How Guerrilla Gardening Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Josh; Chuck's with me. Say hi, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Hi.

Josh Clark: And I know it titillates Chuck when I say this so welcome to Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck Bryant: It does. I love it.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I know you do, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Sixty episodes in and we're introducing the show as the show.

Josh Clark: Yeah, yeah, well, you know, you gotta try new things sometimes.

Chuck Bryant: It evolves. I like it.

Josh Clark: Yeah, pretty soon I'll just start making up new names for it and people will be like did I download the right one. Yeah. So, Chuck, as I am - usually want to do, I have an anecdote from my past that will nicely segway into what we should talk about today.

Chuck Bryant: I like these because they always - I don't know about these beforehand, I really don't so they're always interesting.

Josh Clark: This one's not, you know, by comparison, it's not that good so don't get your hopes up.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: But I was a slightly younger man in my early teens I had a friend named Jeremy whose dad was a firefighter and he was this tough guy but he also was fairly cultivated, you know, cultured. And he and his friends, some of them firefighter buddies, used to go out at night and engage in what they called clumping.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: All right. And I have never heard of it before or since. I think they made it up actually. But clumping involved going into somebody's yard and stealing plants that you liked and then taking them back to your yard and planting them there.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's a nice thing for a firefighter to do I think.

Josh Clark: Exactly. Yeah, well, you know, if he's saving lives, I think he can kind of get something of a pass but it always struck me as a little wrong maybe.

Chuck Bryant: Well, stealing.

Josh Clark: It is stealing, quite clearly, but at the same time, it's even more than stealing, you know, it's not like stealing somebody's cell phone, you don't have anything really attached to that except maybe your phonebook in it. This is - somebody is cultivating a garden; somebody is taking the time to plan this and tend to it and now all of a sudden there's huge holes filled with dirt.

Chuck Bryant: Right. You're stealing their time; you're stealing their money that they put into the planting.

Josh Clark: Sure, now comes the segway. You want to know what the opposite of that is.

Chuck Bryant: I have a good feeling I know what it is.

Josh Clark: Let's hear it.

Chuck Bryant: Guerrilla gardening.

Josh Clark: That's precisely right. And, Chuck, I know there has been some discrepancy in the very recent past. We're talking the guerrilla as in, like, guerrilla warfare, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Not the apes gardening.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: Although, gorillas aren't apes, are they? I can never remember.

Josh Clark: I don't know. I know they're primates, let's go with that.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, yeah, we're talking guerrilla gardening and it is pretty much what it sounds like. It's making stealth maneuvers into usually untended areas or neglected or overgrown, vacant lots, that kind of thing and tilling the soil, weeding it and planting new stuff.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I think is really, really cool.

Josh Clark: I do, too, because it's subversive which you know I'm very hip to, you know, the smart mobs thing.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But it doesn't harm anyone.

Chuck Bryant: It doesn't harm anyone.

Josh Clark: No, as a matter of fact, it makes the world or the city or wherever you live and you're doing this, a much better place.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Although some people still try and shut it down, which we'll get to later.

Josh Clark: Yeah, good, because I've got a great line for that.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. Good.

Josh Clark: So, you want to give a little background, a little history on guerrilla gardening?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, sure. Originally, I believe it started in New York City in the early 70s.

Josh Clark: The modern version did, yes.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Do you have info on the ancient version?

Josh Clark: Apparently, it goes back to 1649 when a guy named Gerard Winstonly, I believe, he's from Surry, England. He started a group called the diggers and they were basically the first guerrilla gardeners. They just went into places that they didn't own; plots of land they didn't own and started planting.

Chuck Bryant: I wonder if they were crops actually to feed themselves?

Josh Clark: They were planting vegetables, yes.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, the modern version started in the early 70s in New York and there was a resident there named Liz Christy and she founded the Green Guerillas and they started hitting up local lots and planting flowers and the first one I believe was at the corner of Bower and Houston Street which I know well.

Josh Clark: And did you know Bauery is actually Dutch for farm?

