Published By City Farmer, Canada's Office Of Urban Agriculture

Unearthing the Clandestine Plots of Vancouver's 'Guerrilla Gardeners': The Revolution Will Be Fertilized

By Anne Tempelman-Kluit
Special to the Globe And Mail
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Vancouver -- Once an urban secret, guerrilla gardens are now blooming blatantly across vancouver. And like their gardeners, these unauthorized plots come in all guises. Some are bulbs or seedlings planted in wasteland and left for nature to take care of her own. Others are tiny flowering plots on oddly shaped street corners, and still others look like flourishing country gardens.

One downtown eastside garden even looks like an orchard: 30 heritage apple trees, planted in big wooden boxes, stand along a dilapidated road that separates a popular park from an overflowing community garden.

The trees, some two metres tall, originated on cortez island where an orchardist was going out of business.

An anonymous donor shipped the trees to vancouver and offered them to the community gardeners. Extra trees were given to area residents, who planted them this spring between the community garden and the park, drawing birds and bees to this high-density commercial area.

Guerrilla gardening, a term coined about a decade ago, is basically planting whatever you wish on a piece of land that doesn't belong to you, but is owned by the city, a business, a railroad or even an individual.

Often working at night, landless gardeners plant anything from fruit trees to flowers, hoping they will be left to grow undisturbed. Some gardens are faithfully tended, others left to their own devices. Unlike community gardens, which are licensed by the city, no one know how many guerrilla gardens exist in Vancouver.

"Guerrilla gardening is hard work," said one of the tree planters, who asked that her name not be published. "We invest a lot of time and energy, and watering is a problem."

That watering problem is evident at a former gas station at west 4th avenue and macdonald street, on the west side of the city. Guerrilla gardeners recently planted seedlings in a large circular shape, leaving them to survive as best they can, but only a few forlorn plants struggle to grow in the barren lot.

Justin Tilson doesn't have water problems in his flourishing guerrilla garden along disused railroad tracks near granville island. He lives in a co-op beside his plantings, and uses a long hose.

Herbs, vegetables and brilliant beds of flowers surround wide walkways. A grapevine clings to a trellised archway and a clematis with saucer-sized sky-blue flowers climbs up an electrical box. Flowers surround a signal box, emerging like a skinny scarecrow amid this greenery.

"It's an independent project. I suppose it is a guerrilla garden, but I haven't had any negative kickback so far," observes Mr. Tilson, a 30-year-old vegetarian and the co-founder and partner in a successful software company.

"I wanted to create a community, to get people talking to each other, and, hopefully, to feed myself and others."

Mr. Tilson said he scrounged materials for the garden, recycling and reusing whatever worked. "I hound people for stuff," he said with a grin. "Things tend to come if you are patient."

Currently, he's hoping for bark mulch or pavers for the walkways -- the uneven dirt surface is hard to negotiate with his wheelchair. A former mountain-bike racer, mr. Tilson was paralyzed from the chest down in a biking accident when he was 21.

His mother, Kerrene, visits Vancouver each year from her home on Manitoulin Island near Ontario's Georgian Bay, where she has her own "huge garden." "This has become my holiday," she explained, waving her trowel at her son's plot. "I've met so many people. Some come every day and ask questions and comment on what justin's doing. People offer to help, bring plants. One woman, Eva, asked if she could have some ground and she's gardening here now too."

Eva Perjes, the 39-year-old mother of two small daughters, lives in a nearby apartment. She applied for a plot in a local community garden, but has no idea how long it will be before she gets one.

Last year, Ms. Perjes cleared bramble from some ground nearby. "I made a little space and grew a few vegetables. But I had to bring buckets of water and it was hard with the children. Although they love watering the seeds and watching them grow," she added.

"This year I asked justin if I could garden here, too. It's so nice to beautify this area along the tracks. People walk their dogs here and they are happy to see the garden."

"It's a great thing," agrees area resident brad cote, walking scooter. "I like watching the garden grow. It's really doing well this year." "I'm gardening on a small scale but I have visions of lots of flowers," said Ms. Perjes, a community health worker. " The garden brings me peace. I can connect with myself a little bit."

Guerrilla gardeners also connect with each other, mainly via the internet. Personal websites offer details of specific gardens (and sometimes tales of narrowly escaping discovery); there are also postings about where and when plantings will happen, along with details on how-to workshops. Some gardening magazines also give tips about how to start and maintain an impromptu urban garden.

Mr. Tilson said he has been overwhelmed with compliments about his garden, now in its third season. "People from the co-op come out and dig and pull weeds and water. They bring out umbrellas when it's raining and hold it over me while I'm working."

He takes an organic gardening book with him everywhere. "I'm learning as I go along," he said. "My parents had a garden when I was a kid and I guess they planted seeds that have been dormant for three decades."

Mr. Tilson's large garden is triangle-shaped, as are two tiny gardens in a busy eastside commercial area around fraser and kingsway. A patch of dirt, a telephone booth, flag poles and a bench was the alfresco "office" of prostitutes and drug dealers, until concerned residents decided to reclaim it.

"We care about our community," said Peter Wohlwend, a 61-year-old architectural designer who belongs to the local Dickens community group. "Parents were walking their children to school and drug deals were going on around them."

Now, grass surrounds a beautiful flower garden. The telephone booth has gone, along with the sex and drug traders.

"We get lots of favourable comments, local businesses are thrilled and bus drivers give us the thumbs-up when they go by," Mr. Wohlwend said happily. On a nearby busy corner, clumps of lavender, daisies, lilies and flowering shrubs, including those in an old-fashioned washing machine donated by the appliance store next door, provides a tranquil oasis.

"It's hard to get anything done sometimes," Mr. Wohlwend said. "People want to stop and talk. Some donate plants. We have a great plant exchange going now. Some people say, 'thank you for giving me a purpose for my walk.' "

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September 2, 2006

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture