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Social activists find cause as urban ‘guerrilla gardeners’

Advocates call it civil disobedience with a green twist

Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post

Gardeners made what they described as seed bombs during a recent workshop in the nation’s capital.

WASHINGTON - “Let’s throw some bombs,’’ a young woman calls out, waterproof floral purse swinging on her shoulder and Laura Ingalls braids flying behind her as a band of 25 followers cheers, “Cool!’’

They rush toward a drab vacant lot in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. Some climb up onto the back of a truck to get better aim at their target. But these bombers probably will not appear on any terrorist list or even get arrested.

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They are throwing “seed bombs,’’ golf-ball-sized lumps of mud packed with wildflower seeds, clay, and a little bit of compost and water, which they just learned to make at a free seed-bombing workshop for Washington’s guerrilla gardeners.

The benign bombing is part of a larger phenomenon known as activist gardening that is taking off in cities such as Portland, Detroit, and Washington, where young urbanites are redefining the seemingly fusty pastime as a tool for social change.

This is civil disobedience with a twist: Vegetable patches and sunflower gardens planted on decrepit medians and in derelict lots in an effort to beautify urban eyesores or grow healthful food in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food.

“Guerrilla gardening is urban gardening and food justice. It’s just this really cool mix,’’ says Emmy Gran, 25, who is teaching seed-bombing at a recent Saturday morning workshop in the courtyard of Old City Green, a gardening store in Shaw. “But it’s controversial, too. If you see an abandoned, neglected lot and you decide to do something about it by planting vegetables and herbs, are you an occupier? It’s kind of radical, in some ways.’’

And every radical movement needs graffiti. Gran hauls out her Cuisinart to make the green “spray-paint’’ required for gardening activism’s biodegradable moss graffiti. Ingredients: moss, a half teaspoon of sugar, and beer or yogurt, which, when blended, will stick to walls. (“You can also use buttermilk,’’ she adds.) With a light rain starting to fall, the group walks over to a curb near the garden store and uses the gloppy mixture to write “Nourish, Grow, Shaw’’ in big, moss-green letters.

Activist gardening is the latest face of social justice in Washington. Forget living in a tent in McPherson Square. Instead, try pulling on muddy work boots and hauling fertilizer and mulch to a vacant lot, then planting snap peas and garlic.

The group at the workshop includes former Peace Corps volunteers, environmental activists, plaid-ensconced hipsters, and social justice workers, all eager to learn more about sneaky gardening, as it is also known.

“It’s all a lot less devious than it seems,’’ says Ellen Abramowitz, 22, who works for the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit group that educates schools about energy efficiency.

Gran tells her students that guerrilla gardening dates from the 1960s establishment of People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., when a patch of land near the University of California campus was co-opted by the community and reimagined as a public green.

Today, she says, it takes place in about 30 countries, with much of the activity documented on the website guerrillagardening.org. It has spread in the United States in recent years, spurred by the green movement and the increased demand for locally grown, healthful food.

They’re doing it one flower at a time. The bombs will - in theory - bloom into bachelor’s buttons and baby’s breath, forget-me-nots and marigolds when the truffle-size balls hit, then expand. It helps if there’s a healthy spring rain, said Scott Aker of the US National Arboretum.

If the bombs are launched into a sunny space where there’s not too much other vegetation present, then he gives the seeds a 70 percent chance of blooming. “But either way, it sounds like great fun,’’ Aker says. “On your commute, you can toss one out the window.’’

Washington police say that guerrilla gardening technically constitutes unlawful entry, a misdemeanor. But, says D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump, “nothing like this has come to our attention.’’

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