When Kelda Miller finishes work, she rides around Puyallup tending vegetable beds at offices, a church, some apartment blocks. In season, she’ll pick fruit or greens, then head to her Sumner home to a garden filled with enough produce for her to sell from her bicycle trailer on weekends.
What’s unusual about Miller is that none of the spaces where she gardens are hers. Her gardens are on other people’s land, the fruit she picks on other people’s trees. It’s called guerrilla gardening – and it’s legal, productive and surprisingly easy to do.
“I grew up in South Hill, and wanted to encourage people to live in downtown Puyallup (by growing) more gardens,” says Miller.
Other reasons for guerrilla gardening are obvious from her chamomile-scented kitchen: a food cupboard that supplies herbs and fresh or canned produce year-round for little cost. Miller also is a renter, without permanent land of her own.
There are other reasons to guerrilla garden: beautifying unloved land, growing food for the hungry, building up soil.
It’s fairly simple to do: Just ask landowners if they mind you improving their garden, picking their fruit or taking a cutting.
And, says Miller, there’s a big need for it in Pierce County. The 30-year-old moved to Sumner from Seattle, where the guerrilla gardening community is active.
She works at Mother Earth Gardens, teaches permaculture (a system that maximizes yield through plant diversity and organic techniques) and is building a garden-design consultancy.
The one-acre property she gardens in exchange for tenancy is evocative of both permaculture and the haphazard nature of guerrilla gardening.
Beds sit at random, vegetables intermingling. Shade-loving berries nestle under enormous fruit trees.
There are chicken and goat runs, two homemade greenhouses for seedlings and cuttings, and a huge amount of wild-looking horsetail everywhere (“it makes a great biodynamic tea,” says Miller).
Some of it is untended. Miller’s tenancy is expiring next month and she’ll have to leave it behind. It’s all completely messy, but very productive.
Her Puyallup gardens are in a similar state: Two have just been tilled by their owners, who were inspired to create their own gardens.
Another is filled with weeds: “I eat a lot of weeds,” Miller says.
That’s the essence of guerrilla gardening, Miller explains. Gardens you don’t own can be taken away at any point. Plants have to be tough in poor soil, which is why edible weeds such as dandelion and nettle are so useful.
Still, the end results are less ephemeral. Miller now has the knowledge to grow or glean enough food to share and sell. Bit by bit, she and other guerrilla gardeners are educating other people to cultivate land.
“My new landlord is excited about me gardening,” says Miller. “She really wants to be educated. Not everyone wants that.”
Guerrilla gardening sounds vaguely illegal, but activists encourage being onboard with the rules.
Tom McGuire, who along with Miller is a founding member of Sustainable Tacoma-Pierce, an activist group encouraging environmental sustainability. The two recently gave a talk on guerrilla gardening at King’s Books.
“There are alternatives to clandestine gardening,” says McGuire, who gardens around Tacoma. “Metro Parks has an information line, Chip In, to allow volunteers to work unloved land. Businesses sometimes allow container gardens outside; it increases foot traffic. Landlords encourage gardening in common areas, sometimes even for reduced rent. Guerrilla gardening should evolve into something more than just those without resources gardening on their own. I hope things change.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
get started in your own neighborhood
If you want to find your inner guerrilla gardener, try this advice from guerrilla veterans Kelda Miller and Tom McGuire.
Garden where you are: If you’re renting, ask the landlord if you can contribute to the garden’s upkeep, and maybe offer produce in return. Ask if you can garden at work. Making it look conventionally aesthetically pleasing can help. Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing (building up soil, growing food, stopping weeds, etc.) And, says Miller, “start small so you can maintain it.”
Build beds: Beds work on any kind of surface, even concrete. Use tough-rooted plants like horsetail, dandelion, burdock and buddleia to break up concrete, then layer on mulch to fight weeds and build up soil. One guerrilla gardening friend of Miller’s even laid a whole vegetable garden down on a concrete driveway, then lifted it up complete when her tenancy was up.
Glean: The ancient art of picking produce that isn’t technically yours. Think tree fruit, edible weeds, berries that aren’t being picked. “I ask permission,” says Miller of her own gleaning, which supplies her and her friends with fruit through the winter. “Usually people are very keen for you to take it.” Offer to share the results, either fresh or preserved. The most important thing: Get to know where the food plants are in your neighborhood.
Cuttings: Taking cuttings from plants (a small clipping that’s then rooted in sand to create a new plant) is a great way to get free plants for yourself. Again, says Miller, ask permission. Knowing your neighborhood is equally important here: Where are the plants you’d like to reproduce in your own space?
Seed balls: If you don’t have direct or regular access to a space, seed balls – which Tom McGuire calls “the Molotov cocktail of guerrilla gardening” – are the answer. Made by combining seeds with material to protect them from birds and wind, the balls can be dropped (or thrown) onto empty patches of ground. Where would you throw them? A neighbor’s abandoned garden or bare parking strips, perhaps. “We don’t advocate anything illegal,” says McGuire.
The recipe: one part dry humus, five parts dry clay, three parts dry seeds, one part sand. Stir, add water, and break off pieces to form marble-size balls.
Guerrilla grafting: The acme of unorthodox gardening. Grafting is the technique of splinting one tree stock onto another’s branch to produce fruit without having to plant an entire tree. Guerrilla grafting involves adding fruiting tree stock (like apple, cherry or pear) onto ornamental street trees (like hawthorn or ornamental cherry.) It’s a long-term process, though: Miller has done this wherever she’s been, but hasn’t stayed long enough to see the results.
Get educated: Learning about gardening techniques can help in any situation. Miller is offering an introduction to permaculture at Tacoma Community College’s Gig Harbor campus on June 26 from 1-3 p.m. For more information on this and other talks, see www.divinearthgp.com. Also: www.sustainabletacomapierce.org.