Guerrilla Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

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Guerrilla Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

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The operation will take only a few minutes. I don my mask and slip the gloves and pruning shears into my back pocket and take to the streets.

Walking briskly, I pass a row of 1900s brownstones, each with a small garden plot in front. On this block the specialty is roses, and every home seems to have a different variety growing. Towards the corner, there is a house with its iron gate ajar, and an overstuffed mailbox by the front door. I had already removed two small bags of garbage and moldering cardboard and a crushed toy fire helmet from the front yard, and also ripped out a row of mugwort that was blocking the big rosebush.

I don’t know what variety they are – a peach-colored hybrid, with massive blooms that bent the rose stalks down. I deadhead the big old roses and the stalks spring up, attempting to gash my face. One does nick my arm, and I wipe the blood off on my mask, not thinking that I have left a red splotch of blood in its center, like a tiny pair of lips.

Pretty soon I have collected about thirty roses – all massive and past their prime and bring them home in a plastic bag I brought with me. I don’t think anyone would mind, and I am sure the person who planted these roses doesn’t mind. A hybrid rose plant like this needs a lot of tending, but the blooms are enormous.

As part of my quarantine routine, I take walks in the early morning. After a while, I got tired of seeing weeds hiding the “nice” plants and began reflexively pulling them. It was fun! Especially after a rainfall, when the weeds pulled out so effortlessly. After a few minutes work I would have a sheaf of shepherd’s purse, lambsquarter and mugwort under my arm. Fortunately, there is always an empty construction yard in our rapidly developing neighborhood, and that’s where most of my weeding crop ends up, lobbed over the green construction fence.

Nobody has ever bothered me, except for the times older women will ask if I eat the weeds. Since the trees planted by the city have little tags on them that give tips on how to take care of them, including one that instructs citizens to keep the tree pits free of weeds, I consider that my carte blanche. “I work for Bette Midler!” I want to tell somebody, but nobody asks.

Some houses show evidence that they were owned by gardeners that took a lot of pride in their plants but abandoned them this year. I see mugwort and lambsquarter cropping up in beds of well-tended plants –gardens that might have received some care earlier in the season but, for some reason, have been untouched these past few months. I reach over and – yank –problem solved. I know they would do it, if they were able.

One home I pass by regularly had an infestation of mugwort that covered some nice lilies and other shrubs. After a few days I had cleared all the mugwort out, and stopped by every so often to rip the tiny mugwort sprouts that persisted – some of the roots are tough, baseball-sized clumps that live for years, and you often find odd things wound up in them like bottle caps and corks.

This past week, our local news had the notice of the death a Haitian doctor in our neighborhood of longstanding repute, who had died of COVID-19. For the obituary, they showed not a photo of the man, but of his doctor’s office, which was the old house where I had been waging my war against mugwort.

So many have died in our neighborhood – so many gentle people who once sunned themselves in front of their houses and apartment buildings and maintained the cheery tradition of saying hello to all neighbors. When they moved here, Flatbush was cheap, and a family from Trinidad or Guyana could buy decent homes for an affordable price, in what was then a highly unfashionable neighborhood. The untended gardens of my older neighbors are hard to miss, when you know what to look for.

“Maybe they just went out of state, you don’t know,” say my kids, when I showed them the peach-colored rose bush I had been surreptitiously tending. They were horrified, and nervous that I was breaking a law. My daughter even closed and latched the small iron gate, while sternly looking at me, warning that I could get arrested, or worse.

But I’ll be back. Those roses need me.
Associate Director of Research, Brooklyn College Foundation

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