Gardening Against the Rules

Written by Alanna Burns, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon

Many people don’t notice or recognize areas in their community that could benefit from more plant life. I’ll be honest, I used to be like that. I never used to give much thought to the state of the dirt patches along the side of the road or the abandoned lots in our neighbourhood. It took me becoming interested in plants and gardening to then realise that my passion didn’t have to stop in my own home. I began to notice things like unsustainable planting in my community and the lack of functional green space and I wondered what could be done to change that. I heard about “Guerilla Gardening” and was immediately intrigued. 

The definition of Guerilla Gardening is “the act of gardening – raising food, plants, or flowers – on land that the gardeners do not have the legal right to cultivate, such as abandoned sites, areas that are not being cared for, or private property.” While it may be illegal to cultivate land you don’t own, it hasn’t stopped people from planting flowers and edible plants in areas that have been neglected or abandoned in an attempt to breathe life back into these parts of their communities. The term “guerilla gardening” was coined by Liz Christy in 1973 when her Green Guerrilla group turned a derelict private lot into a garden. This garden, which is now known as the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Garden is New York’s first and oldest community garden and is still cared for today by volunteer gardeners and is protected by the city’s parks department. 

The Green Guerilla group saw vacant lots as community gardens and sought to improve upon their communities in what has been described as a “form of civil disobedience” by member Amos Taylor. They believed that community gardens could be used as a tool to “reclaim urban land, stabilise city blocks, and get people working together to solve problems.” Community gardens make a positive contribution to a neighbourhood. People can grow food and spend time reconnecting with the earth. During hot days, it’s a place to cool off. New York in the seventies was a pretty bleak place. Since the first community garden was built, there has been a successful campaign in building more and there are now over 600 community gardens spread throughout New York. These gardens are a true testament to the early work of a determined few. 

A byproduct of the Guerilla Gardening movement is urban farming. Access to gardens and fresh food is a luxury afforded by a select few. This lack of access is referred to as a food desert – an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. One of the largest food deserts in the United States is South Central, Los Angeles, California. In 2010, Ron Finley, a resident of South Central, began a horticultural revolution by petitioning against the city when he was cited for planting vegetables in dirt patches throughout his neighbourhood. Since then, the Ron Finley Project has helped communities turn neglected lots into thriving food gardens that serve those in need. Access to affordable and nutritious food is a problem that affects millions of people worldwide. Allowing people to grow their own food is one way to combat this issue, but it’s merely a small part of a much larger problem. 

 You don’t need to do much to make a difference in your community. Small acts can have big impacts and even the smallest of contributions can help make a change. You can spread native wildflower seeds around your neighbourhood to help local pollinators (and make people smile, because they’re pretty) or you can volunteer for a local group that raises awareness about the lack of community gardens and access to food in lower income communities. Community gardens are typically managed by volunteer groups, and they play an important role in their contribution to green space in urban areas. No matter how we contribute to bettering our communities and neighbourhoods, the outcome is one that can have lasting impacts for generations to come.