Text by Caleb Melchior for the July/August 2018 issue of Horticulture.
You don’t need to own a home or a patch of ground in order to garden. There’s space out there waiting to be loved—go out and find it. Other creative individuals across the country are devising nimble ways to garden in spaces that they may not own, but which they’ve transformed into beautiful and productive transient gardens.
“You know those red geraniums that you see everywhere? I always hated them,” Lindsey Kerr says. “Then I went to Bavaria and realized that they are really rather amazing.” Kerr is a professional horticulturist in Salem, Ore., where she adorns her shared balcony with abundant planters full of the tumbling scarlet flowers. After the planters filled that space, she signed up for a community garden.
“It started with one space, then people deserted the other two, so I took those over,” she says. Seeing empty ground throughout her apartment complex, she started filling in the gaps with spring-blooming bulbs and summer edibles. “My approach is don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness,” she explains.
Cheekily combining ornamental and edible crops seems to be a common approach with ground claimers.
“They’re not designed gardens where you’d go out and have tea,” says Joseph Tychonievich, proprietor of GreenSparrow Gardens and author of Rock Gardening (Timber Press, 2016), of his borrowed gardens. Rather, they’re highly functional spaces: “They’ve always been a mix of vegetables and flowers, as well as space for cut flowers and plant breeding.”
Starting when he was an undergrad at the Ohio State University, Tychonievich has claimed spaces in an array of situations: college campus vacant lot, municipal land bank scheme, bit of rural nursery ground. Throughout his varied career, these borrowed spaces have enabled Tychonievich to pursue gardening as a practice that fosters his plant breeding, writing and public speaking.
Finding space to garden
If you’re trying to find a space, or extra space, in which to garden, the most important thing is to start asking.
“Do a big Facebook post,” Tychonieviech recommends. “Go far afield. Dig every potential connection.” Land-use arrangements range from highly formalized to informal or non-existent. If you’re dealing with a municipal property, such as a community garden or land bank, there will likely be a formal agreement that sets forth clear terms. On private property, an informal agreement may be sufficient. It’s important to establish a clear understanding with the owner or manager of a property at the outset.
“Be upfront when you’re asking for the use of the land,” Tychonievich says, “Always offer to pay rent and restore the site to what it was before. For example, if it’s a nice turfgrass lawn, you’d plow it up and sow grass seed.” Gifts of flowers and produce will definitely sweeten the owner’s experience as you use the property. For low-impact or neglected spaces, you may want to go guerilla and just start growing.
Claiming ground in which to garden is full of challenges, some of which are different to those faced by gardeners working in more traditional settings. Access to water and physical damage are two of the top issues facing gardeners in transient spaces.
“I start every single morning by hauling buckets from the kitchen sink to water the plants on the balcony and at the ground,” Lindsey Kerr says. “Last summer, we had no rain for 72 days.” That’s a lot of bucket-hauling. If you have physical limitations, access to water may be a determining factor in choosing a space to garden. Tychonievich echoes Kerr’s concerns.
“I’ve learned to work without irrigation,” he says. “I’m used to figuring out what water I can haul in buckets for planting seedlings, then letting them tough it out.” But even if your plants are thriving, it’s easy for them to be destroyed by wildlife or vandals.
“In rural areas, you have deer,” Tychonievich says, “In urban areas, you have people.” He mentions that he doesn’t mind people harvesting vegetables, as long as they’re respectful and don’t damage the plants. Choosing crops wisely can help reduce the impact of vandalism.
“At the community garden, I made the mistake of planting watermelons and pumpkins,” Kerr recounts. “All of them got stolen—before they were ripe.” Now, she grows her watermelons in a pot on her balcony.
In the most transient gardening spaces, “you have to go into it knowing that at any moment somebody could decide that they don’t like what you’ve done and just pull it up,” Kerr says. She addresses this challenge by limiting her upfront investment in the most vulnerable plantings, focusing on plants that she’s grown from seed or cuttings. She chooses carefully which plants to grow in each claimed space, keeping the higher-value items in more sheltered spots.
Gardening in a such a nontraditional way may be shocking to some gardeners. But, if you’re new to an area it’s a great way to connect to the existing network of plantspeople and gardeners.
“Ask everyone who’s vaguely connected,” Tychonievich says. Throughout the process of finding and using garden space, you’ll develop connections to locals with similar enthusiasms. The process of working together can help build trust in your local community.
“When I went away, I left notes for the neighbors to ask them to please water the plants,” Kerr explains. “I sent an email to the community-garden leader before I left, asking if they could have people water my plot. I also put up a big sign [in my plot] saying ‘Water Me’.” Her fellow gardeners did not disappoint.
“If I had come back and all of (the plants) had been dead, I would have been crushed,” she says. But her garden was flourishing. “It helped create that sense of community.”
Getting to know regional plantspeople and building trust in your community is a fantastic aspect of claiming ground, but what’s the best thing about claiming ground in which to garden?
“I didn’t have to wait until I had a real job and buy land to garden,” Tychonievich says. “I don’t have to delay gardening or the projects that I want to do.” Claiming ground makes gardens possible that might otherwise only exist in dreams.
Image credit: Adam Lister/Moment Open/Getty Images