Anarchist Flowers 

The hows and whys of guerrilla gardening


Let's get tactical. That's what you find yourself thinking for the first half of Richard Reynold's pretty good book on a marvelously mischievous idea, one which holds enormous potential in depopulated and grossly neglected Cleveland. The idea is clearly expressed in the title, Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries, but just in case you need greater specificity, Reynolds defines the practice as

He's not talking about prankishly planting tomatoes in your neighbor's manicured lawn or basil among his petunias. The spirit of the book and most of the stealth gardeners whose work is described there is one of reclaiming neglected land. Whether the neglect comes from simple abandonment (especially the kind that surrounds us here in Cleveland) or lack of government funds (as so often happens along the margins of highways, in parks or along boulevard medians) or simple lack of will (as we see in scraps surrounding apartment buildings), Reynolds and his all-volunteer army see potential in the dirt. The book supplies evidence of their success in the form of beautiful, full-color photographs of guerrilla gardening efforts around the world.

The book is just out this year, but neither the term nor Reynolds' embrace of it is new. He says he became a guerrilla gardener in 2004, when he began to garden the derelict beds around his London high-rise. Since then he's started a website, Guerrillagardening.org, where foot soldiers, identified by first name and serial number, post their exploits, problems and solutions. Those people and their stories inform the first section of the book, which is intended as an introduction to the movement, including a history.

He talks about purposes for gardening - chief among which is beautification - but also about food, community, health and other motivations. Among these you can even find business, which brings up a historic tidbit: Ohio's place in guerrilla-gardening history was planted in the early 19th century, when John "Appleseed" Chapman took sacks of apple seeds from the cider mills of Pennsylvania and planted them on land he didn't own along the Ohio River, knowing that settlers could secure title to acreage from the Ohio Land Company by planting apple trees on it. After his guerrilla orchards sprouted, Chapman would sell the seedlings to settlers. But this is definitely a book about 21st-century cities and the desire to do something beautiful where no one else will.

Through the first section of the book, Reynolds' prose seems to rake over common sense and a relatively small pool of information for a long time, which left this reader anxious either for tales of late-night stealth and running from the law or for high-level tactical advice.

The tactics do come. The second section begins by laying out an arsenal of plants for specific purposes and growing conditions. It's good to know, for example, that a plant called candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) is drought-tolerant and a good ground cover, producing white flowers that attract hoverflies, which help keep out other garden pests. The book is by no means a catalog of plants and their properties, but it has short lists of sure bets for certain circumstances, whether you're looking to make a visible splash of color; get attention with something "utterly out of place," like a sunflower; plant despite drought, shade, poor soil or high winds; or solve other problems that arise when you're gardening in a hurry and on the sly.

Take seed bombs, for example. Several methods of making them are described, all of which combine dirt, seed and fertilizer with a molded object that will crumble upon hitting the ground, providing a good chance for germination. These are grenades you could lob with a clear conscience.

Which brings us to Cleveland. August on the North Coast is not the time that many of us think about planting flowers, but it is a fine time to buy this book and scout the landscape for a place that could be made more beautiful if someone were to drop a seed bomb there.

Guerrilla Gardening is not exhilarating for its prose, but it is for its idea and for the window it opens to a world of people who beautify with a kind of graffiti that grows. Cleveland needs that immediately. And fall is a fine time to plant daffodils.

On Guerrilla Gardening, By Richard Reynolds, Bloomsbury, 2008, 256 pages, hardcover.

More by Michael Gill


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