Making Eating Public

16 Dec

I first heard the term “guerrilla gardening” when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. A good friend of mine was working for the Southside Community Land Trust there, helping on their various farms and running their weekly farmers market. He used to make seed balls with sunflower seeds and top soil, packing them into tight dark little knots. Then he would ride around the city tossing the balls of dirt into abandoned lots.

A few weeks ago Boing Boing pointed out two guerilla gardening projects. I was interested that both projects were by “artists” and were considered installations or art pieces. The first project was by a “Toronto street artist” called Posterchild who has been building small flower boxes and attaching them to telephone poles. The other artist was planting mini gardens in potholes throughout Tijuana, Mexico. Both projects inject a bit of nature into the city, but both seem somehow removed or somehow without purpose.

I don’t really mean that as a critique. I like both these ideas and would love to see other similar efforts in large and small cities alike. I fully understand the potential for projects like this to raise awareness, and appreciate that not all art need to have a “purpose” beyond ideas. However, these two projects, and my friend’s seed tossing in Providence, suggest other possibilities that I have been pondering.

At the café where I was sitting when I wrote this there is a telephone pole and at the base of it weeds had pushed through the sidewalk. To my right there was a planter filled with bright flowers. On a nearby rooftop saplings reached up towards the drooping sun. Vines crawled up the brick building across the street.

What if those crawling vines bore green beans and snap peas? What if this planter held tomato plants, basil, and leeks? What if those rooftop saplings were apple trees and the weeds bursting through concrete were corn?

I am not saying we should replace all the flora in a city with vegetable plants and fruit trees. And I realize that what I am imagining would run into all sorts of issues in terms of soil quality, growing conditions, and such. But let’s put that aside for a minute and just see where this train of thought might lead.

So often our food is grown behind closed doors. This is especially true of industrial agriculture, but also mostly true of CSAs and individual’s gardens. Our CSA grows its food in fields tucked back off the road, and is itself a kind of ‘exclusive’ club, open to those who can pay. Even people’s individual gardens tend to be back behind the house, through a fence or hedge. Why do we hide our gardens away?

This summer our next door neighbors planted a fantastic garden outside their house. They stacked up old tires, and lined up big buckets, filling them all with soil. I have seen them out there often, tending to the plants, watering them, checking the fruits and vegetables. Each morning when I walked my dog, I peeked under the tomato plant to see how they were growing, I peeked through the big green leaves and yellow blossoms of the squash vines and tried to spot ripe ones. I enjoyed watching my neighbors toil over their garden and appreciated that they were enriching the neighborhood by putting their garden out front.

We tend to wear our politics on our sleeve as bumper stickers, buttons, tee-shirts, ribbons, and even those colorful rubber wrist bands. Why then, is food such a private matter? What if we proclaimed out diet like we do our politics? I make my own pickles! I grow my own corn! I bake bread! I eat organic!

I feel lucky to have seen my neighbors growing their own food. I feel like a witness to a few people trying to do things a little different. Seeing them with their public garden, built out of cast off buckets and old tires, made me want to grow more of my own food. It inspires, it teaches, it makes eating public. And I think there is immense value in that.


6 Responses to “Making Eating Public”

  1. Josh December 16, 2007 at 8:58 pm #

    See also, this great article from In These Times:
    (excerpt below)

    Farming the Concrete Jungle
    In cities across the country urban farmers are growing communities, greening the landscape and revolutionizing food politics.

    By Phoebe Connelly and Chelsea Ross

    At 9 a.m. on a cool, bright Saturday in mid-June, Robert Burns and Diana Baldelomar set up a farm stand outside the YMCA in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The stand is simple: a tent to keep out the sun, two folding tables set in an L-shape and a handful of zinc washtubs filled with two inches of water. In the tubs stand heads of green and red lettuce, greens, broccoli, and bunches of mint and basil.

    When two women approach and ask the price of the greens, Baldelomar tells them that the turnip, mustard and collard greens are a dollar a bunch. “Honey,” the woman says, “in this neighborhood, if someone asks you for greens, they are only talking about the collards.” Her companion asks, “Did you ship it in from the country?”

    “No ma’am. These are from right around the corner, West Cottage and Brook. We went out and harvested them this morning. You should stop by sometime.”

    Burns and Baldelomar work with the Food Project, a community-based urban agriculture program founded in 1991 to get Boston’s youth involved in food production. Their West Cottage plot is one of four farms on vacant lots in the Dorchester neighborhood.

    Read the rest here:

  2. dave viale January 6, 2008 at 7:18 pm #

    2 add on points to the guerrilla gardening:

    1) we are and will continue to see many more of these types of installations that are “approved” by cities and designed by engineers…..they are a part of a quickly growing stormwater management strategy that uses old technology like “raingardens”, “tree planters”, increasing the urban tree canopy, “greenroofs”, “bioretention ponds”, “ecoswales”, etc. etc. as a way to clean pollutants out of the water that runs off our rooftops, streets, driveways, etc. and to reduce the volume of water that is no longer able to get into the ground because its paved over. Though these types of gardens would probably not be safe to use as edible food sources, other similar home grown gardens could be used as edible gardens…. if properly planned so that they did not absorb rainwater from polluted places. The added bonus to this type of garden is that though they would not filter pollutants, they would still absorb water and slow it down – two major goals of many stormwater management techniques. So gardens a great for environmental health in many ways. There are already cost share programs for homeowners to install these types of gardens on their own, and I could foresee incentives such as tax breaks to follow.

    2) Josh’s thoughts about growing food in the city mirror others ambitions that I have experienced and heard about. I once worked with an inspiring man who wanted to use urban street trees as a way to grow food in the city. In fact, he was able to get several edible species of fruit and berry plants approved for planting in the sidewalk strips….these knee high bushes helped with stormwater management and provided food for wildlife and possibly residents, without being a danger by blocking vision of pedestrians and traffic. My friend was not the only one wanting more edibles in the city. He noticed that an asian culture (not sure which) would rise very early in the morning (to beat the competition) and harvest many of the chestnuts off of the street trees. So there is already a guerrilla harvesting happening in at least one city and I’ll bet many more. In fact I saw a man harvest hot peppers that were grown in the DC arboretum. I’ve toyed with the idea of community orchards as an addition to the idea of community gardens. Neighborhood orchards are close enough to pollinate each other and what a great way to add to your neighborhood greenspace. If you want to do this on your own property but don’t have much space, there are many dwarf type pear, apple, peach, persimmon, etc. trees that grow to only 15ft high. And, many can be pruned to take shape as a fence around your garden so you don’t shade out your garden or lawn. I guess my point is that while guerrilla gardening is “cool” , I agree with Josh in that there seem to be many ways to do the same idea with long lasting results that are welcomed by the community vs. potentially creating tension.


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