Guerrilla gardener targets KC highway

By Carolyn Szczepanski in Picket Lines, Random LifeMonday, Jun. 29 2009 @ 7:30AM

The urban guerrilla arrives by bike, his plaid, farmer-like shirt unbuttoned and his hair matted with sweat from the near-100-degree heat. The dirt under his nails indicates that he’s a gardener. But he’s doesn’t want to reveal too much about his efforts greening the city.

He will speak only on condition of anonymity.

His nom de guerre: G3.

His tactic: hijacking public land for undercover food production.

The idea of guerrilla gardening got lodged in his head when he was a kid, entranced by an elderly woman on his block who tucked marigold seeds into the cracks in the sidewalk. Later, as a college student, he stumbled on a London Web site that espoused the virtues and chronicled the “crimes” of activists who repurposed public right-of-ways, abandoned lots and rusting newspaper boxes into vegetable gardens and flower displays.

To G3, the concept made sense. Reclaim public space that isn’t being used. Plant gardens and grow food. Feed the homeless and protect the planet. The only trouble: Nearly every inch of the urban landscape is owned by someone.

Earlier this summer he stumbled on a perfect spot to take guerrilla action. The plot was a stretch of Interstate 670, accessible from an alley on the Westside. What he saw: a useless bunch of grass maintained by the Missouri Department of Transportation that needed to be sprayed with pesticides and mowed with fossil fuels and paid for by taxpayers. What he envisioned: a garden that would grow food for Kansas City’s homeless population.

“I’ve never been one to wait until I’m told it’s all right,” he says. “I didn’t ask [MoDOT] before I did it because I knew they’d say no.”

Instead he gathered his forces for an action he jokingly dubbed “Operation Slippery Slope.” One night in June, he and his compatriots slipped in under cover of darkness. They aerated the soil, ripping up a 20- by 30-foot plot at the edge of the highway. (“Across from the FBI building,” G3 says with a smirk.) They planted a half-dozen tomato plants, sweet peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplants and basil. They added some butterfly bush for aesthetics. They threw in some nasturtium flowers, too.

“I’m a student of history,” G3 says. “And, throughout American history, laws have changed, not through natural progression, but from people actually breaking them.

“This is about an idea, about rethinking our green spaces,” he adds. “It’s about people who, instead of talking about doing something, actually do something, not wait for permission.”

So the guerrilla gardener wasn’t completely surprised when he heard rumors that the authorities were unhappy with his tactics. “Almost immediately after we planted it — four days later — word got back to me from someone who lives around there that MoDOT was threatening to call the cops,” he says.

Not true, says Steve Porter, a spokesman for MoDOT. Last week, Porter said he hadn’t heard anything about a highway garden and his agency hadn’t called the cops. “We’re not the garden police,” he said. “We’re not out there looking for folks — unless they’re growing the wrong kind of herb, if you know what I mean. We’ve got a lot going on right now, so if somebody’s being tidy, it’s probably one less headache for us.”

Still, G3 isn’t taking any chances. He kept his distance for nearly a week. He’s been watering the plants in the dead of night. So, given the difficulties, will there be more guerrilla gardens?

“Hell, yeah,” G3 says with an excited but conspiratorial smile.

Don’t be surprised if, oh, two or three more pop up this week, he says. He’ll let those plots get established and make sure he doesn’t catch any legal flack. Then, in the fall, he’ll co-opt other patches of public dirt for greener purposes. In the meantime, he’s challenging other Kansas Citians to go guerrilla.

“If you see a brown piece of dirt in your neighborhood, plant something there,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be food and you don’t have to give it to the homeless, but put some thought into it.”

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