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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Guerrilla Gardening

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It’s the summer solstice and a group of 18 guerrilla gardeners descend on a neglected and garbage-filled lot on D’arcy Street, just off Spadina Avenue. Armed with shovels, top soil and one thousand lilies plus some annuals donated by a neighbour the group gets started on transforming a space into something beautiful, having fun and gaining onlookers as they go.

Guerrilla gardening is the act of planting (flowers, food, trees etc) in what is considered public or private space without necessarily asking permission first. Some guerrillas will do this under the cover of night, others transform spaces during the day, as we did. Sometimes it is political as People’s Park in Berkeley, California where gardening in the park was a point of contention and later of defiance when the park was barricaded by the American military. In this clip you see student lay down sod in the middle of the street. Some guerrillas are not making a political statement — they just want to be involved in their city in a very tangible way.

The ground is hard as concrete and the sun is baking hot, even at 6:30 in the evening. We all took to breaking ground. Taking pains to avoid the hardy burdock that we will keep in the new garden as well as the sunflowers that had been planted along the back fence a few weeks ago by one the guerrilla gardeners. Many hands make light work and after a while we start to see progress.

We speculated about what the land was and why half of the lot is fenced off and had been abandoned for so long. A passerby, inquiring about the buzz of activity told us that he had been in the area for at least 20 years and it had always been like that. Looking through Archives Ontario the only event that could leave a lot potentially vacant was a fire in August of 1971, but there is nothing more to substantiate that guess. Some guerrillas thought it might be toxic, others suggested, of course, haunted.

Putting water on the baked earth makes digging much easier and the ground starts to clear. Out comes the thousand lilies and annuals and we get busy putting them into the ground as well as planter boxes, some that will stay at this location and some that will go next to a restaurant on Spadina that may have had a patio at one point but was now a swath of cracking concrete.

Curious onlookers stop occasionally to watch our efforts, some take photos and one women silently picks up a trowel, plants some flowers then departs and wordlessly as she came. At one point, a bus load of tourists coming back from sightseeing on Spadina Avenue take in our efforts with thumbs up, clapping, and lots and lots of picture taking.

Each passerby who stops to ask about our activities is asked whether they would be able to water the flowers, every so often some tentatively agree, some back away slowly, claiming full schedules with their own gardens. Enter stage left — the restaurant employees who had been coming out periodically to check on the progress indicate, with a flair of gesturing and pointing to the tap that we can use their water and yes they will try to water the garden.

As the evening is winding down the group starts to stand back to look at our work. Red flowers poke out behind lilies and little purple flowers dot the ground here and there. Little signs are put up asking folks to water the garden and when I walked by the next day everything was looking pretty good. I couldn’t help but smile at the effort of a group of people to make the city something that they envision and hope to share with others.

Toronto’s Guerrilla Gardeners began a few years ago out of the Public Space Committee and typically has about four plantings a year with the last one on the summer solstice. In between those plantings they do seed bomb worker bees or other smaller plantings. When I asked about their relationship to the city they said they have never had problems (since they do not plant food there are no health concerns). They have never had anyone complain about the addition of flowers!

Getting involved with Toronto’s Guerrilla Gardeners is simple as checking for when the next planning is on their website. Or how about engaging in a little guerrilla gardening yourself? Next time you see an abandoned lot, or a forgotten slab of concrete consider how you could brighten that space (and someone’s day at the same time!). Put some potted flowers or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, toss some seed bombs to grow an explosion of colour in a construction site or neglected street planter. For now, I’ll tend to my own garden but I’ll see you next spring at the next Guerrilla Gardening session!