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Maybe that's why they picked it.

Josh Clark: I found it on the Green Guerillas website.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, cool.

Josh Clark: yeah, so Christy and the Green Guerillas actually kind of had a hard fought struggle at first. That place at the corner of Bauery and Houston -

Chuck Bryant: Houston.

Josh Clark: - Houston, I'm sorry, that little neglected park that no one cared about, all of a sudden now that they're tending to it and planting stuff, they had a fight on their hands with the city I believe.

Chuck Bryant: I didn't realize that actually.

Josh Clark: Yeah, they had something of a struggle and finally the city gave in, saw the error of its way after about a year and legitimized it and it became this community garden and now it's a memorial park dedicated to Liz Christy.

Chuck Bryant: Very cool. Next time I'm in New York I'll have to go by.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and she was the one who originated seed bombs.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, these are really cool.

Josh Clark: And, originally, she was using condoms filled with tomato seed or some kind of seeds and, like, compost and then hurling them into a vacant lot or something like that.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting. And the condom would disintegrate I guess?

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: So, they didn't work?

Josh Clark: I mean it worked. I think the water would get into it or something like that or maybe she slit it but even after the stuff planted, you still have a prophylactic laying around which really [inaudible] up a lot.

Chuck Bryant: Well, have you been to New York City though?

Josh Clark: I have but not since I was young.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, the condom on the street isn't the strangest thing.

Josh Clark: Right, no.

Chuck Bryant: I've seen quite a few.

Josh Clark: But there are greener ways to do it, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I think nowadays the seed bomb has evolved into a clay mixture with some clay and compost and seed and water and you just form it into a little ball and you can literally toss these from your car and it has to be something obviously that can grow from not having to dig and plant it into the ground, but yeah, it's a seed bomb. Pretty cool, huh?

Josh Clark: Yeah, and apparently - what, like, they're dried out and then when it rains the thing kind of reconstitutes or dissolves and then seeds are spread and there's this compost that feeds it, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Ideally, I think the seed bombs are done either in the rain or before it rains, right before it rains.

Josh Clark: That's very cool.

Chuck Bryant: [Inaudible].

Josh Clark: And like you said, you can throw them from a moving car or just kind of drive around and you're just guerilla gardening, guerilla gardening.

Chuck Bryant: Right, spreading beauty.

Josh Clark: Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: I like that.

Josh Clark: I saw a cool video on the Guardians website of a guy named Richard Reynolds.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I researched this guy, he's awesome.

Josh Clark: Did you see him making seed bombs?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. He's -

Josh Clark: There's a great how to video if any of you guys out there in podcastland are interested in making your own seed bombs, there's a great how to step-by-step video with Richard Reynolds.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And you're absolutely right, he is a cool dude.

Chuck Bryant: He's a very cool dude. While we're on Richard, he was the founder of the London guerilla gardening movement from what I understand and has a great website, guerillagardening.org.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's pretty much like the definitive guerilla gardening website.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: I know in a Google search, if you type in guerilla gardening, it's definitely the first one that comes up.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, which is good?

Josh Clark: It seems the most legitimate as well.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. He actually - I read a cool thing on his website today where he had been taking care of - it may have been his own apartment complex -

Josh Clark: Yeah, it was.

Chuck Bryant: Was it his own?

Josh Clark: Yeah. The horse and elephant or the buggy and something or other!

Chuck Bryant: Right. I love the names for the apartments in London.

Josh Clark: I know it's pretty cool.

Chuck Bryant: It's very cool. So, he had been taking care of his own garden there and eventually got - the residents had been paying money toward maintenance, lawn maintenance and basically the residents started to say, hey, this is kind of fraudulent. This guy has been doing this for free, we're paying money for nothing and he actually got refunded - the 90 residents - he got their money refunded for, like, a three-year period which was about a 100 pounds.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and everything was going swimmingly after that. He had some sort of - at least verbal consensus between the paid ground keepers, the building's owners and himself that he would take care of this area, this common area and he's doing a heck of a job. The guy has - he's a great gardener to begin with but as long as he gave the management a month - a months' notice that he was going to stop so they could get that company back in there to do their terrible job of taking care of it. So, he's got this agreement and then all of a sudden things just go sideways and he's got problems again. And the one problem, you know, it's mind boggling to me. If you have a vacant lot - if you have a common area, if there's a place where it's just being neglected and then somebody very benevolently just starts taking care of it, plants it, what's the problem?

