yard and garden and see what beautiful blooms pop up.
The Wildlife Trusts provides these simple instructions for making your own seed balls:
- Mix 1 cup of wildflower seeds, 5 cups of organic compost, and 2-3 cups of clay powder.
- Fold in water until you’ve formed a sticky mixture.
- Use your hands to roll the mixture into multiple firm balls.
- Throw your seed bombs at bare spots in your garden and watch them grow!
Why Do People Guerrilla Garden?
Motives for guerrilla gardening vary, but it’s often a method of protest against urban decay. Guerrilla gardeners take direct action against the poor treatment – or complete lack of treatment – of public spaces by reclaiming the land for themselves and fellow community members.
This Texas State University article describes the movement as “one person standing up against law and convention to grow plants.”
Guerilla gardeners justify their mindset with the idea that maintenance of public spaces – like street medians and city parks – is the responsibility of hired workers and city employees. If those in charge of maintaining those areas neglect them, guerrilla gardeners can reclaim the commitment to beautify and support their community spaces.
In this way, guerrilla gardening is a way for gardeners to positively impact forgotten areas in their communities.
Other reasons people guerrilla garden are:
- Beautification – Some guerrilla gardeners aren’t seeking to make a political statement; they just want to beautify an area that’s otherwise considered ugly and bare. These people are often hobby gardeners who will return to planting sites to tend to their guerrilla gardens.
- Grow food – People in areas of food scarcity sometimes establish vegetable gardens in neglected lots. These gardeners may lack the resources or green space to plant crops on their property; thus, they utilize unused public space. Guerrilla gardeners in established urban areas may use the tactic to combat the effects of food deserts. Food deserts develop when neighborhoods fill up with convenience stores and fast food restaurants, making it difficult for community members to access fresh fruits, vegetables, and spices. Urban gardens provide fresh produce to these people while also turning a once-neglected plot into a functional space.
- Attract pollinators – Some people guerrilla garden to provide a living space for pollinators that wouldn’t otherwise be able to thrive in urban areas. According to the Pollinator Partnership, numerous pollinator species are federally endangered or at risk of becoming endangered – primarily due to habitat loss. Community gardens full of native plants welcome important pollinators and encourage healthy plant growth.
History of Guerrilla Gardening
Now that you know what guerrilla gardening is, you might be wondering how it started.
Gerrard Winstanley and John “Appleseed” Chapman are two of the earliest guerrilla gardeners. Though guerrilla gardening wasn’t an established practice until the 1970s, these two men paved the way for the urban gardening revolution.
In the mid-1600s, Gerrard Winstanley formed a group of agrarian communists called the Diggers. Winstanley was displeased that only a few influential figures owned so much property.
Propelled by his belief that land should be “a common treasury for all,” he became a guerrilla gardening pioneer when he and his group planted a vegetable garden on common land in Surrey, England.
John Chapman is another early guerrilla gardener. You may know him from your grade school history class as “Johnny Appleseed.” Chapman traveled throughout the American West in the late 1800s, planting apple seeds on the outskirts of communities as he went.
While guerrilla gardening has been occurring in some capacity for centuries, the modern movement didn’t begin until the late 20th century.
In 1973, a young artist named Liz Christy formed the Green Guerrillas group. These so-called “rebel gardeners” worked throughout New York City to reimagine abandoned spaces into lush community gardens. The group filled empty street medians with sunflowers, threw seed bombs over fences, and decorated vacant window ledges with flower boxes.
Eventually, the Green Guerrillas “attacked” a vacant lot filled with garbage and debris. The group cleaned up the lot and turned it into a community space called the Bowery Houston Farm and Garden, which is still operational today.
While some community gardeners take up the activity to grow food or have fun, the Green Guerrillas did so to combat the effects of urban decay.
The movement has only grown since the Green Guerrillas planted the community garden in Manhattan.
Ron Finley is a modern guerrilla gardener who uses the practice to combat the devastating effects of food deserts on urban communities. Finley began planting vegetable plots in South Central Los Angeles, where “the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.”
