“Just watch out for needles, please…” And with that sensible yet troubling advice, I started re-planting and weeding a 120×100 ft. lot hugging I-280 in San Francisco. The property is owned by Caltrans, but the garden is definitely Annie’s. In December, after five years of staring at a mostly-barren lot across from her home, the web designer (at Sega!) set to work guerrilla-style! — without any permission, public meeting or hesitation*. Adopting an array of Agave, Dianthus, Crassula ovata, Grevillea, Ornithogalum, Anisodontea, Osteospermum and more (a good portion culled for free from Craigslist!), she started transforming the landscape and simultaneously found a way to escape the “sterile and predictable” mindset of toiling in an office. No power tools. No soil moisture sensors. No radio… Right on. So on a sunny Saturday morning, I joined her at the Pennsylvania Garden . Hear more about the artifacts unearthed (needles?), the bum who used to live there (King Cobra fan), and how I hurt my back, after the jump…
*She eventually called the city, then Caltrans, and got their blessing — and a spigot repaired — to ensure the plants won’t get ripped out. She’s invested well over $1,000, let alone the time.“People are disappointed to find out I don’t wear a ski mask,” Annie laughed in her British accent (she was born in Wales). It’s true. Up until now, my notion of guerrilla gardeners was that they were mostly 12 Monkeys-like rebels toiling in midnight darkness to bolster the natural beauty of dull, cement-laden urban spaces. “Drivers beep at me all the time!” she added.
Pennsylvania Garden is a sloping lot perched on display for neighbors, passersby, drivers, and dozens of dogs who use the upper, un-planted portion as a toilet (two recycled poop-bag-compost stations were installed w/the help of a neighbor). Canine excrement is nothing, though. When she first began, Annie contended with a drunken homeless man who slept under a tree bordering the freeway underpass. After a shelter took the man in (provided he agree to quit drinking), she went in to clean up: a litany of 40-oz bottles, human feces, trash, and hypodermic needles (the man’s friends’ apparently).
This answered my first bit of skepticism: why not plant food? A lot this size could feed a handful of families outright, much in the same way squatters in cities like Detroit are living off abandoned land. The lot is plant-able, but Caltrans warned Annie (and she warned me): It is toxic, with oil and runoff from the highway, discarded batteries (I found a rusty D-volt), broken fuse boxes (check), and the occasional needle (ugh). Translation: wash your hands thoroughly and don’t touch your garden gloves to your mouth. Check.
We started off weeding the back hillside. Lady bugs galore. Then a sharp prick right through my glove. Fuck. Shit. Fuck. I searched. Didn’t see a needle. It was a particularly nasty twig or cactus tip. We continued, and finished with a pile of weeds that doubled her compost heap.
Planting in these conditions is tough, but Annie seems more than pleased to keep everything low-tech. A friend has promised to loan her a “Texas toothpick,” a heavy shaft of forged steel used to break ground. For now, she tackles patches of debris-caked clay with a shovel. It is hard, back-breakingly so.
Annie already transplanted almost 100 species thus far, becoming a budding amateur plant expert in the process. She regularly travels north of San Francisco to rescue unwanted cactus from people she finds through a cactus-nut she met on Craigslist or through her blog. She’s discovered that Starbucks will give her free coffee grounds (a solid top soil supplement since snails hate it and worms LOVE it). She’s learned how to manhandle 150-lb. prickly pear cacti (hint: two sets of gloves, tarp, twine, three sets of hands, and lift with the legs).
She’s pleasant, not preachy. The self-righteous pretension you’d expect is absent. She says she simply enjoys the work. I believe her. She’s one of us: a city-dwellling web designer who spends the 9-5 weekdays tending digital gardens for a paycheck. Any excuse to disconnect, sweat, sunburn, and get dirty hands in the name of something tangible and organic is worth it. Have a great weekend.