Guerrilla gardeners: They give themselves permission to plant


“We sometimes just do it because it needs to be done. We don’t do it for accolades, but we do know that people enjoy it. That is the fun part. It brings pleasure to others. We are the sort of folks who love flowers and want to beautify parts of the city,” said Shawn Bartsh, a self-proclaimed guerrilla gardener.

Bartsh has adopted the planter at her community recreation center in St. Paul, installing colorful flowers there every summer. “No one asked me. I just do it.” In addition to single containers, she has taken on public parkways. “I live close to Mississippi River Boulevard and there was this piece of land that was overgrown. I knew somebody ought to do something about it and it dawned on me that I was somebody. So I just dug in.”

Bartsh has planted many trees around St. Paul, especially around the time her son was born. “He thinks that is cool. He knows where his trees are. The trees will be here years from now and I enjoy thinking about that. [People] will have no clue who planted them, but I will.”

According to Bartsh, flowers and trees add to community, giving people a sense of place-a place she wants to live in and to be a part of. “I think we all have a responsibility to give back and that is one way I do it,” she said. “Sometimes if you don’t go into it thinking about facing a mountain, but instead take it step by step, you can accomplish a lot that way.”

Jeanne Weigum is another “outed” mystery gardener. She and some friends started noticing “sorry areas” quite some time ago. One was the freeway exit ramp at I-94 and Snelling Avenue on Concordia Avenue in St. Paul. “It was littered with grocery carts and bags, fast-food trash from people coming off the freeway, cigarettes and condoms. It was badly overgrown. It didn’t feel safe there.”

Weigum worked through a process with the State of Minnesota to get permission to clean up and garden in this spot. “I didn’t want to put in effort if they were going to plow it over,” she said. “I pay a fee to the St. Paul Water Utility and I can use water from the fire hydrant to water my plants.” Weigum and friends planted perennials, some shrubs and a crabapple tree as a memorial for a friend’s brother. There is no sign marking it but they know it is there.

“The corner is now a place of neighborhood pride as opposed to a scary place. It is a little urban garden in one of the highest trafficked areas in town. Part of the ambience is people’s loud music and skidding brakes but there is a little bit of peace there. [When I’m gardening] people will stop and chat or wave as they go by. It clearly has a beneficial impact on the community. That makes it all worth doing,” Weigum said.

Bartsh has some advice for those wanting to duplicate her efforts:
• Judge your capabilities.
• Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
• Plants need tending. Better to plant just one and make sure it lives.
• Have a long-term commitment.

That and ownership. “A great sense of ownership makes a wonderful place to live,” Bartsh said. “That is what gave me permission. I felt ownership.”

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.