Since Finley made headlines with his urban gardening efforts in 2013, he’s continued working to make community vegetable gardens legal in his city; thus, fighting food deserts and improving his community’s access to nutrition.
Is Guerrilla Gardening Legal?
At its core, guerrilla gardening is growing plants on someone else’s land without the legal rights to do so. Therefore, it’s technically illegal since it involves trespassing.
Even if the gardener is improving the condition of the vacant land, it’s still not legally theirs to change.
Seed bombing private property is also illegal. Even if the gardener throws the seed bomb onto private land without physically entering it, they’ve still trespassed by legal standards.
How To Become a Guerrilla Gardener
You can legally guerrilla garden in your neighborhood simply by asking for permission.
While the guerrilla gardening movement was founded on planting without permission or limits, it’s best to practice the method legally to avoid trouble.
Scope out empty plots of land in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out for unused areas that would be good for growing flowers or food crops.
Next, contact your city government for permission to plant. The city regulators will have information on planting bans or property trespassing restrictions in your area.
If you live in a neighborhood, look around the block for bare street medians or sidewalks. Try contacting the owner of those plots directly and ask permission to plant there.
Even if you’ve decided to guerrilla garden legally, you can still have fun and honor the political efforts of early urban gardeners. Once you’ve gotten permission to plant, try slingshotting seed bombs onto your chosen plot or stealthfully planting flowers in the dead of night.
Now that you understand the basics of guerrilla gardening, you’re ready to start revitalizing your community. Remember that the practice is illegal in some areas, especially if you plan to garden in privately-owned lots.
Your best bet for safe and honest guerrilla gardening is to ask for permission before planting.
You might be surprised at the number of neighbors who are happy to see newly planted flowers or crops along their sidewalks. Your local government might also be pleased that someone wants to beautify that old parking lot that’s been untouched for decades.
With a little bit of passion and a shovel in hand, you can use your gardening skills as a force for good.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Benefits of Guerrilla Gardening?
Guerrilla gardening is beneficial because it allows community members to beautify neglected, run-down, or abandoned areas. Guerrilla gardeners can turn a debris-filled, derelict plot of land into a lush, green oasis perfect for pollinators.
Pollinators do more than buzz around community gardens; they’re crucial for ecological processes. In fact, “of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, almost 80% require pollination by animals.” Guerrilla gardening attracts these vital pollinators back into areas that need them.
Guerrilla gardening also allows people to grow their own food to fight the effects of food scarcity and food deserts.
Some neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh produce and must rely on fast food or processed products for nutrition. Urban gardens allow communities to plant nutritious crops while simultaneously beautifying their blocks.
What Is the Difference Between Guerrilla Gardening and Urban Farming?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines urban farming as the production of food within a community to benefit the people who live there. Urban farming can involve livestock breeding, beekeeping, aquaculture, aquaponics, or flower cultivation.
The practice often involves adapting traditional gardening practices to modern structures. For example, some urban gardeners grow vertical gardens or plant food crops in rooftop containers.
The EPA also states that urban farms can revitalize “abandoned or underutilized urban land, social and economic benefits to urban communities, and beneficial impacts on the urban landscape.”
Urban agriculture and guerrilla gardening are the same in this sense. However, urban gardening encompasses a broader range of agricultural practices.
How Can You Tell If Someone Has Been Doing Guerrilla Gardening?
You can tell if someone has guerrilla gardened in an area by noting plants growing in unexpected places. For example, you might see beautiful blooms sprouting from a crack in the pavement. You might also notice a community garden on the outskirts of an abandoned park.
Now that you understand what guerrilla gardening is, we encourage you to watch for signs of the practice in your city.
Ecologist Josie Jeffery says, “next time you see a foxglove growing by a set of traffic lights, you’ll know a guerrilla gardener has been there!”
What Is International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day?
International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day is a celebration that takes place each year on May 1. People worldwide plant sunflower seeds to honor the roots of the guerrilla gardening movement while beautifying neglected community areas.
A group of Brussels guerrilla gardeners established the holiday in 2007, hoping to bring fellow activists together for a yearly planting event.