Guerilla gardening

Guerrilla Gardening. A Manualfesto by David Tracey. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC., 2007.

The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. — Henry Kissinger.

Guerrilla gardening can be summarily defined as gardening in public urban spaces with or without permission. Gardening by the citizens, that is, by urban guerrillas intent, not on destroying the status quo as such but on restoring the web of life that the status quo has been destroying so wantonly. Why do these citizens feel such a sense of urgency? Consider the following quote:

One thing is sure. The earth is cultivated more than ever before…swamps are drying up and cities are springing up at an unprecedented scale. We have become a burden to our planet. Resources are becoming scarce and soon nature will no longer be able to satisfy our needs.

This pressing concern was voiced by Quintus Septimus Tertullian more than 2,200 years ago. This is the very same concern that has spurred urban guerrillas of a gentler, albeit no less radical bend of mind than armed Third World guerrillas, to engage in urban gardening tactics, risking fines and imprisonment. These tactics include fly-by-night plantings in urban wastelands, lobbing “seed grenades” into fenced-off empty lots, planting trees in the middle of nowhere, covering traffic circles with native ground cover, sowing edible plants in school-yards, draping lamp posts with decorative creepers, developing community gardens in impoverished neighbourhoods and empowering disaffected youth by reintroducing them to the joys of dirtying one’s hands in the soil. The list is as boundless as any warrior’s imagination. By the way, the police, supermarkets, developers and constipated city councillors are often not amused. Some, however, are ultimately inducted into the process.

What is the city but the people? –Shakespeare in “Coriolanus”

Journalist David Tracey, a journalist and environmental designer based in Vancouver, speaks from hands-on experience as Executive Director of Tree City, an engaged ecology group helping citizens plant and care for the urban forest. In his excellent manualfesto –both political and practical as the name implies- he traces the history of this movement and offers practical guidelines on how to join it, even as a lone planter like Johnny Appleseed. He does, however, caution readers that loners might get a task done very efficiently but seldom generate greater group participation. This is why he advocates organized group action.

We’re playing those mind games together / Pushing the barriers, planting seeds / Playing the mind guerrilla — John Lennon in “Mind Games”

Most environmental groups have little or no money. Tracey’s book offers practical advice on how to obtain free or low-cost equipment, plants, trees and soil. It also teaches basic horticultural techniques and provides examples of successful campaigns in cities like Seattle, Vancouver and Montreal. The author also suggests ways and means to establish coalitions with some of the “enemy” be they developers, city authorities, absentee landlords and just plain people who have forgotten how to appreciate the beauty and soundness of wild habitats. As he reminds us, native plants are always better than exotic ones, since they thrive better without constant human attention and can support 50 more wildlife species than exotic varieties.

When we plant new trees we plant the seeds of peace.– Wangari Maathai.

This book is a manual as well as a manifesto but it is also something else: a very readable and humorous narrative of urban environmental efforts in modern times, with tidbits of information that both amuse as well as inform. Did you know, for example, that the Jerusalem artichoke, which is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke, but a member of the sunflower family – named “the food of the future” by urban agriculturist Hartley Rosen – can thrive with very little care in an urban environment? Moreover, it produces inulin, a sweetener that is not absorbed by the body, hence useful in the management of diabetes. Did you suspect that 17 million gallons of fuel get spilled every year in the United States mostly from gasoline that doesn’t make the simple transfer from the gas can to the lawn mower? Have you ever thought of using your own urine diluted in water as a weekly fertilizer? A gardener did just that and was rewarded with the biggest plants in her block. And lastly, what have Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in common? They both gardened in captivity.

If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. – Charlie Parker

Guerrilla Gardening, like other New Society publications, is a very practical, inspiring and entertaining book from which one can learn many lessons. For me, the most important lesson is that we must reclaim our public spaces. We are, after all, the public and space belongs to nobody, hence to us. We can start our revolution by reintroducing a bit of wilderness into our civilized spaces. After all, as Henry David Thoreau said:

Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw.