In the last few years a popular meme growing throughout the ether of the inter-webs is the idea of guerrilla gardening. The idea of guerrilla gardening is really quite simple, but with some rather radical implications. Guerrilla gardening is the cultivation and care of plants (usually edibles) on land that you do not own. It is done on land that may be overlooked and forgotten about by private companies or municipalities. It may be D.O.T. land such as boulevards or parcels cut off by highways, and surrounded by entrance and exit ramps. It may be tucked away off of the beaten path in a county park, or behind the public library.
All of these pieces of land represent and exemplify humans innate ability to conquer, divide, categorize, map, and privatize the Earth. The more radical implications of guerrilla gardening is that it calls into question the land use of today’s modern world. With the rise of modern industrial society, and the accumulation of mass amounts of riches by the ruling class, land that historically had been held and treated as a commons, has effectively been divorced from the people who benefited and cared for the land the most.
When common, everyday people lose access to land, they become enslaved and dependent upon the industrial machine that is destroying human culture and the land base that supports all of us. Not that long ago (at least in the historical long view) when the planet had a smaller population and people had a greater hand in the production of their food – the commons – whether that be forest, pasture, prairie, or wetlands, contributed greatly to the food in their diets and personal autonomy in their lives.
Nowadays with a much larger population and less food producing (wild)land to forage from and grow on, guerrilla gardening, or what I will refer to as Guerrilla Forest Gardening for the rest of the article, provides us with a very unique opportunity. Incorporating a few of the principles of Permaculture, a Guerrilla Forest Garden is not just a way to grow food, it is also a healing process and an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Where guerrilla gardening is based on the use of annual vegetables and fruits and is a relatively short lived seasonal endeavor Guerrilla Forest Gardens seek to add a sense of permanence to these overlooked pieces of land. The simple act of planting food bearing trees and shrubs on land you don’t “own” becomes something revolutionary and a force for positive change.
How much land in your town, county, state, and country has been fenced off and plastered with “No Trespassing” signs? How much of that land, assuming that it is not harboring a toxic waste dump, storing munitions for imperialistic resource wars, or some other use that is mistaken for human “Progress”, could be planted with woody, food producing perennials? How much of that land could be sequestering carbon that is being belched out of smokestacks and tailpipes? How much of that land are we going to need to help feed us once Peak Oil and energy descent make industrial agriculture a thing of the past? The easy answer – almost all of it!
All of this land – the isolated parcels, abandoned lots, overgrown parkland and weedy hillsides forgotten to plat maps and urban decay, now present us with a chance to start healing the landscape. Most of this land is no longer a part of intact, healthy, and native ecosystems. They are typically marginal pieces of land that annual crops would do poorly on, and with little to no way of irrigating, makes them a challenge to design and plant. The beauty of a Guerrilla Forest Garden is in the use of a wide array of different perennials, that in time will need less and less human intervention to thrive.
Perennial food crops have many distinct advantages over annual row crops, and this can be seen with a quick explanation of how conventional agriculture works. Our current model of industrial agriculture is based on plants that are essentially domesticated weeds that thrive on disturbed soils. This means each spring we cultivate the Earth with shovels, tillers, and giant tractors to give our domesticated weeds the foot up and environment they need to grow and thrive. But by annually tilling the soil and using large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, we deplete any fertility that may be present and damage the huge and immensely complex web of life that inhabits and has a beneficial symbiosis with the soil.
This cycle of annual cultivation and constant depletion of our soils’ fertility and organic matter has led to desertification throughout the worlds original agricultural and pastoral lands (and continues to spread today everywhere there is industrial agriculture and poor land management). By moving towards a perennial dominated landscape we can virtually eliminate (in the right circumstances) the need to disturb the soil on an annual basis to grow our food. We can start to rebuild our soils, and also to repair the watersheds that have been destroyed through industrial agriculture and loss of wild spaces. The unfortunate part of this is that it cannot be done overnight. It can take many years before we can begin to see the results, but we have to start sometime, so let’s make it happen now!
The initial establishment of a Guerrilla Forest Garden requires the most work. Before even thinking about digging the holes to plant the trees in, we first need to come up with the varieties of fruits and nuts we want to put in the ground. What I plant here in Minnesota is going to be different than what can be planted in a much warmer (cooler, wetter, drier, etc…) climate, so the logical first step is to decide what perennial food plants grow in your region and then find a source for these plants.
