“Seeding the Imagination…
A Review of
By Brent Aldrich.
A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.
Hardcover: Bloomsbury, 2008.
This past summer, on and empty and overgrown lot in my neighborhood, I mowed several trails through the vegetation, and planted nearly 100 sunflower seeds or starts with a friend, attempting to claim this abandoned space as a nature preserve, or park. The lot, unfortunately, was mowed over on occasion by the owner, so the flowers didn’t make it, but such was my first attempt at guerrilla gardening. At the time, I was aware of the original ‘Green Guerrillas,’ and vague stories of appearing by cover of dark for a night of horticulture on a public space. Richard Reynolds’s new book On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries outlines this movement further, and serves as a handy guide for anyone interested in cultivating a bit of land not your own.
The simple definition of guerrilla gardening is “the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land,” although to flesh that out, Reynolds says, “I, and thousands of people like me, step out from home to garden land we do not own. We see opportunities all around us. Vacant lots flourish as urban oases, roadside verges dazzle with flowers and crops are harvested from land that was supposed to be fruitless” (15-16). As described from his own gardens and dozens of others, Reynolds outlines both a survey and manual for guerrilla gardening. He remains conversational and supportive to other gardeners throughout, narrating stories of many gardeners gathered online at guerrillagardening.org.
As seen in this book, the motivations for guerrilla gardening, as well as the locations and methods, are as diverse as nature itself. From abandoned lots to road medians to unused lawns, one common thread is just the neglect of land in urban places. Living in London, Reynolds also describes ‘scarcity’ as another foe to be conquered, though I must say that I believe we live in an abundance, but the questions arise as to how the land is divided or shared (one could build a political manifesto of guerrilla gardening). Taking responsibility for neglected land, these gardeners are represented in stories and photographs planting medians, empty flowerbeds, and tree pits in bright flowers. An incredible photograph of a 15,000 square foot guerrilla garden in New York (demolished by the city in the 1980’s) is perhaps the largest scale in the book; most are more modest, but still remarkable for their incongruity to their surroundings. “Where there has never been colour, a guerrilla gardener finds a way to bring it into the environment, seeing potential where others saw blank, barren boredom” (30).
The manual in Part Two is very helpful for potential guerrilla gardeners, recommending plants for a variety of scenarios: drought-tolerant, fragrant, colorful, invasive. No detail is ignored, either, as Reynolds makes recommendations for tools, clothes, water, timing, and transportation. One such recommendation is “choose a location that you can easily get to. Somewhere near where you live or work is obviously helpful…Gardening in your community also strengthens your role in the area, your friendships with people and the likely support for your garden” (161).
Altogether, guerrilla gardening can be seen as a direct way of engaging abandoned spaces in any local place, as well as looking for the flourishing of nature in any space. Furthermore, gardening in public spaces is a gesture intended to be a part of that neighborhood; it is for everyone who uses the space, suggesting, perhaps, the possibility of care for shared spaces. The act of guerrilla gardening locates the garden as the site of care for the neighborhood, cultivation of the life a plants, perhaps an alternative political vision, as well as a sight: these plants are beautiful, more so than whatever had been there before.
Throughout, Reynolds borrows language from the original guerrillas, Mao and Che Guevara, describing guerrilla warfare as a means to strategize for guerrilla gardening; generally, this is taken proverbially as a quip, as in Mao say: “move with the fluidity of water and the ease of the blowing wind” (155). On occasion, though, I think that the metaphor of militaristic antagonism is extended too far, as in the introduction: “Our gardens are scenes of savage destruction. Animals uproot, frosts cripple, winds topple, rains flood” (9). Liberty Hyde Bailey addressed this metaphor best: “The struggle in nature is not a combat, as we commonly understand that word, and it is not warfare. The earth is not strewn with corpses…The whole contrivance of nature is to protect the weak” (The Holy Earth).
Nonetheless, I am convinced in the way Reynolds tells his stories and shares his wisdom that he loves his gardens, and would see others take up guerrilla gardening alongside. This book has propagated plenty of new ideas in my mind as to just what and where is in need of a garden in my neighborhood, and I think it could do the same for many places.