Earlier this month, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article on the clandestine doings of London guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds.
If you’re not familiar with this rogue tilling movement, Reynolds supplies a neat explanation of the practice to writer Jon Mooallem. Guerrilla gardening, he says, is ” the cultivation of someone else’s land without permission.”
Gardeners like Reynolds home in on forgotten properties, whether public or private, in order to work horticultural wizardry over them, transforming formerly crappy parcels into botanical wonderlands or small farms. The movement, for which Reynolds has become the default spokesperson, has attracted its share of devotees. Reynolds’ Web site boasts impressive before-and-after guerrillla garden pics sent to the flora guru from such places as Toronto, Portland, Ore., and Brisbane, Australia. “There are hundreds of us around the world discreetly digging at night. Some like me improve their cities, some make the countryside that little bit more colorful, and some live off the vegetables they illicitly grow in roadside verges,” writes Reynolds on his site.
Scanning the site’s photos and extensive guerrilla garden map (evidently there’s a “dig” in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) and finding no mention of the District might lead one to conclude that insurgent gardening is just one more vintage-clothed hipster phenomenon a decidedly Brooks Brothers D.C. is missing out on.
Not so. In what was a vacant lot across from Marcus Popetz‘s two-story house in east Columbia Heights, a lot that was, as the 32-year-old computer engineer puts it, “attracting drug users, trash, etc…everything a normal nuisance property does” now grow tomato, squash, and cucumber plants.
According to Popetz, two years ago he and some other residents who’d been working on beautification projects around the neighborhood began thinking about what to do with the large, eyesore of a plot just adjacent to the playground of Bruce Monroe Elementary school. “We looked into who owned it,” Popetz writes in an email “and the city did a lien to clean it once they found that the owner was a corporation [that] hadn’t paid back taxes in 20 years. We cleaned it a couple of times and then started to think about planting flowers and then the idea sorta ballooned into a garden from there.”
Unlike celebrity guerrilla gardener Reynolds, who, in his recently published book— as the Times mag reports— makes “references to horticultural ‘sleeper cells’ and ‘shock and awe’ plantings,'” Popetz doesn’t act as if he’s involved in environmentally responsible espionage. There’s been no night-time gardening or “seed bombs” at the plot on Columbia Road. Popetz and crew (made up of the garden’s co-leader Sara Eigenberg and at any given time six to eight other gardeners) have never really tried to hide their work.
Though technically, the community-oriented green thumbers are trespassing, no one seems to mind, especially not the neighborhood kids who help weed or the senior citizens who get handed surplus veggies. And the city, which is still trying to locate the owner’s of the abandoned lot the guerrillas commandeered, has not only failed to give the gardeners any grief but erected a gate to help protect the project.
“It’s completely illegal, we don’t have any ownership, but morality is on our side,” says Popetz. In a neighborhood where dark, empty lots create the perfect hideaway for gunmen (which happened once in the lot, Popetz remembers), who could argue with him? Asked whether the Columbia Heights gardeners have—like many other guerrilla gardeners—a political agenda, Popetz snorts, “The grandest political aspiration we have,” he says, “is to keep the garden going.”—Rend Smith