When green space became essential during the pandemic, these intrepid gardeners realized there wasn’t enough of it.
In a TikTok video posted by @sfinbloom, five Onewheel riders wield pink toy rifles as they cruise down the side of the road in San Francisco. The weighty bass of JVLA’s “Such A Whore (Baddest Remix)” plays as they approach bare patches of land, where they fire seeds into the air. At one point, they toast with the repurposed parmesan shakers (now wildflower seed dispensers) they’re all holding, before chucking more seeds at the foot of a sign pointing to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The video has more than 1 million views and 173.1K likes. “Can I join your army?” one user commented under the video. “Come garden with us,” reads the reply.
This vigilante approach to gardening has swept across TikTok this past year, championed by guerilla gardening influencers like SF In Bloom. Videos show urbanites launching seed bombs — wildflower seeds parcelled up in balls of clay — onto neglected plots of land around their communities, where rain will break down the clay and allow the seeds to take root. At the time of publication, the hashtags #guerillagardening and #guerrillagardening had amassed a collective 13.7 million views, taking up a sizable corner of TikTok’s environmentally focused community, known as EcoTok.
This isn’t strictly legal, which makes it an attractive form of protest for a more mischievous breed of plant enthusiasts. “I think a lot of it has to do with COVID,” Alaina Wood, a sustainability consultant who creates educational videos about environmental science and the co-founder of EcoTok, tells Mic. “People were going on their pandemic walks in their neighborhoods, and starting to notice, Why don’t we have more green spaces? Why don’t we have things like community gardens? There’s this vacant lot that's really ugly. Why don’t we reclaim it for ourselves?”
Guerilla gardening isn’t new, but it’s enjoying a resurgence now thanks in large part to the houseplant mania and heightened climate consciousness that has come to dominate social media. According to Wood, motives for the gardeners range from wanting to reduce food poverty to reclaiming land from property developers to mitigating the effects of climate change. Some people plant trees to reduce the urban heat island effect, wherein cities retain more heat due to the abundance of concrete in roads and buildings. Seeding wildflowers can help increase local biodiversity, which is good for pollinating insect populations.
Wood herself has sown native plants near her home in Tennessee that help to retain stormwater. “I’ve definitely seeded a couple of vacant lots that have a tendency to flood,” she says.
Rewilding the city
As the world wakes up to the impact that a mass warming event could have on our planet, experts are increasingly warning that we face not just one, but two interlinked crises — the climate emergency and a biodiversity breakdown. Biodiversity is already said to be at dangerously low levels worldwide, with 75% of species now left globally (well below what scientists deem to be a safe limit of 90%). Urban growth, which has more than doubled since 1992, is a key contributor to the problem. If growth continues at its current rate, nearly 400 cities are expected to spill into endangered species’ habitats by 2030.
In San Francisco, Shalaco — one half of @sfinbloom — can be found dressed as a giant bumblebee, nipping from flowerbed to flowerbed on his Onewheel and dispensing wildflower seeds as he goes.
“If you ever go running around pretending to be a bee, you’ll see just how sparse habitats are for beneficial insects,” he told Mic over Zoom, pointing at the slogan on his T-shirt, which read, “BDSM” (“Bees Do So Much”). “Thirty percent of our foods are dependent on beneficial insects, and they are under threat due to encroachment on their habitat, pesticides, and erratic weather as a result of climate change. Now more than ever, these really important members of our community need our help.”
Shalaco and his partner, sustainable landscape gardener Phoenix Jungwirth, use TikTok to promote the benefits of what they call “urban rewilding.” Round the city they go, shaking wildflower seeds from their parmesan shakers and checking up on their previous gardening escapades. Before and after videos show a blaze of oranges and pinks spilling out of tree beds up San Franciscan blocks. Their mission, as they put it, is to “democratize gardening” by making it feel fun and accessible for their 180.4K followers.
“People are so removed from nature that gardening, planting shit, is put on this big pedestal in people’s minds,” says Shalaco. “They’re astonished that you can just throw seeds on the ground and in the right conditions they grow. That’s nature, baby.”
“People really took off with this concept that you can just sow native wildflowers on your walk and make a positive impact in the environment with such little time,” Jungwirth adds. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. You don't need to have any plant knowledge whatsoever.”
