Resistance is Fertile
In the Trenches with a Guerilla Gardener
Frank Snapp, who gave up his car a few years ago, does a lot of walking. As he traverses the city, he is constantly scanning, looking for opportunities in places few of us pay much attention to: a patch of dirt by the freeway, a vacant lot, even the narrowest cracks in the city’s concrete armor. These are the porous zones, ground fertile for revolution. If all goes according to Snapp’s plan, sometime this spring a series of floral time bombs will explode across North Oakland, releasing blinding color, potent fragrance and, most importantly, biomass.
Snapp, 41, is a guerrilla gardener. He advocates a revolutionary movement to save the planet from its gravest threat: global climate change. “I was doing landscaping for the last 20 years, but I found that I wasn’t really changing anything in the system. I wasn’t being as irritating as I like to be!” says Snapp, who roamed the streets this past winter, spreading a little biomass, one seed at a time. Deforestation and sprawling cities are major causes of rising CO2 because of the absence of plants and trees that suck carbon from the air. Although wildflowers are far smaller carbon-binders than trees, Snapp believes they more than make up for their puny size by getting into people’s psyches, reminding them of the beauty and fragility of the natural environment.
As we walk along a hectic commercial strip near 40th and Broadway, Snapp points out alleys, previously unused planters and gaps in the sidewalk where his subversion is already taking root. The beauty of his tactic is its simplicity. Because wildflower seeds need exposure to the sun to germinate, he rarely even turns the soil; just a few seeds scattered on top will do the trick.
Three years ago, Snapp commandeered a median strip on 40th Street between Shafter Avenue and Opal Street. If, while traveling along 40th, you’ve noticed a boisterous collection of flowers, grasses, succulents and trees barely contained by the sea of asphalt, then Snapp’s handiwork is already germinating in your subconscious. In a space 180 feet long and less than 3 feet wide in places, Snapp has managed to establish a home for more than 300 species. The medians on the adjoining blocks offer a stark contrast. One features a row of identical trees, resembling the backdrops that cycle past in old cartoons, and the other is completely barren, which was the state of Snapp’s median when he began. Years of herbicide use had left the soil toxic and devoid of nutrients. Snapp dug in without waiting for an official nod, eager to find a home for the many orphan plants rescued from his former job at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. “I believe in starting things without permission. There is no time for bureaucracy,” he says, though he eventually registered the garden as an official Adopt-A-Spot, so that city employees wouldn’t weed-whack it.
Walking gingerly to avoid stepping on plants or into passing vehicles, Snapp points out specimens originating everywhere from Africa to Australia, making it clear that he is no native-species purist. Instead, he has staked out a position he believes is more realistic given the amount of environmental change humans have already wrought. Native species might not survive future conditions. “The climate here will be warming in ways that we’ve never experienced, producing summer rains,” Snapp says. “The chemistry of the rains will be more acidic, and I’m not sure all native plant species can handle that.” He expects a future in which responsible humans will have to play a role not unlike Noah and the Ark. “This is a very rare climate. We are able to grow about 8,000 different species. We have the responsibility to preserve the DNA.”
A passing pickup truck slows and the driver yells, “When are you going to get rid of all this junk and put in some asphalt like it ought to be!” Snapp howls with laughter. “That’s Charles, he’s a friend of mine.” The real feedback Snapp gets is generally positive, though there have been a few snipes in a neighborhood online chat group. “Usually it’s just people who want it to be green all year round, or who don’t like the clutter.” It turns out that horticultural clutter has a purpose. The trees and taller plants provide shade for the more sun-sensitive species. “It just seems that things that are diverse work better. I’m very anti-monoculture because it’s not sustainable. When plants are appropriate to a site then they work together,” explains Snapp.
To describe his criteria for appropriate plant choices, he has coined a new term: thrival. Qualifying thrival species can be natives or non-invasive non-natives, but they need to be able to survive and thrive with little water, fertilizer or other intervention. In the Bay Area, where microclimates can change from block to block, knowing the conditions for thrival is complex. “Gardens are always experiments in progress, don’t let anyone tell you different,” says Snapp.
A guerrilla gardener’s work is never done, and when he needs a break from the median strip he goes back to the wildflower project, which requires only tossing seeds. Just don’t call him a modern Johnny Appleseed. “Some of my friends joke about that, but I don’t get it. He was a monoculturist.”
E-mail Frank Snapp at email@example.com.
E-mail Matt Dibble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—By Matt Dibble