Garden Like a Pirate


When we first encountered Taylor Arneson, he was bringing back to life the dead, sun-baked soil of an abandoned lot just off Sunset Boulevard in the rapidly gentrifying southern extreme of Los Angeles' Silver Lake district. A nearly featherless rooster, rescued from the streets of Hollywood, pecked at the compost Arneson and a couple of accomplices were spreading. Despite the shabby surroundings we were in the midst of some of the most expensive real estate in the country, on a lot that has stood vacant for many years. Arneson and his crew did not have permission to plant this lot-they are guerilla farmers, repurposing the landscape by planting food.

To the landless urban farmer, every vacant lot, parkway, office building planter and apartment courtyard is a potential cornfield, orchard or vegetable patch. The guerilla farmer is an opportunist, squeezing growing space into the disused cracks of our overpriced and poorly designed urban landscape--those precious interstitial spaces, patches of soil that for one reason or another have been abandoned by absentee landlords, negligent cities, or are caught in some sort of legal purgatory. A pirate of old would always prefer to target a fat, unarmed merchantman over a guarded flotilla. In the same way, a pirate gardener picks the easy targets and avoids the big battles.

To irrigate his guerrilla gardens Arneson taps into the nearest water line. As he says, "Who it's owned by is a minor issue because tap water is so cheap that you can do a large garden for a few dollars a month, especially if you're growing things that are appropriate for the region and you use the water sparingly." Arneson does not go out of his way to contact the owners, but neither does he avoid them., "There's a lot of benefits for both parties. They get their space to look better, so they don't have as many complaints from the neighbors, and I'm building soil for them for when they go to do landscaping in the future." So far his biggest coup is a 15 by 150 foot strip in a disused planter along west Los Angeles' busy Bundy Boulevard where, last summer, he planted peppers, corn, squash, beans, fig trees and a mulberry tree.

Nance Klehm, a professional landscaper and artist in Chicago has done a number of clever appropriations of disused urban land for the purpose of growing food. Her "Neighborhood Orchard" project began several years ago when her neighbor, Trevino, refused to take any money for fixing her furnace. Klehm proposed an exchange, planting an apple tree in his yard in lieu of cash. Trevino responded enthusiastically and several years worth of similar bartering has resulted in what Klehm describes as a loosely organized agglomeration of plantings in her low-income mostly Latino neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.

Neighborhood Orchard is simple and opportunistic, in the best meaning of that word. There's no big mission statement, no non-profit 501c3, no board of directors, merely a set of informal relationships. Klehm does most of the startup work for Neighborhood Orchard, which takes place in backyard gardens, and plants more than the host family can use so that there will be a surplus crop meant for sharing. "Neighborhood Orchard is not organized, we don't have meetings or an end of the year BBQ. People just know that they can go in different yards and pick from them."

The effort has had residual benefits, "It's kind of broken the barriers between our yards," says Klehm. "We borrow tools back and forth. We borrow trucks. So there's other things that have come out of this because we're in other people's yards and spaces and lives in a different way."

For Homegrown Revolution's first foray into piratical gardening, we hijacked the parkway in front of our house, that bit of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that technically belongs to the city, but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. It's yet another space, like the vast asphalt hell of parking lots, garages, freeways, car lots, auto repair shops and junkyards in our car-obsessed city dedicated to the needs of the personal automobile.

We decided to flaunt the city's strict rules about this space which dictates the kind of things that can be planted (basically nothing that would inhibit someone from getting out of their Hummer), and planted a vegetable garden instead. Our neighborhood's interstercial qualities have worked to our advantage: it's the kind of neighborhood where city bureaucrats tend to look the other way.

For our parkway garden we built two six by six foot raised beds, filled them with quality garden soil, and stuck in two matching wire obelisks for growing beans and tomatoes, and also as a nod to aesthetic concerns, since this is a public space. Much to our surprise it has been a big success. The first winter we had a bumper crop of carrots, beans, turnips, garlic, onions, and beets in the winter and the next summer a never-ending crop of cherry tomatoes.

We've encouraged neighbors to help themselves to vegetables from the parkway garden, though few have. Theft is a much smaller problem in public garden spaces then most would imagine. What has been nice has been the conversations we've had with neighbors while watering and tending the space. Several neighbors have said that it encouraged them to plant their own vegetables. Just before Halloween this year, as the corn we planted earlier in the summer neared harvest, we found an elderly neighbor standing and staring at the tall corn stalks. On the verge of tears, she told us that the corn reminded her of life on her family's farm in Cuba before the revolution. Our micro-field of corn was bringing up memories of her father and her life in Cuba some fifty years ago. Ironically, Cuba in recent years has become a leader in exactly this sort of interstercial urban agriculture after the fall of the Soviet Union ended oil subsidies that made large scale industrial farms unworkable. Just to survive, Cubans have had to do exactly the sort of small scale urban plantings that Arneson, Klehm and Homegrown Revolution have been experimenting with.

In part, guerilla gardening is a reaction to the criminally wasteful non-use of land exemplified by vacant lots, parkways, and freeway medians. In Sir Thomas More's Utopia, he says of its residents that they, "account it a very just cause of war, for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated; since every man has by the law of nature a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence."

Such a war was fought here in Los Angeles in the summer of 2006 over the South Central Farm, a community garden turned guerrilla garden cut out of a fourteen acre swath of concrete and asphalt just south of downtown. South Central Farm began as an official community garden after protests by the community over the city's plans to build a trash incinerator on the site. Unfortunately the land reverted back to the developer nine years later, after a closed door City Council session. Despite the city's cowardly return of the land to the developer, the South Central Farmers squatted and continued their urban farming experiment. A long and complex tug of war between the owner, the developer, the city government ensued, and the South Central Farm ended in the early morning hours of June 13, 2006 with the farmer's forced eviction by an army of Los Angeles County Sheriff Department officers. A month later this lush oasis of edible and medicinal plants and trees was bulldozed and the land is, once again, a barren vacant lot.

Perhaps the lesson with South Central Farm is the futility of direct confrontation with the moneyed and politically connected powers that conspire to make our urban spaces "idle and uncultivated." As Arneson and Klehm prove, the best strategy may be to look between the cracks, to cultivate our food in the margins, to abandon the big ideas and mission statements and simply pick up a shovel and plant wherever and whenever we can.

Tips for starting your own pirate garden:

1. Look for disused space near where you live or work. Vegetable gardening is intensive and you'll need to keep an eye on the plants.

2. Is the space weed-whacked on a regular basis? If so find an overgrown space where your plants won't get cut down.

3. Look for easy access to water. Unless you live in a rainy region, that will be key. Consider mixing pirate vegetables in with existing plantings to take advantage of automated watering systems. Just be sure that your food doesn't get sprayed with pesticides.

4. If you don't like the uncertainty of going completely guerilla, ask neighbors, friends and family and your place of work if you can garden on their land. You get space, they get a tended yard, and you all get fresh food. Or approach the owner of an abandoned lots and offer to maintain the lot in return for allowing you to plant a garden.

5. Make seed bombs. Seed bombs are balls of compost, clay, and native plant seeds that can be thrown into vacant lots to germinate wildflowers. For detailed instructions see Heavy Petal.


Homegrown Revolution's Kelly and Erik are the authors of the upcoming handbook The Urban Homesteader, available in spring 2008 through Process Media.