They garden in public places with, and sometimes without, permission.
Without permission, it could just be “John,” the Williamson Street neighborhood’s “guerrilla gardener,” planting sunflower seeds along the bicycle path or filling that tree-line gap with a plan-appropriate sapling.
It could be Keedo Beebe, a shy, scarfed woman who has methodically established a tangled hosta and wildflower greenway, without official permission, along a hidden Yahara River path.
Facing a perennial problem of finance, meanwhile, the city encourages plant caretakers in 50 parks with a program that supplies everlasting gratitude and a small amount of money in exchange for volunteers who nurse, mulch, plant, weed and design flower beds and plants.
True “guerrilla gardening” — planting in a public place, where one doesn’t have permission — is difficult to confirm and by nature is secret. It’s also illegal, although the city prefers to educate residents rather than enforce a $500 fine for violating tree planting rules, said George Hank, the city’s director of building inspection.
Guerrilla gardeners have their own code of conduct, said John, the East Side guerrilla gardener who the State Journal is not identifying because he also is a volunteer gardener with the city and does not want to lose that position.
“My thought is always that people not mess with other people’s gardens,” John said. “There are so many places that need attention around this city.”
He started late night gardening in 1998, when he noted the medians and terrace in his neighborhood had lost trees.
“So when the bars would get rowdy at 1 a.m. and wake me up, I would go out and dig a hole and plant a tree. I had been trying to arrange to have those trees replaced through the city, but it can take a lot of time and no one came through. I put trees in places where there had been trees, I fertilized and watered,” he said.
John also planted prairie plants, and sprinkled sunflower seeds on re-graded ground along a popular East Side bicycle path, a guerrilla project taken up by another, he noticed.
Since 1980 Beebe has lived on Merry Street, a one-block street off Winnebago Street where the rough and wet and tangled back yards front the east bank of the Yahara River.
Before she retired, she worked a 4 p.m. to midnight shift as janitor, but “I liked getting up bright and early and doing stuff,” and so did her mother, who lived with her. What they liked to do best was garden, so they scavenged plants, and planted them. Though the space along the river is park, there is little traffic and the one-block-long area is secluded, presided over by corkscrew willows and one of the city’s tallest cottonwood trees.
Beebe and her friends, without permission, have rescued, replanted, tended and kept watch over that little wet pathway.
“Why not? I like to go out and plant things, it’s what my mom and I liked to do,” is her explanation.
Longtime landscape and garden designer Tibi Light, of Fine Gardening and Design, knows several guerrilla gardeners and confesses to spreading the color herself, especially if she has plants or seeds leftover from a project.
“I know some people who go out along the highways and plant daffodils and tulip bulbs. They will take a strip of highway they are particularly fond of and sneak something alongside it they like. They call it ‘random acts of beauty,’ ” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me that there are lots of people who don’t think twice about it.”
The efforts of the anonymous tree planter off Willy Street, the scarfed lady on Merry Street, the roadside daffodil bulb planter, even the hundreds of volunteers in city parks, have their roots in an unheralded Madison guerrilla gardener whose efforts probably will not be recognized, or even noticed, for years.
That would be Cornelius Cooke, perhaps Madison’s most peripatetic and long-lasting guerrilla gardener. Cooke, who died in the fall, lived in a dilapidated Winnebago, which he parked near the Vilas Zoo and drove seasonally between Florida and Madison. He spent 30 summers walking through Madison parks.
After he died, a friend said Cooke always kept in his pockets a little trowel and a few walnuts, which he planted on his walks.