By Mohini Shanker
So what exactly connects the words “sunflower”, “guerrilla”, and “gardening” to make one special day of collective action?
Guerrilla gardening is the reclamation practice of planting in neglected public spaces that are not authorized for gardening. Guerrilla gardeners plant flowers and vegetables and maintain the plants in these designated areas, continuing a practice that was coined in the 1970s but has existed long before then. While some guerrilla gardeners scatter or sow seeds directly, many use what are known as seed bombs, balls of seeds, soil, compost, and (often) clay, to bypass fenced property lines, as well as ensuring tolerable soil and nutrient conditions for healthy plant growth. This is especially important since many sites for guerrilla gardening, like curbsides and parking lots, do not have good soil quality.
Why do people engage in guerrilla gardening? The reasons vary for many and are often historically tied. The original political motivations for guerrilla gardening included increased native planting, beautification of neighborhoods, and providing communal food options in food deserts. Guerrilla gardens tend to become shared centers, as many people may tend the garden or reap its harvests, so it seems apt that a gardening practice that tackles private and neglected land encourages and strengthens community.
While guerrilla gardening seems easy – make some seed bombs, go out and find a spare plot, and grow your garden – in reality, there are several challenges to address first if you want meaningful growth, especially in the case of food production. For one, the planned plot should be prepared for planting as much as possible after being scoped out so that what you plant there has a good chance of survival. Simply tossing seed bombs won’t have much of an effect if the soil quality is low, your plants need trellising, or the space is not large enough to fit what you want to plant. Additionally, you should have a group of people who help take care of the guerrilla garden, especially with bigger plots. Along with building community, this ensures that the plot is properly and consistently cared for, and helps you find other like-minded gardeners. Also, be sure to consider invasive plants and their effect on the guerrilla garden; it’s always better to plant what is native to your area and not invasive. If the planned plot already has plants growing, that is also something to watch out for.
With all these factors in play, independent guerrilla gardening practices have grown across the world, culminating in International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. This symbolic day, started in Brussels in 2007 and celebrated on May 1st annually, exists as an international awareness day for guerrilla gardening, where gardeners around the world plant sunflowers in places perceived to be neglected. Sunflowers are hardy and can survive heat and drought, resist common diseases, and improve soil quality by removing certain contaminants. With symbolic planting days like this, guerrilla gardeners can promote the principles that led them to the practice while also cultivating new community spaces. So, go out and plant a sunflower or two this May 1st! You may find some new gardening friends along the way.