If you live in a neighborhood peppered with empty lots, you may have noticed them: long raised beds or built-up mounds of rich soil—just now growing lush with young tomatoes, peppers and herbs—striping tracts of land that have no obvious keeper. These community gardens are gaining momentum in Chicago and cities around the country (I note with hometown pride that Detroit—which probably contains more acreage of fallow ground than any major U.S. metropolis—boasts a particularly well-organized and thriving urban agricultural community). Small-scale urban farming transforms land that, to a developer's eye, looks like either a future condo or wasted space into a source of fresh food, agricultural education and a beautiful spot for neighbors of all ages to socialize, work up a sweat and bring home the tastiest, healthiest vegetables around. Organizations like NeighborSpace, a land trust that protects urban gardens from development, and GreenNet, a network of community gardeners and information, help citizens build and maintain thriving community gardens throughout the city.
Of course not everyone is ready to make the commitment to a community garden. But that doesn't mean we all can't make our untended public spaces a little greener. Last week, I bumped into a friend who asked me what I knew about seed bombing. My eyes widened. "You mean they can explode?" I asked. He chuckled. Seed bombing isn't as hazardous as it sounds; it's a guerrilla gardening technique that allows vigilante horticulturalists to plant, drop or grenade-toss portable balls of seed and fertilizer to a spot of their choosing. Before parting ways, I told my friend about the work of NeighborSpace; he's now in the first stages of planning a new community plot in our Northwest Side neighborhood for next spring. However, the seed bomb talk got me curious, so I thought I'd give a little surreptitious sowing a try.
First step: Get your ingredients.
The best bomb recipe I found required equal parts clay and worm castings, mixed with a little water and native seeds. Worm castings (vermicultural jargon for poop) are super-powered fertilizer; young plants go nuts over the stuff. My worm bin had been happily eating, propagating and pooping for months, so there was plenty of compost ripe for harvesting. As for the clay, well, most of the soil beneath Chicago is made up of the dense, nutrient-rich, binding stuff. I took a hand trowel and dug a few clods of earth from my backyard. If you don’t have a backyard, just look around for a lonely spot of exposed earth; construction sites are a great source of clay that will ultimately just get trucked away for disposal. For the seeds, I went with a blend of catnip and lemon balm—perennial herbs that tolerate almost any soil, drought conditions (so I won't feel obliged to come back and water where I've bombed) and are attractive and fragrant to boot.
The crumbly clay and rich worm castings (I used approximately two cups of each) mixed beautifully into a Play-Doh-like consistency with the aid of about a quarter-cup water. After massaging in the seeds, I easily rolled perfect little two-inch bombs between my palms. Kneading and shaping the sticky wad felt a lot like mixing pie crust, in a pre-school sort of way. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. I then placed my stockpile in the sun to dry for a day or two.
While waiting for the ammo to set, I began scoping out locations for the first bombing. Ideally, it would be along my commuting route, making it easy to strike and to check in on my success. Although there's a certain low-commitment, anarchic spirit to seed bombing, I do like to keep tabs on the things I plant. Privately owned empty lots weren't my first choice—it would be heartbreaking to see the new herb garden suddenly mowed down or ripped out to make way for condos—so unkempt city parkways seemed the best bet. I found a promising little corner in an industrial section of North Avenue that hadn't received any landscaping love in a long time, if ever. I returned the next day armed and germinating; I quickly dug a few small holes in the barren dirt, dropped the seed pills in them and was on my way. It was a great feeling, showing a little care—if for but a moment—to a corner of the city that had been used solely for industry. It did not, however, feel clandestine in the least.
If you decide to go on a bombing raid yourself, remember that owners of private lots have the final word on what grows on their land; your plants may not be there the next time you roll by. Choose your targets with discretion. To find a community garden in your area, or learn more about starting one in your neighborhood, visit GreenNet Chicago for guides, maps and other great resources.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.