It’s exactly 1:55 am on a cool but pleasant Sunday morning when I hear my instant messenger alert.
“what are you...? Do you have any good movies?” my friend asks.
“what am i? i dunno. but I’m about to go garden,” I type back.
“Garden? At this time of...”
Intrigued, my friend agrees to meet at the stop sign halfway between our houses and we walk a few blocks to the little patch of public dirt I staked out a few days before.
“So, what are we doing?” my friend asks as we munch the quesadilla he’s brought with him.
“Just beautifying the ’hood,” I respond.
But really, what we’re doing is much more than that. We’re taking part in an international movement of environmentalists who question who owns public land and adding our aesthetics to a well-traveled section of downtown Santa Fe. We’re guerrilla gardening. We’re planting a butterfly bush, sunflowers, columbines, turnips and spinach near a busy road both as an experiment to see if they’ll grow with minimal care and to give something back to our community.
Well, my friend is probably just along because there’s nothing else to do post-party and this is more interesting than borrowing a movie from my collection. But for me, the guerrilla garden is something I’ve obsessed over for weeks. As I started to look around for a place to plant, I discovered that the options were seemingly endless. There are dirt plots all around downtown, the Railyard, Second Street and Airport Road. These public spaces sometimes have one or two bushes plopped in them but, as anyone who drives around Santa Fe knows, almost no flowers and certainly no food.
I wanted both in my little ecosystem experiment so I hit up Tropic of Capricorn for a pruning class and a little gardening 101 advice from Michael Clark. For my project, with the goal of dumping some water on it every week or so while I update its growth on SFR’s Web site, Clark suggested a spot that was less than 20 feet from a roadway so the water from car tires would splash up on the garden and keep it watered without too much work. He also suggested potatoes, garlic, asparagus and broccoli as good choices for food planting at this time of year; all hearty plants that will survive the snow that should hit again in March and April.
Because following directions isn’t always at the top of my list of things to do, I ignored that advice almost completely when I headed out to Payne’s Nursery for supplies. Less that $20 and an hour after arriving I was armed with a Buddleia davidii—a butterfly bush, or summer lilac, that is hearty enough to be classified as a weed in two states (just the kind of subversive plant I’m looking for, really)—which attracts both butterflies and bees with its dark blue flowers. I also bought several seed packets, despite being told that it’s not really the right time for seeds. The packages of turnips and spinach said to plant them in spring before the final frost, which is about May 15 in Santa Fe, so that was good enough for me. The columbines, which don’t bloom until their second year, seemed like a good choice as I remember them growing well in the mountains of Colorado—they are the state flower after all—along with sunflowers. Who doesn’t love sunflowers? They’re pretty, familiar and seem easy to grow. Plus, I got the giant variety; who wouldn’t want to see enormous sunflowers lining the streets of Santa Fe?
Since I’ve managed to kill quite a few plants in my day, I figured I should start small and, if all goes well, move up to the kind of guerrilla gardens that are gaining attention around the world. In July of 2008 a Boulder, Colo. man, Scott Hoffenberg, was threatened with a $2,000 a day fine for planting a garden in a right of way near his home. Hoffenberg got so into his garden that he began to put up trellises and fencing to keep animals out. In 2004 the blog guerrillagardening.org was launched to record one London-based guerrilla gardener’s project and has since grown to document gardens across Europe and as far away as Botswana.
Some are placed in public to teach the community that growing one’s own food is an easy alternative to increased food prices, while others have more subversive messages, such as anti-war slogans spelled out in flowers.
Though my little garden can be seen from several offices in the Roundhouse, and the planting probably was captured on the cameras around the capitol building, my friend and I didn’t spell out any messages to politicians. Instead we just played in the dirt and added a little color to a section of street already overburdened with boring bushes and predictable greenery.
Since it’s 2 am and I am a little buzzed from the party I was at earlier, my heart is racing every time a car drives by. Partly, I don’t want to explain what I’m doing to anyone out and about at this time of night. I also don’t want to be, you know, run over. The streetlights overhead give off just enough light that I can see what I’m doing but it’s dark enough out that I could easily frighten a driver who is less than sober. But in solipsistic Santa Fe, none of the three cars that drive by seem to notice or care what we’re doing. As we prepare to gather our equipment and head back to my shelf of movies an officer drives past, pulls a U-turn and asks how our night is going.
“We’re just planting a few native flowers!” my friend exclaims while I try to figure out how to explain to this cop that I’ve been assigned this little project for a newspaper story. The officer looks at us closely and breaks into a big smile—I can almost see the word “hippies” form in a thought bubble above his head.
“Be safe,” he laughs, and drives away.
Without missing a beat, we plant the last of the sunflower seeds and head to our respective homes. As I shed my boots and sweater I hear the ding of the IM again. “I want to go water them, but can wait…” my friend writes.
I realize that I do too, and that even though I planned and planted this garden, it’s not mine. By 2:32 am, I’d already given it away.
Check back for updates on the success (and tribulations) of SFR's guerrilla garden.