I love seed and nursery catalogs, but they are expensive when you start to order a large number of trees, shrubs, and seeds with which to work. What I do (most of the time) is use them as a way of creating a wishlist of plants that I want to acquire. I get names, pictures, and descriptions of varieties that look like good candidates for a specific project or garden and add them to my list of plants to research. When I decide upon a certain apple, plum, gooseberry or whatever it may be that I am looking for, I rely on swapping with friends, arranging trades through The North American Scion Exchange (or similar networks), and foraging them from already established orchards, food forests, and gardens. I only try to purchase plants or seeds that have proven difficult to either find or propagate on my own, but I do still buy my fair share of vegetable seed (and root stock for tree grafting) from catalogs on an annual basis for our CSA, but I am trying to wean myself from this and I am moving in the right direction.
So what do you do with all these genetics (seeds, cuttings, and scion wood) that you have received in trades, saved from last year’s gardens, and have foraged from different spots? Seeds are easy, plant them! Well most of the time. Some seeds/nuts need to be treated with a bit more care. Cold stratification is a process that mimics nature’s seasonal cycle of cool and moist conditions. Many tree nuts and other perennials will not germinate without being subject to cold stratification, so learn how to do this or find a source of seed that has already gone through this process.
Many plants can be propagated through rooting cuttings. Some need to be green wood cuttings, some need to be hard wood for the rooting process to happen, so once again, do your homework. Many people use a rooting hormone to get things started, but this is pretty nasty stuff, so be careful. I have had luck using raw honey in place of rooting hormone and have had reasonable success. I am not sure what the science is on this, but it is well worth experimenting with (report back with results please!!). Plants that lend themselves to this method of propagation are blueberries, currants, elderberries, gooseberries, figs, tree collards and many more. I have found YouTube to be very helpful in this department, so if someone has done it, there is most likely a video out there to show you how!
Root cuttings, or divisions are also another way of propagating perennials. Plants like asparagus, comfrey, hops, raspberries, and rhubarb all can be multiplied by root division. It is usually best to get them early in the spring before things are starting to really take off. Keep them watered and you should have very few problems. Come year two or three of these plants that have been propagated by root division is when you can expect your first yield.
And last is grafting. Anyone who has followed this blog for awhile knows how much I like grafting. Tree grafting is a craft that spans thousands of years and is the reason we have named cultivars of apples, cherries, pears, and plums that sometimes can be hundreds of years old. Grafting allows us to customize trees for the characteristics we are looking for. Do you need an apple tree that can be kept small, and produces a good cider apple? How about a plum that can be planted in a clay heavy soil? The right choice of root stock (and there are many to choose from), and a cultivar that is suited to your climate can make all the difference in your grafting success.
The more modern twist on grafting is Guerrilla Grafting. Just like its counterpart we started the article out with, Guerrilla Grafting takes advantage of resources that are already available and could be a major component to establishing a Guerrilla Forest Garden. So many parking lots, corporate campuses, and other semi-public areas are landscaped with decorative crab apples and flowering pears and cherries. Why not graft on sticks of edible cultivars and get some real food out of the deal! You might be amazed at how prevalent some of these trees are. They are all over the Twin Cities metro area where I reside and most likely in your hometown as well (wherever in the world you are reading from). Because many of these trees are already mature, if your grafting is successful, you can expect to get fruit in two to three years. Add a few under story plants and ground covers and you are well on your way to establishing a Guerrilla Forest Garden!
The very nature of a Guerrilla Forest Garden is illegal. You ARE trespassing – and whether that be on land or on an idea, what you are doing is a threat to those in power. There is a reason we have been separated from the land, and it is that when we lose the ability to provide for ourselves, we lose our autonomy and freedom as humans and as a community. Guerrilla Forest Gardens are just one tactic and solution we have to start reclaiming what has always been ours. When we have access to land that we can care for and steward, we reconnect with a bit of our humanity that has been subjugated and domesticated in these ‘a waning days of the Wal-Mart world!
Good luck to all of you who are out there reclaiming the land with fruit trees and berry shrubs. Keep your pruning shears and grafting knives sharp, your shovels close, and your spirit of Revolution lit! Take a chance, plant some trees, and cover your tracks! Do it for yourself, but also for the future, and defend the Earth! Go Guerrillas!!! Peace & Cheers