Nature as a human right
Regulations on guerilla gardening tend to fluctuate from city to city. While some local authorities take a permissive view, others can be more punitive; when gardener and food security activist Ron Finley planted vegetables on his street pavement in Los Angeles in 2010, a warrant was issued for his arrest. (He appealed and was never actually arrested.) But actual prosecutions for guerilla gardening remain rare, even unheard of, a point that Shalaco hammers home by sharing videos of wildflower beds he has sown outside police stations. “If planting native wildflowers is illegal where you are, you’re on the darkest timeline, and it’s time to change that,” he tells Mic.
For Ellen Miles, an environmental campaigner from London, guerrilla gardening is one direct action she can take alongside more long-term work lobbying policymakers. She founded two grassroots groups during the U.K.’s first lockdown last year, Nature Is A Human Right and Dream Green, after noticing an imbalance in different communities’ access to green spaces. Parks in more affluent areas of London, such as Hyde Park and St. James’s Park, stayed open, yet others like Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets, which has one of the highest rates of social housing and ethnic diversity in the U.K., were closed.
This is typical of the U.K., already one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, where 1 in 8 people lack a private or shared garden. The distribution of green spaces tends to fall along lines of wealth and class, with communities of color four times more likely than white communities to have no access to an outdoor space at home. These same households would be relatively well-served by parks in ordinary times — 86% of ethnic minorities in the U.K. have said that they live between a five- and 15-minute walk from a public green space. But when the parks are shut, or people are banned from leaving their homes, nature deprivation rears its ugly head — with real consequences for health and wellbeing. Long stints in the park have been shown to reduce depression, ease anxiety, and lower blood pressure. Plants and trees purify the air, while their absence leaves communities more vulnerable to conditions like asthma.
Posting to TikTok as @octaviachill, Miles calls on her followers to fight this deprivation by creating public green spaces for themselves. In one video with over 1 million views, she shares a tutorial in making seed bombs — what she calls “tiny weapons in the arsenal against grey, lifeless, concrete streets.” In a blender, she mixes seeds with torn up pieces of paper and water to make a pulp, which she strains and dries, then molds into small ready-to-toss balls. “You have to start reclaiming the land around you and turning unloved, neglected patches of soil into vibrant pockets of life,” she urges in the clip.
Local action, global impact?
There is a certain charm in guerilla gardening being a legal grey area, Miles says, but its true value lies in its immediate impact. On Dream Green’s website, Miles shares toolkits, plant care tips, and ready-made bags of seed bombs to help aspiring guerilla gardeners get started cultivating their local streets. But with her other effort, Nature Is A Human Right, she manages more far-reaching projects. One is License to Plant, which takes inspiration from Paris’s permis de végétaliser rule that permits citizens to plant in public spaces so long as they follow certain guidelines. Miles wants to see that policy imported to the U.K.
Her ultimate goal is to petition the U.N. to enshrine access to nature as a right in international law. Such a declaration would prompt governments to ensure that their citizens can access green spaces daily, whether that be through a small pocket park, a tree viewed from a flat window, or merging plants and buildings using green architecture.
Studies suggest that time spent in nature builds feelings of connection with the natural world, which in turn increases efforts to conserve it. Thus, by reducing nature deprivation in cities, Miles argues, this new wave of plant mania could have a knock-on effect and inspire other pro-environment behavior, like recycling, switching to bikes, or joining environmental action groups.
But she warns against overstating guerrilla gardening as a solution to the climate emergency. “71% of all climate emissions are created by 100 companies,” she says. “That isn’t up to Joe down the road to solve. It’s brilliant, and I think everyone should do it, but it's not a silver bullet.”
It’s easy to feel despondent about our planet’s fate, when the challenges we face are, to put it mildly, immense. When I spoke to Wood, she had just returned home from the U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, where fossil fuel delegates outnumbered some countries. An atmospheric river hung over San Francisco, bringing intense rain, when Shalaco and Jungwirth joined me for a Zoom call. Scattering wildflowers in your neighborhood isn’t going to fix those problems.
But perhaps there is some power in giving ordinary citizens a small, tangible way to play their part. “We need systemic change to really make a difference,” Wood says. “But it can help on a hyperlocal level for sure. Small changes like that in your city can help your local climate. And the more people do it, the better it’s going to get.”
“People are like, ‘Uh, the world’s kind of on fire. Best case scenario, we’re fucked,’” says Shalaco. “What we’re offering is a really accessible option for people to just get started.”