The one secret thing I didn’t tell you about my garden this year is that I engaged in what my friend Becky calls “guerrilla gardening.” Remember those sweet potatoes I planted? Well I ended up having 12 more mail order plants than I had room for, so I decided to plant them randomly in public places to see what would happen.
I live near a fair amount of green space and people in my neighborhood have front yards with all kinds of plants and vegetable gardens. They were tempting as a target, but it is also very urban and populated, so it’s hard to be innocently digging away in a person’s front yard without being noticed, and if it’s after dark, it’s definitely sketchy. And my neighborhood is cool, but I’m pretty sure no one would buy the story that I was planting sweet potatoes. Maybe peas or something, but New England really isn’t known for its sweet potatoes. I could see the case file now.
“The suspect claimed to be planting sweet potatoes, which was clearly a lie. It is a widely known fact that people here don’t plant them. We checked with 4 area garden centers and no one carries the plant. We postulate she is from the south and didn’t realize her lie wouldn’t make sense here. The investigation is ongoing.”
I scouted for several days and settled on 3 different spaces to increase my chances.
The first one was a city-owned newly landscaped bed with just ornamental grass near the train station. I figured it’s just grass so the city was planning on planting and forgetting about it. Plus I don’t really believe the city would weed anyway. The soil was still pretty loose and had wood chip mulch on top to keep in moisture. Check.
The second site was a pile of dark earth next to a community garden for the use of the gardeners. It was pretty much flat by the time I got to it and I thought the plants could hide in plain sight. And maybe even a gardener would recognize them, dig them up and take them inside the locked garden. OK, given what I just said about New England gardeners that’s delusional, but a curious gardener might recognize it as something that’s not a weed. Just sayin’. The pile seemed close enough to the garden entrance to escape the mower. Check.
The third site was truly inspired. There are two community gardens near my house and both are locked and surrounded by a 4-ft high chain link fence. The other one I noticed had a bench on the outside that I could use to climb into the garden more easily. I’d still have to figure out how to climb out, but I’d jump off that bridge when I got to it. I scouted out a plot that seemed to have extra space close to the fence, that would be hidden from the view from the inside. Check.
My sites chosen, my thief’s black bag filled with 12 sweet potato plants and a trowel, I waited until about 10:30 one night to do the dirty deed … of digging dirt.
First stop, landscaped grass garden. I crouched on the edge farthest away from the station, and about 2 feet from the edge in between grass tufts, I quickly dug four holes, forming a square with plants at each corner. Undetected, I planted them and pushed the dirt back and then sneaked off for the second site. Rain was predicted for the next day, so they would get water then.
At the second site, it was late enough that there were only a few people around, and it was far enough away from the main path that no one noticed a person low to the ground. The dirt pile was soft and soon I had 4 more plants tucked in.
Now for the community garden break in. I wasn’t worried about getting caught since 10:30 pm is pretty late to be gardening, but I was worried about scaling the fence. However, I hadn’t considered the more immovable obstacle. People. Specifically, two youngish people making out in the park next to the garden. The park that featured the bench I was going to use to get into the garden. And they were perched right at the park entrance so I couldn’t even get by them. Blast! I know there is a dearth of dark public places to make out, but seriously? This park? Tonight?
But there was no time to have a rant about the obnoxiousness of youth, I had live plant bombs ticking away in my bag! I had to think quickly.
Still stuck on the idea of planting inside a community garden, I went back to the other one with the dirt patch. I do yoga and I can paddle a canoe for 20 miles, but there is something about chain link fences, with their tiny toe holds and pointy tops that give me pause. I did it once long ago taking a shortcut trying to catch a train, and ended up tearing my clothes and gashing my hand, and then trying to look nonchalant, bloody and torn, on the train.
I decided to dig just outside of the fence, and then as the plants grew, push them through the fence and into the garden. A total guerrilla move. I set to work. The dirt was hard-packed and stony, but now I was desperate to get these plants in the ground. Also I thought it would force the roots to seek softer ground just 6 inches away. I truly am delusional. Four hard-earned holes later, they were in. I packed up my tool and headed home, shooting dagger eyes at the still giggling young ones canoodling away near my bench. Ugh, youth.
Now, I waited. I was able visit the plants on my walks to or from work, and I watched them like an anxious mother over her newborn. My sweet potato plants on my deck were taking forever to show any signs of growth, so I wasn’t worried when the guerrilla plants also seemed to be slow to grow.
The first disappointment came soon. I walked by to see my 4 babies in the dirt pile next to the community garden cut down by the mower. I had really been counting on the city workers’ laziness, but who knew, they actually do their jobs. How disappointing. So it’s partially on me to better understand the hazards and work habits of Boston city park staff.
This should have foreshadowed for me what would come next, but I was still full of the hope of a new gardening season. Even as the squirrels began to ransack the sweet potatoes on my deck, I knew I had these guerrilla babies as my secret weapon.
