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August 13, 2010

Club Member Gardens Guerrilla Style

 Jim Richardson of Aurora, Colorado is a Sierra Club member with the Rocky Mountain Chapter. He is also a real life guerrilla gardener. I had a chance to talk with him about this furtive hobby. For tips on how to become a guerrilla  gardener, click here.

So where did your roots in gardening come from?

I grew up in a rural environment in Iowa. Now I live in a patio home that I outgrew in a few years. I volunteer at some community farms in our area. I started planting stuff in my neighbors’ yards. I’d say, “Hey, you want a tree?” and I’d plant it for them. They probably got tired of seeing me, so I started to sneak down to a nearby greenbelt, wetland area near my house. That’s where I do my guerrilla gardening.

For those who might not be familiar with the topic, describe guerrilla gardening.

There are a lot of underutilized city owned areas in our metro environments that could use plants, trees, and bushes that will enhance wildlife and fight climate change with carbon sequestration. If you look around, there are brown lots everywhere that could benefit from native species. You don’t want to introduce something that’s not native. There’s enough of that going on already. You want to try to eradicate an invasive weed and replace it with a native grass or something like that.

It can be as small as sunflowers. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on it or anything. Just plant it somewhere, monitor it, and water it as needed. After a while it establishes itself and you can go plant something else. I probably have several hundred plants in my area that I maintain.

The “guerrilla” tag implies trouble.

I’ve had two run-ins with the local government. I started out with evergreen trees in a floodplain area. The city didn’t like them so they took them out. I’ve had to meet city officials a couple of times over the past five years. They’d say that I need to quit planting because if I keep doing it then someone else will get the idea of doing it. And I’m thinking, “Okay, what’s the problem with that?” So I just ignored that and tried to be sneaky about it.

Then the city flood supervisor and I came to an uneasy agreement: I can plant things in an area that's about 100 yards long by about 30 yards wide along a road.

Are you OK with the “guerrilla” tag or do you think it’s a mis-characterization?

It works for me. I recently read a blog that struck a chord with what I'm trying to achieve. It read: “Worrying about our planet while adhering to local zoning codes or social norms forbidding ecologically sensible behavior is a recipe for disaster. Such laws require citizens to commit an ecological injustice by using a disproportionate share of our Earth's resources. They scream out for civil disobedience.”

What do you plant?

Sunflowers, blue stem grasses, switch grasses. Some daisies. Prairie type plants. Coneflowers.

What about food? Tomatoes? Strawberries?

I suppose you could do that. But I don’t do vegetables. I focus on creating native habitat and converting these areas to a more sustainable environment that was once there.

Any advice on how to get started?

It can be as big or small as you want. Use common sense. You don’t want to put an evergreen tree next to a sidewalk that might block vision for traffic or something like that. Plant as many native species as you can. It should be where you can maintain it. You don’t want it on the other end of town. That’s what’s fortunate about my area, that I can just walk down there at night.

As a true "grass roots" effort, people should see the wisdom in taking advantage of under-utilized land in a manner beneficial to their local community. Even if it's as small as planting a sunflower, we owe it to our ecosystem the ability to heal. When I started this endeavor, the area was a collection of weeds, trash, used condoms, and beer bottles. It's now an area to be proud of and I've gotten numerous accolades from neighbors that I had never met prior to beginning this effort. I even have a few folks that help pull weeds. As the plants mature and get bigger, the area will fill in and become more hospitable to various small wildlife -- my ultimate goal.

(photos courtesy Jim Richardson.)


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