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Guerrilla Gardens take root in Chicago

  • Chicago residents Amanda Clifford, right) and Fawzia Mirza, left, plant some spring flowers on a small patch of land on a Chicago sidewalk.
Chicago residents Amanda Clifford, right) and Fawzia Mirza, left, plant… (Photo courtesy Amanda Clifford )
March 26, 2012|By Taylor Ervin, RedEye

When Amanda Clifford ran out of space for plants in her River North apartment, she turned to the sidewalk. The square patch of dirt surrounding a tree in front of her building had done nothing but collect trash during the six months she lived there, but Clifford saw potential.

She didn't asked permission. She just grabbed her roommate and a spade and started digging.

"I drew out a little plot and bought cheap plants, just marigolds and a couple of herbs and got my friend to help me," Clifford said. "It looked really nice, and I tended it for a while, about six months."

Then, somebody stole her basil plant - literally ripped the plant out of the ground. She blames the Thai restaurant down the street, but regardless of the perpetrator, her garden suffered the same fate as most guerilla-style gardens. It was destroyed.

Citizens bent on beautifying their neighborhood have begun planting, often short-lived, rogue gardens in parkways, public spaces and abandoned lots as a form what Clifford calls "eco-graffiti," and according to the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation the practice is just as illegal as traditional graffiti. 

The Department of Streets and Sanitation's Bureau of Forestry, requires a permit for trees and shrubs to be planted on public parkways. "By requiring a permit, the bureau is able to review the type of plant material to make sure it is an appropriate species, height and shape to grow on the parkway," said Streets and Sanitation Spokeswoman Anne Sheahan.

The department is especially concerned with the practice of building raised guerrilla planters around established trees. According to the department, these structures can damage or even kill healthy trees by cutting off oxygen to the roots and increasing the amount of moisture in the soil.  This process can eventually cause the roots to rot and slowly die off making the tree unstable and susceptible to storm damage.

Clifford, however, is less concerned with the legality of the practice than with the actual maintenance of her gardens.

"The thing with gardening guerrilla style is that the land isn't yours," Clifford said. When you don't own the land you are gardening on, you have limited control over what happens to the space, she said.

Ben Helphand, executive director of Neighbor Space, sees little need for guerrilla gardening in a city rich with resources aimed at helping legitimate gardeners. He said guerrilla gardeners have the right idea, but they are often naive in their approach.  His organization hopes to combat the need for guerrilla gardening by helping neighbors acquire and secure open spaces in the city to plant community gardens.

"I think if the possibility is there to create a permanent open space, that is preferable," Helphand said.  "Sometimes that takes a lot longer and a lot more work, but historically, the city has been very supportive of city gardening, and mayor Emanuel has been supportive and encouraging of urban agriculture."

He said that guerrilla gardening often fails, and that gardeners could spend their time more effectively by committing to a legitimate community garden. Guerrilla gardening is only effective when it pushes boundaries and sends a message about the lack of available green space and gardening opportunities, which according to Helphand, is not the case in Chicago.

"I've seen a number of [guerilla gardens] planted and then just never tended to, and  I don't think that's a good thing," Helphand said. "That ends up sending almost a negative message - that we're not really serious about neighborhood beautification or vegetable growing. "

Avid Guerrilla Gardener Diana Oppenheim said she doesn't have the time to commit to a full-blown legitimate garden and that guerrilla gardening is simply more fun.

"I wanted to organize a group of people as an alternative to just at night going to the bars. Instead I wanted to build community through gardening." Oppenheim said. "I intended it to be totally a leisure activity."

Oppenheim's pastime landed her in a bit of trouble last summer, when she planted a flower garden in a vacant lot near the California Blue Line stop. Under the cover of night, she and a handful of friends spelled out the worth "breathe" in flowers, but when dawn broke, the property owner contacted a local alderman.

"The alderman was a little bit upset about it." she said. "He liked the idea of it, but he was like this is private property, you can't be on it."

Both Helphand and the Chicago Park District urge gardeners to resist the romanticized and rebellious idea of guerrilla gardening. "Join one of our community gardens instead of just planting randomly," said Zvez Kubat  a Spokesperson from the Park District.

For more information about how to get involved with a community garden or to start a new one visit the park district's Community Gardens page.

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