The eastern seaboard—and certainly the Mid-Atlantic—has dodged most of the winter bullets that hit the Midwest, the Great Plains, and even California (!) these past few months. Washington DC did not receive any snowfall that lingered more than a few hours. I espied the first blossoming trees on February 19, and though the blossoms at this point are still outliers—the majority have not bloomed—by the final week of February it wasn’t really looking all that much like winter. And why should it? As recently as last Thursday, the region briefly enjoyed temperatures that pushed 80° Fahrenheit. Granted, just 48 hours later we were back to flurries. But the mild winter has resulted in exactly what one would expect.
Daffodils, a flower typically associated with April (or maybe late March in DC), already beginning to bloom. It’s the flower most indicative that spring has sprung, at least in this regions with a Köppen climate classification of humid subtropical, though not too far south of the humid continental, exactly what characterizes DC and Maryland. The snowdrops should be long gone; the elusive vernal crocuses probably on their way out. I didn’t see much at all of the latter and I don’t have a good eye for the former. This particular corner is interesting because of that black-and-yellow sign that references a none-too-familiar concept (at least for the horticulturally ignorant among us). It says “Urban Country Road POLLINATOR HABITAT Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington DC”.
I already played my hand with this article’s title. And perhaps my readership is more clued-in than I am, but I’ll confess that I had never heard of guerrilla gardening until recently. And here, at a busy intersection separating Capitol Hill from Navy Yard, I encountered a sign for what is clearly an established nonprofit, Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington DC. My research led me to a better understanding: guerrilla gardening at large is a means of vigilante horticulture, and I’ll concede that vigilantism tends to toward the pejorative. But it doesn’t have to be: guerrilla gardening involves any form of gardening or cultivation where the gardeners lack legal standing. In short, they don’t own the property. It can be vast stretches of private land (the bigger, the more likely it goes unnoticed); it can be abandoned sites; it can be forlorn bits of public right-of-way, like this strip next to an exit ramp with the budding daffodils. Much guerrilla gardening takes place at night, depending on exactly how illicit the activity is. It can be political, protesting against what the gardeners see as an illegitimate claim to land; it can bespeak an undermining of land ownership altogether. Needless to say, the broader public is far more likely to perceive this approach as vigilantism. More often than not, however, it reflects an effort to draw attention to neglected land, or to beautify little publicly owned nooks that the municipal government simply lacks the resources to maintain.
Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington DC seems to embrace this latter approach to guerrilla gardening. The volunteer gardeners don’t tend to work at night, because what they’re doing is uncontroversial. By and large, they’re doing the City a favor. It isn’t always flowers, either. They can fill neglected spaces with edible plants they then donate to the community. Since it is a licensed 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Guerrilla Gardeners of Washington DC does not cultivate its flowers or food for profitable sale. The organization encourages new volunteers, and they seem to welcome novel ideas for either beautifying or enriching the environment in a precise locale. They teach gardening to novices, they clean trash from the sites where they work, and they sometimes apply for grants to do other stuff: repairing murals, filling potholes, etc. And, from what I can tell, many of their biggest initiatives take place right where I stumbled upon these daffodils: various plots of land in southeast Washington DC.
I might demur the notion of guerrilla gardening on most private land; unless I know the underlying nature of the protest, it’s a defiance of individual property rights. Trespassing. But guerrilla gardening on otherwise neglected public land seems like a win-win. The site in the photo above is, as the photo and black sign indicate, part of an urban country road pollinator habitat. It represents the terminating point of Virginia Avenue, where it becomes a steep exit ramp leading to busy I-695. The website indicates how unsightly the weeds had become back in 2019, but grants allowed a guerrilla gardening team to excavate, pull out weeds (and plenty of litter), and transform the space into a flower bed the length of a football field. Various flowers will sprout depending on the time of year—a year-round pollinator habitat. And, at the end of this very mild February, the flower in question is daffodils. Later this spring, expect tulips.
