woman hat spying grass

ShutterstockDorky hat not included.

Tip: When attempting any technically not-legal tactical endeavors, it helps to start with a checklist. For some rebels, I imagine this list would include items like spray-paint and rotten eggs, maybe an iPod stocked with mood music by the Sex Pistols. Me, I’m taking a greener approach with my list: potting soil, water bottle, trash bags, low-maintenance plants, and one classic terra-cotta planter.

I assembled these items one recent evening in preparation for my first attempt at serious guerrilla gardening (that’s reclaiming a piece of underused public land by planting it, to you). I’d dropped a few wildflower seed balls around the city, sure, but those little bombs are a bit of a crapshoot. This would be the first time I’d leave anything undoubtedly living and green in my wake. And besides, seed bombs are easy to fling unnoticed; an entire pot brimming with succulents is a bit trickier to assemble in secrecy. Better add “nerves of steel” to that checklist.

My chosen site could certainly do with a little extra love. Located along a long pedestrian staircase linking a major bus route to the neighborhoods on the top and sides of a hill, the spot was overgrown with weeds and littered with bottles and granola bar wrappers. Ugly black construction netting encircled two sinkholes next to the stairs; the only decoration was the graffiti crawling up the sidewalk and across the site’s lone bench. If there was another spot within a two-mile radius of my apartment that needed some horticultural refinement more, I sure hadn’t found it.

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So I loaded up my pot, my plants, and my soil, convinced my fiancé to ride shotgun, and set out to guerrilla garden the hell out of that neglected site. Or at least, leave it a little nicer, a little greener, than it was before.

I’d picked out the plants earlier that day, scanning a local garden center for anything that fell into the “hard to kill” category: you know, hardy, doesn’t need to be watered much, pruned, or sung to sleep with botanical lullabies to thrive. Luckily, a few pretty succulents with orange and yellow flowers on the sale table seemed like just the ticket. “Drought tolerant,” a tag promised. “Go ahead, step on them!” bragged another. “I’ll take five,” I told the cashier, adding the soil and pot to my haul.

We set out just as the commuting hours were winding down. I know, I know: I thought dressing up in that black catsuit left over from sophomore-year Halloween and sneaking out to plant my unauthorized planter under cover of darkness would’ve been great fun, too. But on second thought, during my scouting mission I’d noticed several signs that someone (or someones) was sleeping there: lots of extra clothing, for one, and a worn, flat hollow under a nearby bush. Suddenly, sneaking over there in the dead of night didn’t seem like the best idea — for safety, and because, as a rule, I don’t like to barge into other people’s bedrooms unannounced.

So it was still plenty bright as we unloaded the supplies at the top of the staircase and headed down, lugging the bag of potting soil and the planter down in our arms. A few runners and people in business suits passed us — clearly, this incipient act of guerrilla gardening would have some witnesses. “But that means it’ll also get noticed,” I told Ted brightly. “Why bother planting a garden without permission if you don’t want anyone to see it?”

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A few more steps, and the site came into view. It was just as it had been during my scouting mission — trash everywhere, overgrown weeds — except someone had beaten us to the site. A man sat on the bench, head down, fingers fidgeting with the buttons on his shirt. He looked like he’d been there a while, and judging by the few personal items he’d arranged on the bench, like he was in no hurry to leave.

“I don’t want to disturb him,” I whispered to Ted. “Maybe we should pot the plants right here and just carry the finished product down?” So that’s what we did, squeezing our operation off to the side of the staircase above the landing. Several more commuters gave us curious looks as I filled the planter and nestled the succulents inside, but nobody gave us any trouble. Lesson one: If you simply act like you have the authority to prepare a terra-cotta planter on the edge of a public staircase, people will treat you as such. Lesson two: If your transgression is actually kind of pleasant — planting flowers, say, or giving away neck rubs without a license — no one is going to object.

It took less than five minutes to get the planter in shape. We’d planned to pick up the litter at the site and rake away some of the accumulated dead plant material before settling it in place, but that kind of intrusion was out of the question now. Instead, we placed the planter right on the edge of the landing, across from the bench, where anyone coming or going could see it. I unscrewed my bottle and gave the planter its first (maybe last) official watering, and we started back up the stairs. We were three feet away, but the man never even looked at us.

Glancing back at the landing, my planter suddenly looked pitifully puny. What were a few little succulents in a kitchen sink-sized pot against the garbage and the smell of that site? We should have come out with a planter — no, three planters — 10 times the size and filled them with something big and showy. We should have raked out all the rocks and trash and planted a field of rose bushes. That might have really changed the look of this place. Now there was just a small pot with a few orange and yellow flowers where there had been nothing but concrete; it was a little nicer, a little greener, than it was before. Not enough, maybe, but something.

Thus ends my miniseries on urban guerrilla gardening; tune in next time for more tales from the edges of green living.

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