Rewards for Gardening in Public Spaces

In a public relations coup, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (Metro) gave a certificate of appreciation to a man who voluntarily planted flowers in flower boxes that the agency had been neglecting for years at the Dupont Circle MetroRail station. I’m sorry, did I say “certificate of appreciation”? I meant a letter threatening him with “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he planted any more flowers or tended any of the more than 1,000 flowers he has already planted.

Henry Docter, who styles himself the “Phantom Planter,” says he has planted flowers in public spaces on four continents. Usually, he tries to remain anonymous, but in this case he feared Metro would mistake his flowers for weeds and poison them. So he wrote a letter telling Metro about the flowers and offered to weed, water, and tend them.

Metro says it is merely worried about liability, but Docter says he is willing to sign a waiver. Embarrassed officials say they probably should have left “the word ‘imprisonment'” out of their letter, but that still leaves “arrest and fines.”

“In retrospect, it was a mistake to ask for permission,” says Docter now, adding that he has previously planted flowers at that location and Metro never noticed.

In other news, the NSA has announced that it is monitoring Docter’s telecommunications and the Obama administration is ready to call in a drone strike if he is discovered to be planting any more flowers on public property.


29 thoughts on “Rewards for Gardening in Public Spaces

  1. OFP2003

    “Worried about Liability” those horrible words that took see-saws off the playgrounds and has taken all sorts of fun games, hobbies, traditions away from our culture. It seems to be the default response of our society in dealing with change… change from any direction.

  2. OFP2003

    So they aren’t worried about the liability of not installing barriers at the single most dangerous point in the whole WMATA system (that would be the edge of the train platform) but they are worried about a fellow hurting himself by planting some flowers in planters??

  3. bennett

    I think it’s safe to say that some people at Metro took the action personally and their reaction defies all logic. One thing we can be sure of is it’s not about safety.

  4. bennett

    Also, this Phantom Planter guy is awesome. Chalk this up to one of the greatest hobbies I’ve ever heard of, and by all accounts he’s doing it for the right reasons.

  5. Dan

    I had some fellow students from Berlin do a project on the guerilla gardeners in Berlin, pretty cool. I also like a campaign in Madrid that is trying to beautify an area that was abandoned after the bubble burst.

    People are railing against inaction all over the world!


  6. Frank

    “In retrospect, it was a mistake to ask for permission”

    When dealing with government, the old adage comes to mind: “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” When I do some rogue crosswalk painting this summer, I shore ain’t gonna write a letter to the city asking for permission.

  7. metrosucks

    From Gary North:

    North’s first law of bureaucracy: “Some bureaucrat will eventually enforce the letter of a law to the point of utter foolishness.”

  8. letsgola

    Safety and security are, of course, the go-to defenses for all this type of nonsense.

    But the real tell is this quote: “It’s sort of beyond the scope of what you would imagine some private citizen would do”. Imagine that, a private citizen giving a crap about his neighborhood. And he ain’t even getting paid to do it!

  9. Fred_Z

    Up here in Calgary Canada we have little quasi-private gardens on public lands. The city built a bunch of large soil boxes about 5 x 10 feet here and there throughout the city. The ones I see frequently on the grounds of a local library branch.

    At first I was opposed to it as another waste of taxpayer money. Now I’m in favour of it as a valuable education in both the tragedy of the commons and the follies of environmentalism.

    It is a pleasure to see the anguished and / or threatening signs posted by the gardening hippies as a result of stolen produce. The almost insane expense and efforts taken to protect against bugs and disease is also amusing. The salutary sight dead and dying plants, killed by bugs, inappropriate and downright stupid application of chemicals or the planting of plants with no hope of survival here warms the cockles of my eevil right wing heart.

    I also enjoy greatly the hippies’ desultory and incompetent efforts to protect the plants and harvest from non-human thieves. We have recently had an influx of jack-rabbits, we often get mule deer wandering in for night time raids and bent chicken wire does not even slow them down. Right now there’s even a sign threatening “bunny” with prosecution, a hopeless bit of despairing humor.

    By August most of the gardens are failed wastelands of weeds and the dashed dreams of ignorant and innumerate hippies.

    I expect the protagonist in this story does better, but he’s a rare bird.

  10. Dan

    By August most of the gardens are failed wastelands of weeds and the dashed dreams of ignorant and innumerate hippies.

    I know hippie-punching is an important identifier and bona fide in some circles (and what would we call young cons trying to figure out their phone or the barista machine is a legitimate question), but nevertheless the fact that we have forgotten how to grow food isn’t something for self-satisfied sneering, but instead is something for reflection and concern. Especially since the personal responsibility crowd should be cheering the initial attempts at self-sufficiency…



  11. Fred_Z

    I’m far, far from young. I know your bio and I’m much older than you.

    And I know how to grow food. My wife and I have extensive gardens where we grow what we cannot get in grocery stores: vegetables that taste like what they ought to.

    I don’t punch hippies, I mock them, in what I hope is a humorous way, so as to help them see the light. You lefties sure do see violence everywhere, don’t you? Better see a doc about that, you might actually punch a conservative some day.

