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Guerilla Gardening For Survival?

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Back in July I wrote an article on how you can garden without land. My focus was on some legal options for finding space.

Today we’ll play “let’s pretend” and forget all that “staying legal” stuff.

This country is a wreck, yet land is still comparatively expensive. We’ve been ripped off, you and I. Inflation has stolen our wealth, taxes and regulations have eaten our opportunities, and the banks have been handed most of the nation on a platter, despite their blatantly illegal practices.

If you want land, you usually have to pay through the nose for it. Then you have to pay to keep using it, thanks to the wonder of property taxes (i.e. the rent we pay to the government, meaning the government actually owns all our land). If you improve your patch of earth, you pay even more.

But… what if you don’t own land and want to garden? If you don’t mind perhaps bending or breaking a few rules, it can be done. Growing things on land you don’t own has actually become a bit of a trend lately. It’s called “guerrilla gardening.” A lot of guerrilla gardeners seem to be doing what they do because they’re protesting poverty or capitalism or urban poverty, etc. You’ll see cool things like someone cleaning up a strip at the edge of a parking lot and planting a bunch of sunflowers there – all without permission.

This is neat stuff, but what about food? Can you grow food this way? Sure – though I wouldn’t recommend doing so in a place with a lot of traffic, trash and wastewater run-off.

A fellow asked me a question recently at one of my talks. He told me he lived in an apartment and wondered if there were any plants I’d recommend if he wanted to garden surreptitiously in an empty lot or patch of woods. This is a tough question to answer for a few reasons. Number one – are you going to be able to tend what you grow on any kind of regular schedule? Plants – particularly food plants – usually need quite a bit of care to get going and produce. If you live in a dry place, you’ll need to provide water. If you live in a place with low fertility, you’ll need to fertilize. And, of course, you’re going to need to get back to your plants to harvest them at the right time or all your effort was in vain.

Here’s a highly scientific and deeply researched chart on the relative merits of different garden types:

I put guerrilla gardening towards the “lousy” side of the spectrum because it works better as a protest or cool idea than anything else. Actually feeding yourself off unclaimed land will take some work (and luck) because… wait for it… the land is NOT YOURS!

That said, it can be done. One sneaky way to figure out if a piece of land might be more useable than another is to check the tax records. If the owner lives far away, you may be able to pull off a plot of cabbages or something ridiculous. If it’s owned by some corporation or bank, they might not give a rip if you garden on it.

This is a good place for an aside: I believe private property is one of the keys to civilization. If you’re going to “borrow” someone’s property, try asking first. A lot of folks might not care.

Of course, you could look at it this way: if you plant a garden on a piece of unused ground, what damage are you actually doing? Is it vandalism? Are you trashing the place? Nope. You’re just planting plants. You might even be improving the property value. You could start fruit trees from seed and plant them here and there in undeveloped lots. It’s fun and it hurts nothing… but it’s probably not going to feed you any time soon.

Confession: I once planted cassava in the backyard of a rotting foreclosure property down in South Florida.

Does that hurt anything? No. It’s a weedy, trashed mess. No one cares – and there’s no owner to be found. The house has been empty for over a decade. If I lived next door, I’d have no problem planting a nice patch of corn back there to share with the neighbors. I might even plant the front yard, just because it’s obnoxious. Because I don’t live nearby, I just popped in some cassava cuttings and let them go. Cassava are tough and I really lose nothing if they don’t grow.

And that brings up my final point: if you’re not going to be visiting a property regularly, grow plants that require little care. Potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes would be good up north. Blackberries are easy. Mulberry trees mature quickly and bear fruit within a year or two of planting. In the south, winged yam takes care of itself (hence it’s “invasive” tag), as does sugarcane and some varieties of bean.

As things get worse, I’m betting that a lot of properties currently going unused are going to be pressed into cultivation by desperate people. You might as well get the jump on them now.

Just don’t blame me if you get in trouble. I’ll claim somebody else “guerrilla wrote” this article.

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