Guerrilla gardening project aims to give food for all

It's not her property. Right now, it's just a large patch of grass. But Julia McIntosh has a vision for it.

Julia McIntosh wants to offer free tomatoes and herbs

Julia McIntosh wants to offer free food on a plot on James Street North. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

 It's not her property. Right now, it's just a large patch of grass. But Julia McIntosh has a vision for it.

The 23-year-old downtown resident envisions boxes of fresh vegetables and herbs, providing a source of fresh local food for anyone who wants to pluck a tomato.

She's planting them in boxes in case the owner wants them moved. But her goal is to eventually fill the property with them.

"If (the owners) want us to move it eventually, we can," McIntosh said of the plot on James Street North. "But if it's not being used, we might as well use it."

In the gardening world, McIntosh is doing what is known as guerrilla gardening. And it's a common sight on the urban landscape.

Vegetables gardens sometimes spring up along railroad right of ways, said Carlo Balistrieri, head of horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Guerrilla gardeners plant flowers around street-side trees and tomato plants on vacant lots.

"Because it's more secretive and guerrilla style, you don't hear about it as much. But it's a worldwide phenomenon."

'This is food. Help yourself.'

McIntosh has been involved with various community gardens around Hamilton. She envisions tomatoes, potatoes and herbs for the taking for the wealthy and impoverished alike.

"It's important, in a city where there's not a lot of readily available spaces to grow food, to be creative," she said.

"We may put out a sign saying 'This is food. Help yourself.'"

Karen Burson, project manager of Hamilton Eat Local, has seen guerrilla gardening projects before. They are rarely vandalized, she said.

"People don't tend to take more than they need, and they are reluctant to see food wasted."

Burson compares the guerrilla gardening phenomenon to "seed bombs," which are mixtures of seed and clay that people drop in public spaces.

Guerrilla gardeners everywhere

Richard Reynolds of London, England is the author of the book On Guerrilla Gardening. Guerrilla gardeners range from teenagers to senior citizens, and from various economic backgrounds, he said.

Some qualities tie them together. They tend to be optimistic and imaginative, and sometimes mischievous, he said. They love gardening and the fun of doing it, and are sometimes making a statement about food and the environment.

But those trying to make a statement don't tend to last, he said.

"I do my damndest to represent the quiet obsessive gardeners who just can't help but garden without asking on someone else's land," he said.

Reynolds' book charts guerrilla gardening across 30 countries. He describes the activity as "increasingly prevalent and increasingly tolerated," although it still gets resistance.

Gardening on the rise

Gardening in general is on the rise in Hamilton, said Clare Wagner, co-ordinator of the Hamilton Community Garden Network.

The network doesn't practice guerrilla gardening, but it has seen dozens of new community gardens spring up around Hamilton in the last two years.

"It's becoming trendy and for good reason," she said. "People are more conscious of self sufficiency and knowing how their food grows. The population across North America is looking at the urban landscape differently."