    Especially I mock incompetent efforts to grow food, the idea that any untrained fool can do so because of the purity of his motives (a common lefty idea, right Mr. Pureheart Planner?) and the idea that sequestering public property for private purposes is a good idea.

    None of what you support in your posts today is self sufficiency, it’s just vanity and posturing. And funny. The idea of some transplanted American hippies in Berlin planting potatoes in abandoned shopping carts and wheeling them into the Alexanderplatz is hilarious. I note from that these two idiots are “urban planner Lynn Peemoeller … and fellow American Luisa Greenfield …”. Ah yes, planners, the best of the best.

    Further, I loathe the entire self sufficiency meme. We get wealthy and free by specialization, then trade and by having strong and worthy allies. Self sufficiency is only possible in a pre-historic life – nasty, brutish and short.

  12. Frank

    Oh, Fred_Z, I almost died of laughter reading your posts. Thank you. For me, the hated group is hipsters not hippies. It reminded me of a rant that I wrote a few years ago when I lived in Portland. I’m reposting here because you’ve so inspired me. Here it is with photos of the “garden” linked at the bottom:


    (in case you haven’t been following, my wife and i live in a 1927 duplex. we got new neighbors in september.)

    DISCLAIMER: This is a whiny, bitchy, curse-laden rant. Read at your own risk.

    my 21 year old neighbor is an idiot. i hate everything about her. her stupid, incessant stoner laugh that resonates through the walls and sticks my spine like a needle. her hipster clothes, which she probably shelled out big money for at some hipster vintage store. her inexperience. the fact that on her first night in the ‘plex, she and her hipster neighbors ran drunkenly through all levels of the house, hooping and hollering.

    now she’s gone and dug a mudhole “garden” in the back yard. she and a friend destroyed a 15′ by 10′ section of the yard. my neighbor (we’ll call her, i don’t know, laura) was using a square bladed hoe to cut up the grass, and her girlfriend used a regular shovel to dig the “garden” area deeper and deeper. she removed all the topsoil and threw it on top of the yard debris pile that i was in the process of removing.

    laura and her friend stopped to take pictures of their heroic efforts to totally f— up the back yard. i’m sure they’ll be on facebook or myspace–probably both. “oh, look at us! we’re gardening! we’re green hipsters!” f— you.

    i’m really surprised one of them didn’t loose a foot or at least a toe the way laura was swinging that hoe. and how close they were together. i don’t think she’s ever lifted a garden tool before living here. anyway, all they had to do was cut the turf with a spade and peel it up. no need to dig halfway to china. no need to remove so much topsoil.

    now it’s going to rain for ten days, and that “garden”, which is uneven and has DEEP trenches, is going to be a huge, sopping-wet mudhole. oh, and before all this, laura put down newspapers over the grass to try to kill it. she and her friend threw the newspapers aside and then covered them with dirt! and high winds have strewn pieces of newspaper all over the backyard.

    it’s a bigfatmess and i’m glad to be moving NEXT weekend.

    hallelujah! our own house with no shared walls, no shared parking, no shared yard!

    Photo 1

    Photo 2

    Photo 3

  13. Dan

    FredZ, let’s try again:

    I know it is de rigeur to punch hippies, and you’ve established your bona fides beyond doubt.

    But how cool and authentic that bona fide ritual is is not the point. What is the point? The point is: I know lots of white con kids whose church-going white con parents gave them a nice trust fund (trust fundies) who can’t grow food either. They can’t cope outside of the garden. That is: what you describe is not confined to drrty stinkin’ libruls. It describes 90% of the population, including patriotic white con people.

    Nevertheless, I do admit the authenticity of your typing certainly is reflective of a certain age group and ideology, and well done at establishing that and the clear communication! Please proceed.


    Again, back to the point of the post, and using the oh-so-authentic Fred argument as a segue (thanks Fred!!!!!1!!!!!):

    We all know that there are plenty of well-intentioned folks who can’t pull it off. My current favorite is the guerilla orchardists in SFO, grafting fruit onto street trees (!). It’s a nice idea but in 5 years I’ll wager it’ll be a cock-up. I understand how folks in charge of something don’t want the short attention-spanned to do their well-intentioned plans on public property.

    Not sticking up for the over-reaction, but as Fred shows us, probably not the best idea to let average folks go crazy on taxpayer property. Guerrilla gardeners can be fun. Not all of them will succeed, and some will be destructive.



  14. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Metro says it is merely worried about liability, but Docter says he is willing to sign a waiver. Embarrassed officials say they probably should have left “the word ‘imprisonment’” out of their letter, but that still leaves “arrest and fines.”

    Of course, WMATA has its own police force (to enforce laws on its own transit vehicles and on its own property and to provide overall security), and its police can arrest people.

    But beyond that, prosecution and trial is beyond the scope of WMATA’s powers (unique in the United States, the U.S. Attorney acts as the “local” prosecutor in most criminal cases). Any “fines” and “imprisonment” would have to be accepted for prosecution by the U.S. Attorney and then imposed after a conviction in the D.C. Superior Court.

