Guerrilla Gardening by John

John Reinhardt is an urban planner, writer, photographer, and urban gardener. An avid cook, John is interested in the intersection of urban design, sustainability, and food systems planning. He currently resides in Washington DC and works for the American Planning Association. He currently writes Grown in the City, a blog about urban gardening and food systems planning.

Guerrilla gardening is one of my favorite urban gardening topics, and something I am constantly learning all about.  According to some accounts, the term was coined by in the early 1970s by activist gardeners in New York City, but the practice of guerrilla gardening has been going on since recorded history – remember the story of Johnny Appleseed?  By its simplest definition, guerrilla gardening is gardening on land (public or private) that doesn’t belong to you.  Richard Reynolds, one of the most visible members of this movement, has a fantastic website about the topic at Guerrilla Gardening that I highly recommend.

Some people guerrilla garden for food, some to make a political statement, some to beautify an area, and others to make people smile.  There are many in Washington DC, if you keep your eyes open.  Some gardeners do their work anonymously, often at night, throwing seed bombs or planting flowers in tree wells.  Others actively care for their public gardens, encouraging others to tend to the garden and share the bounty.

The Dupont neighborhood has quite a few guerrilla gardens.  There is a sunflower garden in the planting strip on the northwest side of 16th and P and in the past I’ve spotted one at 18th and Church, in front of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church.  There’s also  a full-fledged vegetable, herb,  and flower garden cared for by two guys name Steve and Phil located right on the circle.

Once your eyes are open to guerrilla gardening, you can’t help but see places – everywhere – that could be transformed into edible or ornamental landscapes.

23 Comment

  • Is it OK to eat plants grown in small spaces like this that may be contaminated by things like lead or solvents?

    I worry about that a bit when people choose what to plant when doing guerrilla gardening – or any urban gardening, for that matter.

    Maybe flowers are a better choice than vegetables.

    Does anyone know whether this is a realistic concern?

  • It is certainly a realistic concern – though there are conflicting viewpoints. I, personally, would want to test the soil for contaminants before eating. University of Maryland does soil testing, (they have a great resource center at but that is not economical for a guerrilla garden. I would probably stick to ornamentals – though it looks like Steve and Phil have invested in this garden for years – so they may have done the testing and conducted soil remediation if necessary.

  • First of all, vegetable gardens are not ornamental. Most vegetables are sorta weed-like and ugly. I would prefer to see flower beds and ornamental plants complement DC’s graceful architecture rather than random vegetable patches.

    Second, this whole local/organic/sustainable/foodie thing is starting to pain me. Sure, let’s not go overboard with toxins, or incur the CO2 emissions associated with importing peaches from Chile. But really, the only “sustainable” food production occurs on large farms where professionals know how to maximize crop yields using precision quantities of water, fertilizer and, yes, pesticides. Because… sustainability also includes *economic* sustainability, and that comes from farming on large tracts of productive farmland far from expensive urban real estate.

    Nothing wrong with a backyard garden as a hobby. But don’t think that reading Michael Pollan and putting a sunflower plant next to a bus stop makes you some kind of Mother Teresa. I suspect that “Locavorism” will be to the 2010’s what “No Nukes” was to the ’70’s.

    • Believe or not to many people locavorism it not about anything you mention. It’s about economics and, yes, often times better tasting produce that you know for sure hasn’t been treated with chemicals. For the cost of some seeds (which is often $0 if you hit up the many events handing out free seed packets in early spring), a weekend of mild labor re-digging a bed, and about 5-10 minutes a day watering and plucking weeds I can step outside of my door practically every night and get something to add to dinner. I haven’t tallied everything up, but the savings is probably well in the hundreds of dollars over a growing season. Hell, just the lettuce (which is ridiculously easy to grow) makes it worthwhile. No wilted, rotting half finished bags in the fridge that are thrown away.

    • And not to beat a dead horse, but look at this blog from today’s Baltimore Sun about their vegetable garden in front of city hall – it was just a barely used space before, and now it’s feeding a lot of people in Baltimore’s soup kitchens and garnering national attention for the city. Seems like another case of “why not?” instead of “why?”