Chuck Bryant: I know.

Josh Clark: But the problem is is there is guerilla gardening also kind in advertently serves as a slap in the face to people who are very interested in rules and procedure and know their county code enforcements phone number by heart. And that's all you have to do is call code enforcement and all of a sudden this great act is now criminal, which it was in the first place but everybody kind of looks the other way, right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure. Did you see the video on his site where they got shut down?

Josh Clark: No, I didn't see that one.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's on You Tube as well and it's on his website and they were actually tending to an area underneath a street sign I believe in London, on a corner, at night, usually it's gardening at night thanks to REM. We can give them a little shout out and they do this under cover of the night quite often and the cops came by and they shut him down. It's all on tape and he gets into a little minor argument with them that they're beautifying the area and the cops - and of course these are cops in London so it's all very polite, you know, if this were in the United States it would go down much differently.

Josh Clark: I'm sure.

Chuck Bryant: And, eventually, they actually left because they threatened to arrest them and - but they snuck back a couple of hours later and finished the job.

Josh Clark: Good for them.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: And, yes, I noticed there's, like, clips and photo documentaries of him all over the world doing, like, guerilla gardening.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and it is all over the world. I saw that there were sites in German and Australia and here in the United States there are a lot of groups and like you were pointing out or I pointed out, we don't have one here in Atlanta, but you mention that you don't necessarily have to have a group, an organized group that does this and a website, you can do it on you r own.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I mean, it doesn't get much more low-tech than seed bombs and you can - like you said, just drive around and throw them out the window, see what happens, but yeah, you could so far as to organize a group.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, which is kind of the cool thing? I think it goes a little bit beyond just the gardening and beautification a lot of times. It's bringing the community together in a cool way. Just like when there's groups that go around and pick up trash, that kind of thing.

Josh Clark: Um-hum. Yeah, now, I know on Reynolds site there's something called Troop Digs. I think it's, like, the forum where you can go and find out who's digging in your area and where they're going to be, that kind of thing or who you need to contact and some people, from what I've read about Reynolds, he is completely into beautification. That's his only motive. There's also a very political aspect to it, to guerilla gardening. It can be a form of protest; of capitalism of urban blight, that kind of thing.

Chuck Bryant: Right, if the city won't take care of itself so we will.

Josh Clark: Right. Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: And also of food costs, it can be a protest of that.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: And, actually, there's this guy in - I believe Boulder, Colorado, this past summer - his name was Scott Hoffenberg, and he got slapped with a $2,000 a day fine for guerilla gardening. And the reason he was doing it he said was because food prices had gotten out of hand so he and a neighbor took up this little right of way. You know the little strips in between the sidewalk and the street?

Josh Clark: Uh-huh.

Chuck Bryant: They just planted a bunch of cucumbers and tomatoes and squash and all this kind of thing and some - one of those people with rules and procedures called code enforcement so, luckily, the county said they were going to try to work with the guy and I never - I didn't hear what happened but I have a feeling if you're a guerilla gardener and your gardening actually right out front of your house and they're threatening a $2,000 fine, that would probably go a long way to get you to comply with those rules and procedures.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you know, I'd like to pick someone's brain who is really against this. I want to meet the person who sees what's going on and goes home and is just fuming, "How dare they plant those flowers right there," you know, I'm curious what's happening there.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and I don't think I could explain it but I know for a fact that I've met people like that before. It's always a little unsettling.