The ones in the landscaped grass garden were hanging tough and 3 of them seemed to be growing. Until the day I came by and they were all gone, yanked out by those damn city workers doing their jobs. Who weeds an ornamental grass garden? I wanted to weep, but I still had one group left.
And they were doing well. They were close enough to the fence to escape the mower (which was done faithfully every couple of weeks). Then one day I saw 3 of them had been chewed down to nothing. As if the squirrel attack on my deck weren’t bad enough, now they were taunting me here.
And then there was one. I pushed its growing stem through the fence and hoped for the best. At first it was the only green thing by the fence, but there were other plants in rows in the plot, so it didn’t stand out too much. Then something uncanny happened. Climbing plants (I discovered they were green beans) started to grow along the fence and soon covered it. The little sweet potato plant who could was completely hiding in plain site!
Their leaves looked so closely alike, I had a harder and harder time finding the sweet potato stem. When I did spot it, I followed it up the fence, and then also saw a long shoot creeping among the tomato plants.
I was elated, and the Mary Tyler Moore show theme popped in my head — “You’re gonna make it after all!” This could actually work! It was late August and there was still a month and a half of good weather to make a potato.
But before I could toss my 70s beret into the air, disaster stuck! Or rather the squirrels struck. I checked my little plant and saw this. Chewed right through and severed from the happy trailing vines inside. They had 20 other plants to chew on and they picked mine. Little varmints.
I thought I would have to get in there to see if there were any potatoes, even little ones, but a friend said to wait a few days. He’d read they were pretty hardy, so maybe the plant would survive. Heartbroken, I waited. And then within a week, a small miracle happened, a new leaf!
I mean who needs the highs and lows of drugs when you have guerrilla sweet potatoes? More leaves appeared and the weather held. Sweet potatoes are not frost resistant, but I wanted to give them as long as possible.
In early October I saw that the plot was slowly being tidied up, and the bean plants had been taken down. If I wanted to get any potatoes I needed to act soon. I ran out of evenings, and a rainy cold week was predicted, so I decided to be bold and go on a Sunday afternoon, hoping the early bird gardeners would have come on Saturday. I mean they’re urban farmers, so early to rise and all that, right?
I checked the outside of the fence first, and saw this — my sweet baby dug up and left for dead. Seemed like the work of the squirrels again. A line from Frost popped into my head:
Something there is that doesn’t like a wall, or in this case, a potato plant.
I’d come at the right time. I’d read that potatoes are easily damaged, and are close to the surface, so you have to be careful when you dig them up. Like an archaeologist, I opted for a spoon rather than my trowel. You know, so I wouldn’t damage all those sweet potatoes that had grown in rocky soil, and were gnawed at by squirrels. Delusional to the last, at least I’m consistent.
Clinging to hope, I carefully dug into the dirt outside the fence. It was pretty loose, but I couldn’t even find the root of the pulled up plant. A dog came over to investigate bringing with it 2 people. I forced my best “Hi and too busy to talk” smile, and luckily they kept moving. When it was clear there were no potatoes outside, I stood up, stretched my legs, walked around to the entrance, and considered the fence. As I took a closer look at the lock, I realized the chain was only loosely around the gate and that even locked, it opened wide enough to slip through. A lucky break!
If anyone came and asked me, I’d say I’d had a senior moment and forgot the combination. I mean that very well could be true. Plus, I was counting on the fact that having gardening gloves and, well, a spoon made me looked like I belonged, if a tad eccentric. I wasn’t sure if gardening people are as obnoxiously friendly as dog people are with other dog people, but just in case and they felt like chatting more, I planned to say I was a friend of the gardener and she (taking a guess, but what are the chances they would know the person who used the plot?) let me plant a few things.
Looking up from time to time to see if anyone was coming, I dug quickly along the fence on the inside. Several feet along the fence and a foot into the garden, I dug and dug, and then checked again. I could tell I had gotten here before the gardener, and I wondered what she would think (she was now a she in my mind) of this freshly dug earth near the fence? Maybe she had a history with squirrels too. It was the only fun thought I had because there was nothing. No potatoes.
I tidied my dirt pile and slipped out of the locked gate and headed home. When I got home I reexamined the plant, and without any facts or reality to hinder me, I decided that this little knob, was trying to be a potato and just didn’t have the things it needed.
It turns out I was just in time. One week later, I saw this — she had put the whole plot to bed, the first one in the garden to do it! Like none of us were ever there.
And that is my tale of how my crime didn’t pay, but I’m already scouting out new sites, thinking about how to get into the garden again. Put what I’ve learned to good use. There is always next year.
Yesterday I went to a local farm stand for apples — I may as well enjoy some kind of fall bounty, even if it isn’t mine. And I was gratified to see they had also grown sweet potatoes, and most of them were the size of fingerlings. These were the biggest of the bunch. I know it’s possible and this guerrilla gardener will strike again.