With their bike trailer and their bright orange “Let’s do this” buckets, Brian Burke and Hannah Peterson are a magnet for confused glances from the people they pass as they lug water from a drinking fountain to a small strip of land behind Vernon Street Studios. It’s a scorching August day, and they’re covered in sweat as they make multiple trips to and from the fountain, their trailer laden with four five-gallon buckets of water.
This isn’t the first afternoon they’ve repeated this trek, and it’s not the first time a skeptical passerby has wondered what they’re doing. Burke was once approached by a woman who had a theory of her own.
“She was like, ‘Can I ask you what you guys do with the water? Honestly, we thought you guys were, like, a hipster fire department,’” he laughs. “But from their point of view, I mean, we go to a water fountain—a proper drinking fountain—and it’s in the park,” Peterson adds, grinning. “People have no idea what we’re doing. I would wonder, too.”
They’re not a hipster fire department—Peterson jokes that their methods are barely suitable for what they’re actually doing, which is watering a 5-foot-by-50-foot garden perched above the old train station at Central Street. They “adopted” the weedy patch of land last March and spent the summer of 2015 tending to an array of flowers and vegetables.
“This was a scary sight when we started,” says Burke. “I mean, it was a really rough looking spot.”
“There was trash, just, everywhere,” Peterson concurs. “Weeds and a bunch of trash. The first day we spent just cleaning.” Not the types to be deterred by a few broken bottles and cigarette butts, the two saw potential in this sliver of land. It’s one of the few unused spaces in the city that gets light all day, and as they dug through the debris, Burke and Peterson found things they could actually use: pipes buried in the soil that they repurposed as a frame for the garden, gates that once led to the train station below that have become a trellis. The small piece of land eventually yielded a healthy garden. As last summer drew to a close, the pair harvested zucchini, herbs, sunflowers and tomato plants that they shared with friends and neighbors.
Peterson says they spent the season waiting to get yelled at, for someone to tell them to pack up their water buckets and garden somewhere else. But the worst reaction they got was mild bemusement. Burke still remembers the exchange he had with a confused police officer as he tended their plot on a warm summer evening early last year:
“Do you work here?”
“Are you getting paid to do this?”
“Then why the hell would you do this?”
Burke and Peterson aren’t the first to see potential in an unused Somerville space and make it their own. In fact, they’re just two of a growing number of renegade gardeners putting down roots in unclaimed plots throughout the city. Local artist Janet Campbell has been tending her own pair of flourishing gardens along the Community Bike Path since 2012. She didn’t even know how to garden before planting there. “It was just one of those things I wanted to do before I die,” she says. Today, hydrangeas, nasturtiums, yarrow, hostas, begonias, ferns and many, many more plants bloom next to the path. “And they all have stories,” Campbell says. “That’s the thing.”
The Concord Ave Community Space—now a more than fifty-person strong organization—also got its start as a guerrilla garden. Years ago, organizer Shana Berger noticed a vacant lot at the corner of Concord and Webster Avenues in Union Square. After doing a little digging, she learned that the land was privately held and reached out to the owner, who said it was fine if people wanted to plant there. Thus, a community space was born.
“I just went and did a bunch of door knocking in the neighborhood and got people together,” Berger says. She and her neighbors built raised beds, and the group and garden have grown each year since 2013. All are welcome to attend Concord Ave’s movie screenings and other events; the front gate is adorned with a hand-painted sign reading “grow with us” that’s translated into several different languages. “I live on the street where it is, and I’ve gotten to know a ton of my neighbors because of it,” Berger says. “It’s a great community-building space.”
Even the gardens that aren’t formal community organizations foster neighborhood ties. Burke and Peterson didn’t know each other when they started planting their space; Burke was on his back porch, which overlooks the garden, when he first spotted Peterson with a handful of flowers. He came downstairs, struck up a conversation and learned that she, too, was new to Somerville. “It’s been a great way to meet people,” says Burke. “I feel like I know so many people on this block now.” They’ve even learned about their neighborhood from some of the long-time residents who periodically drop by to check out the planting progress.
“Did you know? I just found this out the other day,” Peterson says, turning to Burke. “Bruce—one of the people who frequents the garden—he started the Garment District! He’s the one who told us that this used to be a train station.”
For its part, the city tends to look the other way when it comes to these semi-public gardens.
“It’s neither encouraged nor is there an official policy forbidding guerrilla gardening,” says Luisa Oliveira, Somerville’s senior planner for landscape design, adding that “unofficial gardens” on public property may be cleared during routine maintenance for a number of reasons. Workers may not realize what they are, and plants are sometimes removed because they block sight lines or because new construction is planned for the space.
Janet Campbell was inspired to start her garden along the Community Path after a patch that had been planted by the Somerville Garden Club was razed by the city, and the Concord Ave Community Space is on a parcel of land that could have been seized during the redevelopment of Union Square. As members of the advocacy group Union United, they’ve worked with the city to have the space preserved as part of the Union Square Neighborhood Plan.
Oliveira, who sympathizes with the growing demand for gardens, says that the city does encourage “landscape stewardship” and that there are several opportunities for community members to enhance open spaces on a more city-sanctioned basis. There’s the Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program, which gives residents agricultural training in exchange for 30 hours of community service. The annual autumn Bulb Blitz invites residents to help plant 3,000 tulips and daffodils in one day, and each April, Somerville celebrates Earth Day with a citywide Spring Cleanup. Somerville also has several community gardens, and the city adds new community plots each time a park is built or renovated, according to Oliveira.
Still, there are a lot of green thumbs clamoring for those shared spaces, which is why Concord Ave Community Space gardeners work with organizations to sponsor beds for people and families of all income levels. Burke and Peterson say that part of the reason they claimed their spot overlooking the train tracks is that they didn’t want to wait. Before they got to it, that stretch of land was unused and ugly, practically begging to be planted. Why wait for a space?
Besides, they say it’s been gratifying to watch a trash-filled patch of dirt that abuts a parking lot become colorful and vibrant. “The first couple of people who went by were like, ‘Oh, good luck with that,’ as we’re, like, picking the glass out,” Burke remembers. But as sunflowers and squash started sprouting in the space, supportive neighbors began donating flowers—or even doing a little planting themselves.
“After a little while,” Burke recalls, “when it started to take shape, people were like, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to do that.’”