  • I understand your points, Bloomingdale, but I don’t think anyone who is interested in urban gardening claims to be “Mother Theresa.” This type of gardening is worthy because, many times, it’s making a higher and better use of vacant, blighted, or underutilized land. Last week while I was riding in Bike DC, I saw a poppy field planted on a median in one of the closed-down highways. It was pretty, and nicer than weeds for both motorists and the rare bicyclists that get to enjoy it on this one day. No harm there. Planting a sunflower next to a bus stop may not make you mother Theresa, but what’s the harm in planting it over not planting it? I can think of much more good (less cost to the owner to maintain their grassy strip, less fertilizer running into the Anacostia, more bees, which also pollinate our food, etc.)

    As for “sustainability”, yes, we must consider actually THREE legs of sustainability – environment, economic, and social. Large farms may be economically sustainable for the large populations we have, but they are not environmentally sustainable (see: dead zone in the Mississippi River) or, really, socially sustainable for that matter. As farms get larger, entire farm communities and that way of life is dying. As small community gardens gain in popularity in urban areas, entire neighborhoods are being revitalized as people get to know their neighbors and care for the land that was once blighted.

    Yes, it sounds all “kumbaya”, and your points are valid, but I respectfully disagree. I’m willing to hear all sides, though!

  • * it should read “dead zone in the gulf of Mexico” (as fertilizer runs off from the Mississippi into the gulf) – although now the oil is also taking care of that!

  • I don’t have the facts here, but didn’t the Scotsman who sold off most of DC to the government continue to plant tobacco in the middle of Pennsylvania Ave? I remember hearing about the guy somewhere but can’t remember where. Also, I remember something about George Washington himself going to the man’s house to buy some land for the government and he threw Washington out.


  • putting a sign in your tree box with your picture and a bunch of rules is seriously lame. i’m sorry. my wife and i have spent a lot of time and money on the tree boxes on our block but we don’t feel the need to administer them with a rule book. sometimes people step on our plants. we survive. these things happen, if we couldn’t deal we would be out in fairfax.

  • It does seems silly to suggest that people call 911 if anybody besides Steve or Phil is in the garden.

    Poor guys, they probably didn’t even ask to be on this site, but I’m going to judge anyway.

    PS–John, based on your blog, created an herb garden on my back deck. It looks awesome! Thanks for the encouragement!

  • It does seem silly to tell people to call 911 for trespassing in their garden.

    But I like the idea of beautifying the street. I just wish I could get my neighbors to pick up their trash. .

  • Hmmmm….this makes me want to start a mini-guerilla herb garden on the roof of my apartment building. I’m sure if I asked the apartment manager they would say no, but its such a large and mostly unused space that I might just go ahead and try it. Its usually better to ask for forgiveness than for permission with these kinds of things.

    • Yes, that’s one of my favorite lines – better to ask forgiveness than permission. Especially with things like this, someone may be opposed to it in theory, but once they see some harmless pots growing herbs, they’re fine with it. Plus rooftop gardens collect rainwater (less runoff to deal with) and cool the roof temperatures (lowering heating costs for the building). Your rooftop herb garden might not be that extensive, but those are the arguments you can use! 😀

  • I have to speak up for Phil. Their garden is amazing, they have dedicated years to it, and unfortunately every year they have rude people go in and trample parts of it or rip out plants for no reason except to ruin something nice. The rules are new and a direct response to a lot of previous damage.

    • I agree – the garden is amazing. It’s a much better use (in my opinion, but mine only) than the grassy one on the other side of P. I’ve been trying to get the history of the garden for a while. Do you know how I can get in contact with Phil and Steve? I would love to talk to them.

  • Why NOT grow what you can where you can? I don’t think there’s anything Mother Theresa-y about growing some food in an urban space. There’s a lot of wasted area that’s not being used for anything, plus, it saves money and fuel. Veggies are not expensive to grow, versus to purchase.

  • PLUS, they taste so much better if they’re not picked while green and made to ripen on a truck somewhere. Local tastes better. I’m so tired of grocery store tomatos.

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