It’s a humble, simple effort that yields about half of the aesthetic return on investment. Half is better than zero. But why isn’t it 100% or better? Let’s pivot a bit and find out.
Doggone it, the daffodils are flourishing. But that hasn’t stopped litterbug motorists from undermining all their hard work cleaning up that trash! It’s really, really bad.
I wish I didn’t have a glass-half-empty view here, but the litter seems to overpower the daffodils, and it’s very tricky to manage when motorists clearly just doff their Big Gulps and Chick-fil-A boxes as they veer from neighborhood streets onto that interstate. It would probably take an aggressive street sweeping campaign to make the daffodils sing like they deserve. And that simply isn’t happening, at least not at the frequency that it needs to happen. It’s not safe for volunteers to pick up the litter with pinchers and trash bags.
Perhaps I simply never used to notice, but I genuinely think things have gotten worse since early 2021, when I became much more aware of litter along public rights-of-way. Has DC’s Public Works Department cut back or eliminated street sweeping initiatives as a result of general budget tightening from COVID lockdowns? I commute along stretches of highway that routinely face deer/car collisions, but in the past, someone took care of the roadkill usually within a week. Yet throughout January and February, I’ve driven past two massive, adult dead deer along the Anacostia Freeway (I-295) and neither one has yet gotten removed. Well over a month now. It ain’t pretty.
I want to salute the valiant guerrilla gardening efforts of those volunteers; the nonprofit’s website shows how overgrown and ugly it was before 2019. The daffodils are certainly an improvement. At the same time, this shows the limited reach of the Broken Windows Theory, a concept I have evoked numerous times on this blog. As the theory posits, an overt lack of maintenance and neglect typically only fosters more abuse from passers-by. A single broken window signals abandonment, and, in a short time, ne’er-do-wells will break all the remaining windows. And shellac the place with spray paint. And deposit their trash.
The flowers from our guerrilla gardeners have improved this exit ramp, but it’s still a utilitarian bit of civic works—a space en route to something else, not likely to be admired by the masses, except for a fleeting moment in passing. Pedestrians wouldn’t linger either; it’s not safe. And while I suspect that the obvious cultivation of the soil in this strip next to a retaining wall has helped deter litter to some degree, they’ll still hurl their Wendy’s Frosty cups right in front of all those flowers. The philanthropic effort combined with sweat equity just don’t prompt the respect one might hope; the City must still sweep the area regularly. Maintaining a tidy urban environments isn’t necessarily physically demanding work, but it must be consistent. Guerrilla gardening is doing half the work for Public Works, but they have other initiatives to pursue beyond regular trash pickup. And anything outside of vehicular sweepers would be unsafe. Oh well. At least if the birds, bees, and other urban pollinators get bored of daffodils, there’s a tasty alternative: wrappers full of Arby’s sauce.
3 thoughts on “Guerrilla gardening at the crossroads: of daffodils and debris.”
Even as recently as May 2022 it looked ok. I hope it’s just a winter thing, because yeah, the preponderance of litter can get really disheartening. As unpleasant as highways are, they’re even more soul-crushing when fast food detritus, blown out tire retreads, uncontrolled weeds, and shattered remnants of weeks-past collisions litter the shoulders.
I will concede that your May 2022 Google Image pic could have captured this exit ramp right after a good sweeping. Except that none of the previous years look as bad as it does now, though some look worse than 2022. But your description “fast food detritus, blown out tire retreads, uncontrolled weeds, and shattered remnants of weeks-past collisions” basically captures a stretch of highway not far from these photos that I travel routinely. The last one–the unmaintained collision is almost as disheartening as watching the two deer carcasses advance in their decay. I was last in NYC in summer of 2021 but didn’t use the subway. I wonder how much longer before those cars will start getting completely saturated with graffiti, like they were in the early 80s.
Socialism making the world beautiful….