Gardens - Specialty Gardens

Guerrilla gardeners: Waging war on ugly spaces

Signe Langford
Photography by
Signe Langford

Marauding gangs of heavily armed green thumbs may be on their way to an abandoned lot near you

Guerrillas. Bombing. Commandeering land. It all sounds like a military operation, but we’re talking about pansies and wildflowers, and groups of make-love-not-war types wielding nothing more dangerous than garden trowels and bundles of seeds—in eco-military parlance: seed bombs—for lobbing onto barren soil.

It’s called guerrilla gardening and it’s a movement that’s spreading like weeds around the world. In Canada there are guerrilla gardening groups from coast to coast and anyone can take part. No botany degree required, just a desire to make your town a prettier, healthier place to live, and the ability to donate a few hours and some elbow grease. If you can bring along some tools, jugs of water, seeds or plants, even better.

guerilla-pansyinsert.jpgIn Toronto, one of the more organised groups of guerrilla gardeners is an offshoot of the Toronto Public Space Committee and is divided into four regional groups: West, Annex, Downtown and East. I tagged along for the group’s final planting of the spring on June 21, the summer solstice. With such an auspicious date, I hoped for magic. I wasn’t disappointed. 

The small, scrubby patch of land sits behind a restaurant in the heart of Toronto’s bustling west Chinatown. Completely neglected, it was overgrown with weeds, garbage, even a traffic sign. True, the locals made a point of collecting anything redeemable for cash—bottles and cans—but everything else was piling up. So, as the troops assembled, the first order of the day was to clean it all up. Some bent over and others squatted meditatively as they meticulously picked up every last shard of broken glass.

While the 15 eco-warriors picked and raked, passers-by stopped to watch—some throwing suspicious looks at the crew, others with complete bewilderment. One or two seemed horrified that they might be losing their continuous supply of pocket money. One by one, cooks poked their heads out the kitchen door, not quite sure what they were witnessing. One fellow on his break, stood slurping a bowl of noodles and watched the ever expanding group now digging up tall grasses, burdock, dandelions, amaranth and hacking away at dry, compacted, depleted soil. And then the owner appeared. Without much English, he conveyed his pleasure by giving two thumbs up and a smile: “Good job, good job!” Then he gave the best gift he could have—aside from pho for everyone—he offered the gardeners free use of his water faucet, which was met with a roar of thank yous. This will surely give the plants a fighting chance in this bleak bit of ground. The hope is, that area residents—just one person will do—will be so inspired they will take it upon themselves to keep on watering the seedlings until they’ve established. How about it boss-man?

Inset image: Donated pansies wait to go in the ground


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