Guerrilla gardening is the act of growing food or flowers in neglected public or private spaces. Here, “guerrilla” refers to the lack of authorization to grow in a given space—and this makes guerrilla gardening illegal in most cases.
Guerrilla gardeners’ motivations vary and often overlap. Many aim to improve the quality of life of a neighborhood; some want to provide food to a needy community; and still others plant seeds as an act of protest against land-use practices and policies.
Here, we explore these motivations within the broader history of guerrilla gardening.
Early History of Guerrilla Gardening
Long before the term “guerrilla gardening” was used, people reclaimed land for agricultural purposes, whether as a political or an environmental statement. Depending on who owns the land, guerrilla gardeners throughout history could either be seen as heroes or nuisances.
In the 1960s, the University of California, Berkeley, bought a plot of land near campus and razed the houses there, with the intention of building student housing. In 1969, activists in the Free Speech and antiwar movements began building a park on the land, planting trees and flowers donated by community members.
In the 1970s, guerrilla gardening had become a worldwide phenomenon of mostly urban efforts to reclaim derelict spaces, often focusing on planting native plants and improving the food choices of people living in food deserts. The movement has also spurred the growth of more mainstream, officially sanctioned urban community gardens and other food reform movements.
Guerrilla Gardening Practices
Guerrilla gardening can be as simple as casting “seed bombs” over fences surrounding a vacant lot, as founder Liz Christy and her Green Guerrillas have been doing since the early 1970s. But it can also involve reclaiming spaces and transforming them into food gardens meant to feed food-insecure residents of the neighborhood.
More effort is involved for food gardening, as soil might be contaminated with lead or otherwise be unsuitable for food production. San Francisco’s Future Action Reclamation Mob (FARM) had to remove toxic soil from one of the sites it developed before it could grow food. Likewise, the Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico of Puerto Rico had to take truckloads of trash to the local landfill before they could establish an agroecological farm on an abandoned plot of land.
Guerrilla gardening is often against the law as it involves trespassing on others’ property, even if the guerrilla gardener only scatters the property with seeds. While gardeners can ask the property owner for permission beforehand, they do not always receive positive answers.
Distributing any food grown on the land without a license or permit may also be illegal. In 2011, the community-based Roots in the City non-profit organization began a farmer’s market, selling produce they had grown on an empty lot. While they had a legal right to farm the land in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, they were charged with illegally selling fruit and merchandise, and had to give their inventory away until they obtained a permit.
Guerilla Gardening and Environmental Justice
Frontline communities and communities of color are more likely to live in urban heat islands—areas that lack tree cover and green space, which leads to residents’ increased heat exposure. With global warming, those heat islands can become even more serious threats. As a result, guerrilla gardeners have emerged, seeds in hand, to reclaim land and return its vitality to their communities.
Among tribal communities, this might take the form of “seed rematriation,” replanting reclaimed ancestral lands with native seeds and returning to indigenous farming practices. For Black Star Farmers, a Seattle-based guerrilla gardening group, farming on public lands “bring[s] awareness to the displacement of Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) from their land.”
Guerrilla gardening and urban farming are also used to shed the association of African American agriculture with slavery and oppression. After turning a vacant playground into a community garden, Atlanta-based HABESHA’s Sustainable Seeds program cultivates youth leadership skills through sustainable agriculture, with the ultimate goal of viewing the work through a lens of liberation rather than oppression.
In an age of increased urbanization and industrial agriculture, guerrilla gardening calls into question the unhealthy practices of modern food production. At the same time, the practice is often used to transform blighted urban spaces, create environmental justice, and bring nature back to an urbanized world.