Guerilla Gardening And Its Popularity

January 09 2023 – Kelly LaVaute, Staff Member

The Growing Popularity of Guerilla Gardening

What used to be something of a fringe activity with decidedly illicit undertones has quickly become a mainstream subject and activity. Guerilla gardening is being used to reclaim community spaces, rejuvenate urban areas, and encourage more connection with nature. It’s a phenomenon that gets more popular every year.

Ever spotted some beautiful plants growing where you least expect them? There’s a good chance that what you've seen is the result of guerilla gardening. Whether it’s a political statement or an attempt to get closer to nature, guerilla gardeners are all around us. And they’re not going away.

What is guerilla gardening?

Guerilla translates from Spanish as ‘little war’. It was first used by Napoleon in 1808 when he was describing the small bands of Spanish citizens who would attack his soldiers in places where smaller numbers meant an advantage. Think dense forests at night rather than open fields of battle.

What on earth does that have to do with gardening or native plants? How does a military tactic start getting used to describe a gardening strategy?

Well, there might be more similarities than you think. In guerilla gardening, people grow plants on land that’s owned by establishments, other people, or even on abandoned wastelands.

The varied motives of guerrilla gardeners

Why does someone choose to become a guerrilla gardener? While there is no single answer, the general tone on the subreddit r/guerillagardening is one of protest. On the subreddit description, it says “We cultivate land, where we're not supposed to.”

Usually, that protest is all about urban decay and urban neglect. Urban guerilla gardeners are taking direct action against the neglect of public spaces.

By doing so, they are reclaiming those spaces, turning them from eyesores into natural spaces that benefit their communities. In his thesis, Plants As Protest: Guerilla Gardening and its Role in Urban Environmentalism, Cole Reading Rener describes a guerilla gardener as someone “standing up against law and convention to grow plants.”

It’s hard to argue with their goals. After all, if city employees aren’t looking after public spaces and maintaining them, why shouldn’t the community do it? And in urban spaces that have been abandoned or forgotten by property owners with clearly more money than sense, then surely that land too can be made more visually appealing.

But it’s not all about making a statement. The motives of guerilla gardeners also include:

  • Area improvements: An increasingly common reason for people to take up guerilla gardening is simply due to aesthetics. They want to turn unsightlyand abandoned pieces of land into something more beautiful. These kinds of guerilla gardeners don’t just drop some seed and run, never to return. Instead, they choose the right plants, usually native plants, and then return regularly to tend to them.
  • Food scarcity: Another guerilla gardening motive that’s growing is the need to grow fresh food. In so-called food deserts, where neighborhoods are full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, there’s often nowhere for locals to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Those urban environments mean much less access to growing land, so guerilla gardeners plant where they can and grow what’s possible.
  • Encourage biodiversity: Many pollinator species in the US are endangered or at risk of becoming so. Guerilla gardeners are taking the fight to urban spaces as much as to gardens. They plant milkweed to help monarch butterflies and turn those neglected urban spaces into habitat gardens that will encourage populations of hummingbirds, fireflies, and other important species. 

As you can see, the reasons for guerilla gardening are many, which is why so many people, especially younger generations, are taking up the practice in growing numbers.

Is guerrilla gardening legal?

On the surface, guerilla gardening is very much against the law. It’s trespassing on someone else's property. Even if you’re making the property better, guerilla gardeners don’t have any legal right to do so.

Seed bombing, where the guerilla gardeners pack seeds into a lump of moist soil or compost and throw those ‘seed grenades’ into otherwise inaccessible spaces, is also illegal. Even if you don’t step foot on the property, those seed bombs still class as trespass.

However, guerilla gardening is a criminal activity that's often overlooked by the law. In this research study, based on a group of UK guerilla gardeners, the phrase ‘normalized law breaking’ is commonly used. The study argues that guerilla gardening is largely accepted, and perhaps even welcomed, even by local law enforcement. In LA, a guerilla gardener even managed to have the law changed, so that residents could garden on city property without a permit.

And something is satisfying about that. When guerilla gardening can transform urban spaces, and beautify those urban sites that are otherwise grotesque and devoid of local wildlife, it’s hard to be critical of those that carry out their seed bombing and abandoned site transformations.

Legal guerilla gardening

Of course, you can get involved with guerilla gardening without having to worry about law-breaking. If you're not confident about taking part, simply ask for permission! Although guerilla gardening was started without getting permission, more people than ever are simply asking local governments and regulators if planting can be done.

Look for empty plots of land or any areas in your community that aren't being used for anything. If you’re an experienced gardener, remember to consider the basics like water supply and whether a space gets the right amount of sunlight. Remember that the balance between plants and sunlight is crucial to get right. 

Once you’ve received permission to plant, you can still make it a fun activity. You can still get the slingshot out and try seed bombing!

Native plants and guerilla gardening

As a guerrilla gardener, it's important to choose plants that are well-suited to their environment. This helps reduce the need for constant maintenance and improves the likelihood of success. Native plants have evolved to thrive in their local climate, soil, and rainfall levels, making them the perfect choice for guerrilla gardening in urban areas.

Not only do native plants require less upkeep, but they also provide essential habitats for native wildlife and support the overall ecosystem. So next time you plan a guerrilla gardening project, consider choosing native plants for ecological and practical benefits. Your habitat garden will thrive if it consists of native plants.

Garden for Wildlife and guerilla gardening

While we would never encourage you to break the law, we know the upsides to planting more native plants. We’d always advise that you take the sensible approach and avoid trespassing on other people's property. It’s simply safer to ask for permission, and it can still be plenty of fun. Getting neighbors and your community involved can be the best option for all, including wildlife. It’s easy to get your community recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. The National Wildlife Federation's Community Wildlife Habitat™ program partners with cities, towns, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of all kinds to become healthier, greener, and more wildlife-friendly. 

Guerrilla gardening can have many benefits for both the community and the environment. It can improve air quality by introducing more plants, enhance an area's aesthetic appeal, and even increase property values. In addition, guerrilla gardeners often use organic methods and focus on native plant species, making these green spaces more sustainable and supportive of local wildlife.

Check out our state native plant finder and find the plants that will be easier to grow, wherever you plant them.

Ready to turn your yard into a wildlife habitat?

Take our quiz to find the right plants for your yard and area!

1 comment

  • Sandra Nichols: January 23, 2023
    Author's avatar image

    Are there specific plant lists for wildflower varieties to use on school campuses?
    In Bethel CT we have 5 schools and 80 apartments for elderly/disabled low income housing.
    The acreage was originally a local farm and my thought is to transform huge lawns to perennial pathways and wildflower meadows.
    Can you assist me with argumentive points for presenting to town committees?

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