Turn Your Kids into Guerillas

What real tomatoes look like

What real tomatoes look like

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person who would advocate teaching our kids to engage in illegal activity. More or less.

But I was raised by parents who taught their children to question authority – not gratuitously, and not aggressively, but to look into the reasons behind rules and regulations and to work out for ourselves if they indeed made any sense. (Of course they ultimately learned, somewhat to their chagrin, that this also meant their own authority.)

So there’s a wedge of land at the end of my dead-end street here in Budapest, a pie-slice of soil between two sets of stairs that lead to the streets above. I would often look at its hard-packed dirt, dotted with scraggly weeds, and muse contemplatively, “That looks like shit.” So I did something about it. Something subversive. Something seditious. Something, in fact, illegal.

One night, under cover of darkness and heavily armed with a spade, some homemade compost and a bag of manure, I slunk up the hill to this patch of dirt and began to dig. Within a couple of hours I’d planted mines of squash, green bean and nasturtium seeds left over from my own garden, and napalmed the whole area using 10-liter jerrycans of water, snickering maliciously the while.

Then I put up a sign in Hungarian, saying “Please do not cut down this area – it has been planted with vegetables and flowers for the whole neighborhood to enjoy.”

Before long the mines had exploded into sprouts, and I continued to go, always at night, to water them. But I grew reckless, foolish even. I was drawn to check up on it during daylight hours, and one day a surly-looking man caught me surreptitiously plucking weeds. “Did you do this?” he demanded.

I was faced with the decision of either lying to one of my neighbors or coming clean and hoping for the best. “I did,” I finally admitted.

He looked at me for a long moment, then broke into a smile and said, “Gratulálok!” He had congratulated me.

After that I would watch from a distance as people approached the garden. They almost invariably stopped, read the sign, and smiled. I started watering during daylight hours, and neighbors would often come up to me, ask questions, offer advice and, occasionally, shake my hand. One neighbor suggested that I use the spigot at his house so I wouldn’t have to haul water such a long distance. I gave him a batch of fresh beans from the garden. He gave me a basket of figs from his. Turns out, the neighborhood loved it.

So did my kids. They’d get home from summer school and ask to go up to check out the ‘guerilla garden.’ I think my oldest was drawn to the garden’s illicit nature, the certain element of naughtiness about the whole thing. In time I added mint, basil, lemon balm, and impatiens for the shady spots, and our youngest liked to pluck leaves from the herbs and chew on them.

The term ‘guerilla gardening’ has been around since the early 1970’s, but it’s only been in the past decade or so that the idea has really caught on, with guerilla gardens popping up around the world. A guerilla garden is simply one that is planted on land that the gardener does not own, such as vacant lots, the strips of unhappy grass between sidewalk and street, medians, in the dead spaces around city trees which usually serve as dog latrines, just about anywhere.

From LA’s South Central, where guerilla gardener Ron Finley was facing possible arrest for planting a vegetable patch in an unused strip of land near his home, to Todmorden in the north of England, where Pam Warhurst, without asking anyone for permission, began planting edibles  all over the city, abandoned and barren ground is being turned into productive and beautiful gardens.

Before and after shot of one of Finley's urban gardens

Before and after shot of one of Finley’s urban gardens

The benefits are astounding. In South Central, Finley’s small act of defiance has turned into L.A. Green Grounds, a project that “provides nourishment, empowerment, education — and healthy, hopeful futures — one urban garden at a time.” Warhurst and her tiny band of volunteers so transformed the community that Tordmorden now actually receives scores of tourists annually who come to see the city’s gardens. The  Incredible Edible organization was born, which now has spinoffs in the US and Japan.

Corn growing in front of Tordmorden's police station

Corn growing in front of Tordmorden’s police station

The common pattern in all guerilla garden stories seems to be one of initial resistance and antagonism on the part of local authorities, gradually turning to acceptance and then full-throated support once the rewards become clear.

And the rewards are many. Increased local business. A heightened sense of community bonding and identity. Involvement of local schools. Improved diet and overall health. Neighborhood revitalization, increased property values, and increased neighborhood redevelopment. So what start out as illegal guerilla gardens often grow into what could be termed community gardens, sanctioned and even promoted by local government. I’m sure there have been some politicians who have even tried to claim credit for coming up with the idea in the first place.

After studying community gardens, neighborhoods and health for a decade, Jill Litt, PhD, associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health has shown that “community gardens may provide a way to enhance neighborhood environments while also promoting health and well being through economic, social and physical changes. Gardens yield fresh food, bring ‘nature’ to urban areas, bridge ethnically, economically and age diverse communities, promote neighborhood beauty, build skills and knowledge of everyday life, strengthen community capacity and one’s sense of community, and promote active and healthy lifestyles.” All that from some seeds and a patch of dirt.

Guerilla garden in Herringay, England

Guerilla garden in Herringay, England

In his hilarious and inspiring TED talk, Ron Finley describes his simple philosophy: “If you want to meet with me, don’t call me if you want to sit around in cushy chairs, and have meetings where you talk about doing some shit. If you want to meet with me, come to the garden, with your shovel, so we can plant some shit.”

So maybe it’s time to dress the kids in black, slip out the back door, and let them stay up late getting up to a little guerilla gardening. When you plant some seeds in your local community, who knows what may grow?

Ron Finley at his TED talk

Ron Finley at his TED talk

For more information, resources, advice, and organizations in your area, see:

15 thoughts on “Turn Your Kids into Guerillas

  1. Pingback: Someone Around Here’s a Guerrilla | Field Notes From Fatherhood

    • I know, I know, I wanted to show just that, but I never took any photos. Now we’re getting ready to move to Barcelona, so I’m having to give up my little guerrilla plot. I’m hoping to get some places going in Spain, but I’ll largely miss out on this growing season. I’d also like to help set up some programs in local schools to involve the kids in school and community gardening. But I’m getting ahead of myself – right now we’re more concerned with packing and finding a temporary place to live. Thanks for visiting!


  2. Such a wonderful post! I am sitting here wondering if anyone has tried this in highly populated regions with a high percentage of homeless. I would so love to make this happen here in India .. and while I’m perfectly happy with the crowds of homeleslys eating the fruits and veggies off of such patches .. I’m just not sure if they’ll just eat it. They’ll probably just walk over it and kill most of them after eating the harvest. But I’m determined to start somewhere after reading this post. Totally inspired mmtread!


    • Thanks, crunch! Actually, urban gardens provide food for homeless people in parts of many cities, and Ron Finley has helped set up gardens at homeless shelters in LA.
      While it’s true that some people may damage the gardens, it’s generally the case that they are moved to take a greater interest in caring for them. In areas where gardens have been planted people have been inspired to paint over graffiti, repair broken infrastructure, and generally just take pride in their neighborhood.
      It’s great to hear that I’ve inspired you – that, for me, is what it’s all about. Thanks for reading!


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