Guerrillas in the Fog

By: Josh Schechtel

Josh Schechtel is an avid gardener and has rarely met a plant that he didn’t like. He has worked as…

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The Pennsylvania Street Garden in San Francisco. Photographs by RGT

The Pennsylvania Street Garden in San Francisco. Photographs by RGT

People have gardened on abandoned and neglected land for generations. There is a long history in many countries of “squatters” growing crops on land that belonged to someone else, and many subsistence farmers around the world still cultivate food in this manner. Urban movements, such as the Vacant Lot Cultivation Associations popular in the US during the 1890s and the Victory Gardens during World War II, furthered the idea that people could grow food for themselves and their communities on land that did not belong to them.

Succulents were clustered at the northern edge of the Pennsylvania Street Garden, where they tolerate heat reflected off a neighboring corrugated metal building; woven twig edgings help define the pathways

Succulents were clustered at the northern edge of the Pennsylvania Street Garden, where they tolerate heat reflected off a neighboring corrugated metal building; woven twig edgings help define the pathways

A more recent variation on this urban theme has been dubbed “guerrilla gardening;” it often involves a political action or public statement regarding land rights, land reform, or environmentalism. By growing crops or ornamental gardens on land that was formerly an eyesore or a neighborhood hazard, these guerrilla gardeners send a message through their actions, whether it be to criticize a neglectful property owner or to reclaim urban space previously lost to drug-dealing. These actions are usually carried out in stealth, since they are often done without permits or permission from the landowner—hence the “guerrilla” moniker. There are organized groups of guerrilla gardeners in all of the large cities of the West Coast (and around the world), and their activities have been documented in local newspapers for a number of years.

A recent guerrilla gardening project in San Francisco began in December 2008. An exit ramp from the Interstate 280 freeway had resulted in left over land—a vacant lot about 150 feet by 200 feet belonging to CalTrans, the state’s highway department. Over the years, the lot had become infested with weeds, dog feces, hypodermic needles from local drug addicts, and all types of debris dumped by people too lazy to dispose of it in a proper way. One day, a passerby dumped a potted princess plant (Tibouchina urvilleana) in the lot. Annie Shaw, a neighbor, noticed the plant and, a few days later, noticed that someone had removed it from its pot and planted it in the ground. This gave her an idea: why not create a garden on this eyesore that she had to look at every day? On the bright side, the lot had a full southwestern exposure and a gentle slope for excellent drainage. On the not-so-bright side, it needed a huge amount of debris removal, ivy eradication, and soil amending.

Annie began cleaning out the weeds and debris and started planning flowerbeds and paths. Within a short time, neighbors, dog walkers, and curious passersby offered to help; soon, the lot was cleared, graded, and ready for its transformation. Demonstrating the power of technology, Annie used Craigslist to find free or low-cost compost, mulch, plants, hardscape materials, and people willing to help bring her vision to life. For example, when she explained what she was doing, Bay View Greenwaste Management Company delivered thirty yards of mulch for free. A blog was soon started to keep people abreast of new developments in the garden and to solicit help when needed.

Annie thought about the various ways that people use gardens and the ways that this lot was already being used, and incorporated these activities into the design. There are places to sit, paths to roam, and an entire section of the garden dedicated to dogs (including bags for cleanup and a barrel in which to place them).

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia 5 grandiflora) provided quick color in the first year of the Pennsylvania Street Garden

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia 5 grandiflora) provided quick color in the first year of the Pennsylvania Street Garden

Scouring the “free” ads on Craigslist and placing a plant “wish list” on the blog brought in a tremendous assortment of plants. Volunteers drove her to locations as distant as Petaluma to collect plants that were being given away. Annie also went to local plant sales; when she explained what she was doing, she was given generous discounts on rare and unusual plants at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society plant sales. Without such generosity, many of the more unusual plants would likely not have been planted in the garden. As more plants were placed in the garden, people began to take notice, and passersby began dropping off even more plants. Within a few months, the garden had filled in nicely; there are now hundreds of plants, representing about 400 species of at least 170 genera. Succulents and perennials dominate the plant mix, but there are some self-seeding annuals as well. The various planting beds are arranged by aesthetic choices as well as cultivation requirements, with the larger succulents placed in the driest bed along a warm, south-facing wall. As is evident from the plant list on her blog, everything from Achillea to Zingiber is thriving in this young garden.

Eventually, CalTrans became aware of the activity and requested that some of the garden’s features be removed or modified. Calls to their offices, as well as those of a few local politicians, eventually met with success: CalTrans signed over some of the responsibility for the garden to San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. CalTrans repaired the ancient watering system and adjusted the amount of watering to help get plants established on a low-water regime. The long-term plan is for the watering system to be turned off after two years; by then, the plants should be well established and need only minimal hand watering. CalTrans also explained how to make the site safer by removing or altering tripping hazards, and reminded the gardeners that no food crops could be grown in the garden, as a result of years of soil contamination from leaded gasoline and dumped car batteries. City employees check on the garden regularly, and have enthusiastically offered encouragement and advice.

What had been a neglected neighborhood blight for years has been rapidly converted into a beautiful oasis for people, dogs, and wildlife. Birds and butterflies are flocking to the garden. Neighbors visit frequently and have begun to volunteer at weeding, planting, and watering. A neighbor crafted a welcoming archway to frame the entrance, and others have helped build steps, set bricks, and move large rocks. The garden has brought neighbors together, many meeting each other for the first time despite having lived on the same street for years. A diverse mix of native and exotic plants is thriving in a most unlikely location, and even motorists on the freeway ramp are slowing down and admiring this colorful surprise—the result of one woman’s vision and determination.

Visit www.pacifichorticulture.org for a resource guide for the urban guerrilla gardener and more images of the Pennsylvania Street Garden.

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Guerrillas in the Fog: A Resource Guide