The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Safety


“Beauty and the Beast” – Lamar Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be gardening here… I would have laughed…


This post is part of a larger body of work titled ”The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook”. For the introduction and table of contents please click here

I originally posted this post with the title “Safety in the Urban Jungle”, it was popular and fit this series so I am posting it again wearing a new edit and photos… Hope you enjoy!…

I like to think that I write about experience, experience tells me I need to write about safety! Most people probably don’t consider gardening a dangerous hobby, and it normally isn’t when performed on the safety of your own property. Technically speaking, the moment you step on to property that isn’t yours, you are guilty of trespassing, alter the property in any way, and now it’s vandalism, remove anything… and it’s burglary… Which is a felony in PA!

Most of the time what you are doing will be seen as a good thing, and you will find support from the neighbors. Occasionally your presence will not be accepted, and it’s time to do some serious soul-searching. As with any “wild” area like a severely blighted urban community, you will encounter hazards that will need to be dealt with. This post is to relate some of the safety lessons I have learned while guerrilla gardening in a blighted community.

I would like to mention that while a lot of people believe guerilla gardening is a new thing, it has been around for a long time. Contrary to popular belief, guerilla gardenings roots have nothing to do with food, and everything to do with drugs. The first “guerilla gardeners” were pot farmers, the term was coined by them for the obvious “renegade” aspect of what they were doing. Wikipedia claims it was coined in New York in 1973, the term was used much earlier than that though.

I think the most important rule that I could possibly write about is “know your surroundings”, I seriously can’t stress this enough. When you are doing “anything” in a sketchy area be aware of everything, and everyone around you. If you are about to walk through an area that you think is suspect, it doesn’t hurt to be preparing a mental plan on what you would do if something goes wrong.

I have been in several situations where I was obviously being followed for whatever reason, I don’t carry cash and only had garden tools on me. After identifying the situation I immediately made myself as visible as possible by walking in the street and heading for the closest, most occupied area I could. I know at least a few people on every street and was able to make it a friend’s house, the guy walked past the house and waited on the corner for me to leave. I was able to wait him out but this could have been so much worse, I am lucky to know someone in at least 50% of the neighborhoods in Wilkinsburg.


“Miss Lorna’s Daf” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – When working near a street… Always face the street…

I think “keeping a low profile” is a logical rule, but just in case I’m going to cover it. Blending in with your surroundings can save your life, if you walk around looking like you have money… well… people will think you have money. Just the simple fact of looking “normal” can be the difference, skip the straw farmers hat! A great secret is to figure out what color shirts your local DPW wear, then purchase several shirts in that color, makes you look a little more “official”. Sometimes the situation will put you in regular contact with people, always say hello and speak if spoken to… remember that they are now your neighbors, and will play a huge part in the success or failure of your garden.

Sometimes it is acceptable to garden in plain sight, in the case of food production you should consider hiding it. I have found that allowing people to freely pick is not always a good thing, people damage plants and often take unripe, or way more than they could possibly personally use. Now when I have non-gardeners on my sites I always spend time educating on the “harvesting” aspect of gardening. Gardens used as a protest, memorial or beautification should obviously be visible, public guerilla gardening efforts have issues as well.

I pride myself on my ability to completely zone out while I garden, this was a tough one to break. If you have the ability to work as a team I would recommend a spotter, someone to have your back. Guerilla gardening requires you to be aware of everything around you, even while you work you should be aware of everything. I was taught this lesson by an 11-year-old boy, he was always trying to find me and sneak up on me. He got close enough to reach out and touch me on several occasions, one time I almost punched him in the face, this was a huge wake up call.

If someone can get close enough to touch you while you are gardening, then they are close enough to rob you. When you do get approached by a stranger, stand up immediately, face them head on and NEVER get caught with your pants down. Consider a 6′ perimeter around yourself “personal space” and do not let them in it, if they do break that perimeter let them know you want “personal space”, they will normally understand, if they don’t “SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT”, act accordingly!

Things you may find can harm you as well, caution should be taken with anything that you come in contact with. Guns should always be considered loaded and lethal, age weakens components and can make it very dangerous. If you ever find a gun, leave it as you found it and immediately call the police, they will respond quickly.


“C is for Cookie” – Taylor Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – I was out photographing an alley on the other side of Wilkinsburg when I came across this hat… As I was photographing this hat a man came out of a house and told me to “mind my business”… Which I did… It wasn’t until later that I realized this was a meeting point… Some things never change…

Drug dealers don’t keep their drugs and guns at home with them, they often stash them nearby in a vacant house or yard. If you ever find one of these stashes, “DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING!!!” 9 out of 10 times you ARE BEING WATCHED, they do not stray far from the stash. Your best chance of leaving this situation with your life is to walk away like you saw nothing, I would forget I ever saw it and if anything tell someone else what you saw and let them call the police. Basically I am saying if you ever find yourself in this situation the most important thing is to get as far away, as quickly as possible. What you do from that point forward is on you, but your physical safety should be considered.

Animals can also be a serious problem with dogs being the most common, and often the most dangerous. I have always had an unexplainable thing with animals and rarely have problems, but it does happen. Dogs are almost always curious animals that don’t want to hurt you, extreme home environments are the problem. Starvation, neglect, fighting, abuse and torture of dogs does happen, this can turn an otherwise friendly dog into a killing machine.

If you encounter an animal in this condition after you secure your own life you need to report it to the police, they can handle it. Mace can be a good dog deterrent, and is rather effective on humans as well. I was planting pumpkins in the backyard of the house across the street, I heard the barking before I even saw it. The biggest, scariest pit bull I have ever seen was hauling ass right towards me, I spent the next two hours chain-smoking cigarettes locked in the kitchen of an abandoned house.

Hypodermic needles can also be commonplace, with blight comes pain. Never ever touch a used needle, if you have to do it, wear protection. If finding needles becomes commonplace, talk to a doctor or hospital and acquire a used needle box with a safety lid. Paramedics and police will respond when called about a dirty needle, they have the equipment needed to recover used needles. Basically the safest thing you can do is dial “911″, they would rather pick up a needle than pick you up after stabbing yourself.

In closing I just want to stress how important being aware of your surroundings at all times is, this WILL save your life. The boy scouts have a motto “Always Be Prepared” that I think applies nicely here, keep your head up. Guerilla gardeners fight blight with beauty, wherever there is vacant land you will find us in one form or another.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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