  15. Iced Borscht

    I appreciate that hippies will at least engage in the occasional bit of civil disobedience, whereas the hip backyard fad-gardeners Frank referenced are more likely to put a preachy bumper sticker on their car and call it a day.

    Still, I’m not seeing much civil disobedience among the hippies in recent years either. It used to be, on my lunch hour, I could go watch Tre Arrow proselytize on the ledge of a building with a bucket of his own filth.

    But these kind of hijinks are conspicuous by their absence in recent years.

  16. MJ

    Still, I’m not seeing much civil disobedience among the hippies in recent years either. It used to be, on my lunch hour, I could go watch Tre Arrow proselytize on the ledge of a building with a bucket of his own filth.

    With their guy in office there’s nothing left to protest, is there? Besides, isn’t Tre Arrow in prison?

  17. Iced Borscht

    Tre Arrow ran for mayor of Portland, actually:

    But yes, to your point, with the omnibenevolent halo-wearing president in office, there is nothing left to protest, unless one happens to care about such peripheral non-issues as rapidly eroding press freedoms, secret FISA courts, drones, the Edward Snowden witch hunt, etc.

    No need to care about such trifling issues though, because the president and AG are just nice guys who are anguished by these things, so everything is awesome and GeorgeBushSatanHitler = Kochtopus.

  18. Dan

    It’d be nice to have some civil disobedience against spying on Americans. I don’t know how we get people’s faces out of their phones so there are no data to mine. It’s a good racket – keep them docile with trinkets so they don’t pay attention, and watch them at the same time.


  19. Iced Borscht

    Civil disobedience was on full display last night at the TX Capitol.

    Good, I’d like to order more of that from the menu. Right, left, transpartisan, whatever. I enjoy seeing chaos and discomfort being injected into the worlds of Comfortable, Important People.

  20. Dan

    Civil disobedience was on full display last night at the TX Capitol.

    And good for her. When the wingnut vengeance comes and they redistrict her out of a seat, she may become Gov. I hope so, but won’t wager on it. And it will be harder for some groups to vote for her as well.

    But back to Frank’s point: are average people too incompetent and dirty to garden on public property?


  21. JOHN1000

    Great! So the US Attorney Eric Holder who has been committing crimes and has refused to prosecute real crimes can now find something to do.
    Imprison someone for planting flowers without a permit.

  22. bennett


    The civil disobedience didn’t come at the hands of Wendy, it came at the hands of the public in the gallery. When the senate republicans violated several of their own rules the public started screaming and shouting so loud that no business could get done. The Kept it up from 11:45 to 12:03 effectively killing the bill (for now).

    Wendy pitched a perfect game for 9 innings but it was the people that hit the walk off home run. This of course got the right’s panties in a wad and a republican senator has called those in attendance last night “terrorists.” If he thinks last night was bad, just wait until they try this shit again. The ladies of TX are fed up with the religious zealots in power down here. The actions of those in attendance last night was one of the most incredible political spectacles I have ever seen.

  23. Frank

    “But back to Frank’s point: are average people too incompetent and dirty to garden on public property?”

    Been thinking about this for awhile. Some—many?—people simply do not have the skills, experience, and commitment to garden, whether it’s on private or public land.

    After leaving the duplex, I tried gardening and used references like Square Foot Gardening and Bountiful Container. I ripped up some sod, installed a raised bed pictured here, and created my own soil mixture based on the books’ recommendations. Even though I’d grown up on a farm, there was much I didn’t know about gardening.

    While it was somewhat enjoyable, it certainly wasn’t cost effective or easy, and it was somewhat stressful and a lot of hard work.

    At first the neighbor’s cats used the container as a liter box, so I surrounded the container with chicken wire at some expense. The summer was very dry, and the water bill was very high. This, combined with materials cost, made gardening not cost effective; it’s far cheaper to buy produce, and large-scale production is not only more cost effective but uses resources more efficiently. Whether that’s sustainable is a topic for another conversation.

    On to public space gardening. At the risk of divulging too much private information, I live next to a public space garden, pictured here. This land is actually privately owned, and community members approached the land owner for permission to garden the strip, which was covered in dog crap, litter, dead grass, and weeds. The landowner agreed, and I’m happy because it’s much more pleasant to look out and see sunflowers, poppies, and veges. These people know what they’re doing, and water isn’t a huge problem with a few rain barrels to help get through August. People also bring their own water when necessary.

    This community garden came together organically, although I believe they had to ask the city for permission. Interestingly enough, not far away is a city-managed garden, which I’m told is operated by city bureaucrats who give the best parcels to rich landowners. Said bureaucrats do not like our rogue and real community garden, I’m told, because they see it as competition, and it threatens their power and control.

    So…it is possible for public gardens to work, but good intentions are not enough. For some, like the hipsters I described, it’s just a fad, a photo to post to FB. To be successful, it takes knowledge, skills, experience, commitment, hard work, planning, and resources. For now, because I know what it takes, I’m content to have a dozen plants—mostly flowers and herbs—in pots and planters on my patio. Some day, I would love to be more self-sufficient, as my family used to be on our farm, but as Fred_Z has pointed out, total self-sufficiency is an illusion.

    Please excuse the long and rather egotistical post.

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