June 2, 2020 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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Guerilla Gardening Roots

Alexandria City Hall Tree WellI spent over fifteen years looking out my apartment windows over the shop at barren tree wells, with cigarette butts and the occasional used condom embedded in the packed earth on my corner and across the street at City Hall. (This photo is an unretouched current tree well in front of City Hall). Finally, it dawned on me that if I planted something in a few tree wells, the block would look nicer.  A like-minded  gallery owner organized a meeting with store owners on our block to try to create public and private plantings to give an attractive and cohesive look.  The various store owners squabbled incessantly, and when we located the people in charge of maintaining tree wells, we were told that planting would disturb the trees and was not allowed. Being short on perseverance, I went back to just picking up the trash around the two tree wells nearest me. And then, one day, having read about the guerrilla gardening movement in Washington, DC and New York – and with the help of a professional gardener – I screwed up my courage and planted around the closest two tree wells. Later, another professional gardener working with me said, “What about horse troughs out in front of the bay windows on the sidewalk?” Our very own guerrilla gardening movement (a small, slippery slope) took root. As Lemuel K. Washburn said, “It is necessary to distinguish between the virtue and vice of obedience.” 

Green Guerrillas In Our History

Liz Christy Garden image from the LCBG websiteEvery American child used to be taught the story of Johnny Appleseed, who flung apple seeds throughout the American Mid-West, Northeast and perhaps even into Canada. He was actually a religious (Swedeborgian) eccentric with a tin pot on his head, which served as both a hat and  his cooking vessel. But he really planted nurseries, which were left in the care of neighboring farmers. He was vegetarian and had a reverence for all God’s creatures, including mosquitoes.  

Our current history of guerrilla gardening most likely began in the early 1970s in New York, when an artist, Liz Christy, with a group of like-minded volunteers created a garden in an abandoned lot in the Bowery. You can visit it today and enjoy the turtle- and fish-filled  pond, its wildflower habitat, grape arbor,  groves of fruit trees, and vegetable gardens and a huge number of flowering perennials all maintained by the garden members. And now, aspiring guerrillas can get encouragement from YouTube and internet classes about gardening on the wild side. My daughters gave me a year’s membership in MasterClass, and I have enjoyed the somewhat profane and very engaging Ron Finley, who even made a film produced by John Legend about Gangsta Gardening in South Los Angeles. You should stream Can You Dig This . You may find the editing a bit erratic and  the stories of the gardeners difficult to understand,  but you will grow. 

Across The Pond

Guerrilla Gardening by Richard ReynoldsIn the UK, it had its roots in a community of “Diggers” in the 17th century, based on the writings of Gerrard Winstanley who Vanessa Harde seed bomb camera from vanessaharden.comadvocated community planting and rights to common land.   Currently in the UK, it is Richard Reynolds who has become a highly visible Guerrilla Gardener. I remember looking at his guerrilla gardens when I came out of the Elephant And Castle tube stop. They were astonishing. Reynolds has also written a book on how you can create such wonders in your own neighborhood.  He teamed up with a provocative and pro-active designer, Vanessa Harden, to create some really humorous gadgets to enliven your guerrilla gardening.  She could have inspired designers for the old Get Smart TV series: Her ingenious camera shoots out seed bombs, while a shoe drops seeds onto dirt.  All guerrilla gardening gurus advocate growing some edible plants along with ornamental ones. In my current efforts, my successes have been some herbs, frisée, chard, and yes, a fig tree

Back To Earth

In my area, I have sought advice from some professional gardeners such as Jody McGowan and Kathryn Kellam from  the Master Gardeners Of Northern Virginia.  Here is some very good counsel if you want to make an impact on a barren spot in your community.  Get your soil tested!  Soil tests can save you a lot of heartache, particularly if you have challenging pH issues, which would not be surprising in a tree box. MGNV has two places where you can pick up a testing kit, and the addresses are listed below.  Knowing the pH and nutrient values is really important to making good plant choices and then adding appropriate amendments, if needed. Instructions for collecting a good sample are included in the kit. You mail the soil sample box(es) to the Virginia Tech address provided, and it takes about 2 weeks to get your results by email. The cost is $10 per sample, which you send in with the samples.

1. Green Street Garden Center, 1721 West Braddock Road, Alexandria.
2. Fairlington Community Center, 3308 S. Stafford St., Arlington.  Use the Utah St. entrance at the back of the center. The kits are located in a box outside the gate adjacent to the loading dock. 
Don’t overlook (as I first did) purchasing native plants.  They will survive curbside abuse a lot better than the dreamy one  you saw pictured on horsetrough garden1Pinterest. If you are in the DMV, here are two local places with great reputations for sensible plants for our area. You can shop or even set up a delivery or pickup from Earth Sangha  Their Wild Plant Nursery propagates and sells only local eco-types of native plants. They have contact-free delivery of their plants for members, and you can join online, check out their plant list, and pay with your credit card after the plants are delivered. You can also send pictures of your space and get their ideas on plants that would work well there. 
Nature By Design  is located on Calvert Avenue  in Alexandria, (quite near Potomac Yards) which offers curbside pickup but not delivery. However, you can browse their plants by appointment. Basic appointments are up to 40 minutes with 20 minutes to pay and load — so you probably want to have some ideas of what you want prior to the appointment. They will probably offer ideas as well, based on your space. And their plant list is also online. So in the end, you need to think about what that barren space will serve: flowers and greenery, perhaps some food crop mixed in, or some plants that are beneficial to insects and birds  All choices are better than the compacted desolate earth in our neighborhoods. And as far as I can tell, the trees have not been disturbed in the least.

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