Going rebel: Guerrilla gardeners work city's land
ST. PAUL -- Tully Hall doesn't look like a criminal. She pays her taxes, loves her family and obeys the law -- with one glaring exception. Hall is a guerrilla gardener. She plants flowers and vegetables on land she doesn't own -- like a growing n...
ST. PAUL -- Tully Hall doesn't look like a criminal.
She pays her taxes, loves her family and obeys the law -- with one glaring exception. Hall is a guerrilla gardener.
She plants flowers and vegetables on land she doesn't own -- like a growing number of undercover green thumbs emerging from the shadows. To Hall and her furtive cohorts, beautifying ugly land can't be a bad thing.
"All it means is that a little bit of ground is being improved," said Hall, gazing at her 8-by-12-foot garden on city property behind her town home.
Many people have seen the work of guerrilla gardeners but don't know it. The eco-outlaws sneak flowers into land by freeway exits, abandoned city gardens or vacant lots. Some make their own "seed bombs" -- green grenades made of compressed compost, fertilizer and seeds, designed to be thrown onto soil.
"When I am riding my bike, I look for vacant lots and just throw in a couple of my seed bombs," said Bridget McDonald of Minneapolis, who started guerrilla gardening last year. "A month later flowers!"
Some guerrilla gardeners remain hidden. But any decent detective would notice greenery seems to follow in the footsteps of Bonnie Lawrence of St. Paul.
For 19 years, she has planted near schools, sidewalks and workplaces. She planted flowers, shrubs and crabapple trees along Fairview Avenue under the Interstate 94 bridge. She has beautified freeway interchanges. "I encourage people to do it," Lawrence said. "It puts people on the street, instead of just working in their back yard. You get to know your neighbors."
In some cases, gardeners do their dirty work with officials' knowledge and backing. Take Jeanne Weigum of St. Paul, for example.
Near Snelling and Concordia avenues, the city of St. Paul installed a special water tap on a fire hydrant for Weigum so that she can hook up her watering hose to tend to a garden she planted on city land. But often, her gardening is less governed and more guerrilla.
She confesses to planting unauthorized gardens on city property at Lexington Parkway and Summit Avenue and other locations. She's especially proud of the garden at Summit and Mississippi River Boulevard, by a monument.
McDonald, the Minneapolis seed-bomber, compared her hobby with graffiti.
"Graffiti is destructive," she said. But with seed-bombing, she can leave her mark on the community in a constructive way. "It's my little way of giving nature a way to fight back," she said.
She is thinking of branching out into vegetables. But that would require more commitment, including constant maintenance. "I am trying to identify an area where I can sneak in and tend to it," McDonald said.
The thrill of illegal planting is lost on city officials. They know the gardening is well-intentioned, but it's an annoyance. They say no one has a right to plant anything on city land any more than they could plant a garden in a neighbor's yard.
Woodbury's chief building official, Ron Glubka, said the gardens are often neglected when the gardener moves or loses interest. Even gardener Lawrence admitted it was tough to maintain the impromptu gardens. "Everyone likes the fun part -- planting -- but no one wants to pull the weeds," she said.
Allowing a garden such as Hall's, Glubka said, would set a precedent. And private use of city land isn't allowed in Woodbury. The City Council recently passed a rule forbidding "encroachment," the use of city property by an individual.
It was passed in response to homeowners who trim trees on park land to improve their views, mow wild areas or build fences that block maintenance vehicles.
Lawrence has encountered another official objection -- the notion that she is endangering union jobs. But she said tending green areas is a low priority, especially in a climate of cost-cutting.
"When will a custodian have time to do this?" she said.
Hall lives in a town house near the CityWalk complex in Woodbury. With almost no garden space of her own, she took over a future construction site behind her home. "It was mowed once a year. It was used for nothing and got 10 full hours of sun a day," she said. "I couldn't stand it."
In 2009, she asked for permission to plant a garden, and the city turned her down. This spring, she did it anyway.
The lush garden sits in the vacant lot like an oasis in a desert. It's surrounded by a 4-foot black fence and ringed with a flowerbed. Inside is a virtual produce aisle: broccoli, tomatoes, beans, fennel, lettuce and squash.
She was given a June 7 deadline to tear out the garden but has asked for an extension. She will get a chance to appeal the decision sometime this summer. If she is shut out, will she quit or just shove her illegal activities more deeply underground?
"I think I would try to find something else," she said, "through other channels."