Human Flower Project

Avant-Garde with Ironweed

Pro seedsman Allen Bush goes underground (or at least he hopes so) tossing out seed along the alleys of Louisville, Kentucky.


The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh (after Millet), 1888

Image: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

By Allen Bush

I sow garden-collected seeds along forgotten patches of back alleys within a few miles of my home, secretly. I fly below the radar in summer and fall, dressed in cargo pants, carrying a paper bag full of tomfoolery. “Where did the giant ironweed come from?”  No one has yet asked – as far as I know.

It’s still the dead of winter. I won’t know for months whether the paw paws or the Joe-Pye weeds will pop-up.  On the front street the shrubs get clipped like poodles; out back along our alley and hundreds of others in Louisville, it’s a no man’s land. I am not alone in garden mischief. 

Richard Reynolds has made mischief a career. He is the author of On Guerilla Gardening, A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.

imageReynolds makes his manifesto clear in the first two lines of the book’s introduction: “Four years ago I became a guerilla gardener. I stepped out into the world to cultivate land wherever I liked. The mission was to fight the miserable flowerbeds around the neighbourhood.”  Think anarchy for green space. 

The book is divided into two parts: The Movement and The Manual. “My crime was gardening on public land without permission and battling whatever was in the way.” His worldwide gardening comrades have coded “troop numbers” to protect their identities. We are introduced to Ava 949, from San Diego, who, ”…seed bombed a ten mile stretch of Imperial Avenue…by lobbing self-contained fertile projectiles out from her car window.” Nisha 3057 in Mumbai, Lucy 579 in south London, Julie 013 in Berlin, Michael 1169 in Tokyo get in on the fun, too.

Reynolds tries to reinvigorate the “seeds of revolution” and ”reaping the fruits of destruction,” invoking names of old warriors Emilano Zapata, Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. He acknowledges that the big names often fall short of their lofty goals.  The premise for all three was “libertad and tierra” (freedom and land) but gardens and farms—much less revolutions—are not easy to maintain.


“Marching in Step Leads to Victory” - Mao lays down the Three Main Rules of Discipline beside a good looking clump of bamboo in Shatien, Kueitung County, Hunan Province

Painting by Kao Hung, Peng Pin and Ho Kung-teh, via massline

Mao branded private landowners as counter-revolutionaries during The Great Leap Forward, and stood by while 35 – 40 million Chinese died in the famine of 1958 – 1961.  (Vita Sackville-West and Christopher Lloyd, renowned for their English gardens—Sissinghurst and Great Dixter —were change agents, too. Both might have applauded Reynolds’s spirit but would understand that no good garden gets done on drive-by alone. Would Reynolds view their gardens – and garden writing—as groundbreaking or entitlements for the privileged?)

He writes, “I shall not bore on about how beautiful plants are – just go and look at some, listen to some (or talk to some). They are a gardener’s palette, and guerillas paint with them beyond the edge of the permitted canvas.” On the Guerilla Gardening Facebook page Richard Reynolds has written,  “Whether you’re making a place more beautiful, more edible, more fragrant, more bio diverse, more friendly, more thought provoking or all of that.” Hasta la victoria siempre Richard Reynolds!

Beth Chatto and J.C. Raulston, two of my favorite garden revolutionaries, have worked the edges.  I’ll never forget Beth Chatto’s 1978 lecture at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The author and award winning nurserywoman gathered a large bucket of garden perennials—fresh cut from the Order Beds—in the late afternoon, ahead of her evening talk to Kew’s Mutual Improvement Society (Reynolds has lectured here, too). Before a packed audience in the Jodrell Lecture Theatre, she patiently put flowers into a large garden vase—one flower and then another. While creating the beautiful arrangement, and with no hesitation, she eloquently described the garden needs of each specimen. 

Chatto’s Essex gardens are masterful, too. Her sceee gardens, so ideally suited for dry summers, have been a great influence on the growing interest in xeric plants and dry land gardens.

imageVernonia gigantea (giant ironweed) and Smallanthus uvedalius (hairy leaf cup), revolutionaries in Louisville, KY, August 2010

Photo: Allen Bush

J. C. Raulston has a connection to Kew, too. He got caught stealing cuttings there. It was an embarrassing moment for one of the United States’ most charismatic teachers and renowned gardeners.  (Petty larceny –  pocketed seeds and cuttings, anyway - is an anarchical act that is surprisingly common among gardeners who presume that all gardens are, in some way, public domain.) Raulston started the Raleigh, N.C. State University Arborteum that now bears his name. His influence stretches far and wide from Plant Delights Nursery to the Linwood (New Jersey) Arboretum.

Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, has been on the long march, too. The Milwaukee community farmer and “genius grant recipient” —from the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation —said, “What encourages and inspires me in the progress of this good food movement is that more young people have embraced farming. More people of color have also been willing to enter agriculture once again. However, to truly change our food system, we must have 50 million new people growing food in their local communities. This will take time and patience is one of the keys, but we must commit to action now.”

imageThe barricade in winter, Louisville alleyway

Photo: Allen Bush

My ammo is handpicked from my wealth of homegrown perennials, grasses and woody seeds. I won’t be recognized like graffiti artists—Basquiat, Haring or Banksy.  I don’t have a signature calling card.  There’s no economic gain – no hidden marijuana plants (Kentucky’s number one cash crop, much of it grown in national forests); no Johnny Appleseed motive (he produced hard cider). Louisville alleys are overgrown with bush honeysuckles, English ivy and hackberries. The manicured streetscapes out front get fussed over, while the back becomes a Darwinian roll of the dice. The birds, squirrels and the four winds drop seed, so why can’t I? I have only spread seeds! I haven’t tilled or stuck a spade in the ground and haven’t trespassed. I’m afflicted with the Millet syndrome, a sweeping hand motion – a peculiar condition –  seen by no one, the consequences entangled with biological process. 

Seedlings of my northern sea oats, hairy leaf cup or ironweed haven’t raised any eyebrows the last two years. But how would I know? If my handiwork were to become a nuisance to anyone (seeds would have to germinate , first– a small 1-3% likelihood on bare, unturned ground,) a little weedeating (easier than sandblasting spray-paint from adjacent walls) would be all that’s needed.  Pity it would come to anyone’s attention. I like my little secret.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/26 at 12:50 PM


Allen: if I lived in Louisville, I’d join you in sowing. 

Have you heard of The Pothole Gardener?  Guerilla gardening in potholes!

Posted by Georgia on 01/27 at 08:37 AM

Come on down, Georgia! Besides alley-seeding, we’ll have plenty of potholes to fill after this winter.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/27 at 02:53 PM

sow on brother.

Posted by Victor Gordon on 01/31 at 03:58 PM

Here’s a recipe up your alley Allen:

Posted by Georgia on 02/01 at 08:58 PM
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