Josh Clark: These are probably the same people that are - the neighborhood associations that just flip out when someone's mailbox looks different than the rest and -

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, those people are a lot of fun. I used to have a friend who lived in my subdivision and his family routinely got letters from the neighborhood association to move the water skis out from in front of the garage and that kind of thing. It's crazy. It was weird.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck, both of us have expressed an interest in guerilla gardening, let's say somebody who is listening to us wants to get started, not everybody is against this, and actually from what I understand, local nurseries have a tendency to really kind of support this kind of thing.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, by donating [inaudible] -

Josh Clark: The half dead plants that nobody is gonna buy anyway that may or may not come back to life. Why not? So, what should people look for when they're doing this?

Chuck Bryant: But I just want to point out this very nice impersonation of a half-dead plant you just did.

Josh Clark: [Inaudible] -

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I wish people could've seen that. Well, first thing you want to do is find out, you know, identify your location of where you want to do this so look for - like you said, sometimes those little strips of land between the street and the sidewalk that are full of trash or grown over with weeds, those are good spots, corners that have those. And then you want to find out what kind of plants you want; indigenous species are good.

Josh Clark: Non-invasive.

Chuck Bryant: Non-invasive.

Josh Clark: You don't want to, like; plant the new cudsy or anything.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which, for you non-southerners is a very fast-growing weed -?

Chuck Bryant: Ivy type thing.

Josh Clark: - that just takes over absolutely everything. It can kill an 80-foot oak tree in a year or two.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Thank you, Japan, for that!

Josh Clark: Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: So, you want to pick out the right plants and you also - I mean, you're gonna be - it's not like you just plant this and then you just leave forever. I mean, if you really want to do it right, you want to upkeep it so if you don't have a ton of time, you want to pick some plants that requires as little upkeep as possible.

Josh Clark: Yeah, like, drought-resistant plants because the law of commons. Everybody wants to take as much out of this common pool and put as little back as possible. Well, as far as economists would say.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: So, yeah, if you have drought-resistant plants, you can leave it up to the universe to take care of it.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I hate that ad.

Chuck Bryant: I know. So, yeah, you've got your plants - well, you need to get your plants. You can ask for donations or you can buy them yourself if you've got a little extra cash; gather up a little team or if you just want to do it yourself, if it's doable by yourself and then you go out. A lot of people do it at night. Here in Atlanta, I think, in my neighborhood, I could go out in the middle of the day and no one would -

Josh Clark: Oh, totally.

Chuck Bryant: - get you.

Josh Clark: No, same here I think as well and there's plenty of lots around my house that I could spruce up.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, me too.

Josh Clark: Let's do that.

Chuck Bryant: Well, maybe we should.

Josh Clark: All right. And if any of you out there are interested in getting into guerilla gardening, we would suggest checking out guerillagardening.org, Richard Reynolds site. He also has a book based on the advice of Chairman Moe and Shagavara about guerilla gardening and of course you would also be interested in visiting our humble website. You can type in guerilla gardening in the search bar on howstuffworks.com. And, Chuck, what do you have for us? Do we have any listener mail?

Chuck Bryant: Yep, we have some listener mail.

Josh Clark: Listener mail time.

Chuck Bryant: So, this letter, Josh, comes to us from a lady name Leah Johnson and Leah says, "I liked your how eco-anxiety works article and I also liked how you mentioned the vulture vomit at the end."

Josh Clark: Oh, yes, this is a good letter.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I have in fact been puked on by a turkey vulture and it was disgusting. I was part of a raptor rehabilitation program and we had outdoor housing for them, which we cleaned out once a week. Every time I went to get the turkey vulture out so we could clean it out just to give him some time outside, he'd panic and puke all over the place including on me. Fortunately, I always had on gloves when handling the birds so the acidity wasn't so much a problem as the terrible smell from the bird of prey that we were feeding him. So, anyway, thanks for making my days better by giving me something interesting to listen to and yadda, yadda, we love you.

Josh Clark: That's great. Well, Leah, because you sent in your listener email and because of your selfless care of birds of prey, we're going to send you our set of how stuff works steak knives for you and yours. We hope you enjoy them and if anyone else out there wants to send us an email, you can send it to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.com. Send it.

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