Here's how the story goes: A young monk in China spent months climbing mountains and crossing rivers to reach the monastery of a holy woman he had heard about. When he finally got there, two acolytes ushered him into a beautiful waiting room. There he sat for hours. Halfway into the next day he demanded to be taken to a bathroom. The response: "Wait." He asked again. "Wait." Finally he peed into the corner of the room. Hearing him, one of the acolytes rushed in and grabbed him, shouting, "This is a holy place!" The monk stared back. "You show me a place that isn't holy, and I'll pee there."
"He stays." It was the teacher.
In the Buddhist tradition, every place is a holy place. Period. Your garden. My garden. Your compost pile. My compost pile. Your garbage dump. My garbage dump. To honor this teaching, when I lived in Detroit, we used to build stupas all over the city. The most simple version was a pile of rocks with the largest one on the bottom. The more the rocks looked like frisbees, the higher the stupa. We put them along shores of polluted rivers, on sidewalks where people had been shot, beside the meditation path in the abbey's back yard. Later, as a landscaper, I'd tuck stupas into the corners of client gardens to thank the earth for providing me with a livelihood.
Then I discovered guerilla gardening. In guerilla gardening, activists with a green thumb will grow plants or even whole crops on someone else's plot of land in a form of direct, non-violent action. Guerilla gardeners can be found in urban areas around the world — from Africa to South America to Vancouver, B.C. and on both coasts of the United States. Forms range from flower gardens and pots of vegetables to birdhouse installations and seed bombs — condoms filled with seeds and soil that can be lobbed over fences onto abandoned lots. While I've seen gardens that look suspiciously like this form of gardening in Seattle — a field of wild flowers along a superhighway — and in Eugene — a tiny plot of red poppies tucked into street corners along River Road — I don't know if that is what they are. What I do know is that I am both surprised and touched by the splash of color in unexpected places. When I see them, someone, somewhere is saying to me, "Look! Everywhere deserves beauty."
The increasingly official spokesperson for this growing "sport" is Richard Reynolds, author of On Guerilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries. Richard organizes teams of "agents of mass beautification" who often undertake their plantings well after dark. While they plant, they also clean out debris and trash, leaving whole new landscapes in their wake. Most of their efforts focus in and around a neglected neighborhood in London called the Elephant and Castle District. By now Richard has led so many successful projects around the south of London that he has become a consultant to guerilla gardeners around the world, participating in projects in Libya, Berlin, and Montreal, to name a few.
Sometimes guerilla gardening is legal. Sometimes it isn't. If, like me, you've had too many run-ins with the IRS to want to chance interacting with any form of police, there are still beautification projects at your fingertips. I started with a big pot of plants in my building's hallway. That was year one. In year two I cleaned out dead ivy and matted cottonwood tufts from two huge abandoned planters that marked the length of the hallway. In their stead, ferns and hostas, a helleborus and heucheras. For color, impatiens. From there taking on a dried up plot about eight feet long and three feet deep right in front of the building was an obvious next step. It didn't take long for white bacopa surrounded by odds and ends of colorful annuals purchased on sale at the drugstore across the street to transform the look of the place. Total cost to me over the two-year period: maybe $200. True value of the experience given the neighbors I met and all the thank-yous I got: priceless.
Wherever you spend your days could probably use some plants. If you are in an office, this goes double. Offices without plants are sad, sad, sad. And I'm guessing there is someone in your neighborhood who would be happy to have some new plants appear in their yards. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd ask first. Where you go from there probably depends on your relationship with the IRS.