Have you heard of guerrilla gardening? Neither had we, but it’s another example of citizens picking up the slack when they become dissatisfied with the job that the government is doing, or isn’t doing. Increasingly, volunteers are organizing to create and maintain landscaping in public areas that governments have allowed to deteriorate.

The movement, which began in New York City in the late 1970’s, is taking off according to a Christian Science Monitor July 8 report, which spotlights a Los Angeles project. However, guerrilla gardening is also a crime in many jurisdictions. An L.A. bureaucrat said it violates a city ordinance and violators can be fined or jailed. There is a procedure for obtaining city approval, but it involves so much paperwork and time that these flower vigilantes simply take the shovel into their own hands.

The law is similar in Houston. Ordinance 32-10 requires any person who wishes to maintain a natural area to submit an application, which does not appear to be online, and obtain a permit. Moreover, Ordinance 32-33 bans walking, sitting, or standing on any flower bed in a park, which might make it hard to garden. Violations of these provisions are Class C misdemeanors.

In Los Angeles, guerrilla gardeners are undeterred, but they are undercover. The crew goes by aliases, and the organizer says “if authorities come by, there’s no leader” and “nobody knows anybody,” even as they plant evidence of their “crimes.”

Governments may have a legitimate need to keep track of landscaping and maintenance, but a simple online form could accomplish this purpose. Until then, garden at your own risk, include a lawyer in your crew, and ponder whether government could be a little smaller if it made volunteering a little easier.

Encouraging, not outlawing, civic participation – whether it is communal gardening, litter pick-ups, or a neighborhood crime watches – doesn’t just save money; it cultivates stronger communities.

– Marc Levin