Giving Back to the Earth + Guerilla Gardening

James Lovelock, a scientist and environmentalist whose theories I occasionally raise an eyebrow at, has one really killer quote about the relationship between humans and the Earth: “I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth.” On bad days, I wholeheartedly agree. As a species, we’re not particularly good at acting for the greater good over the longer term. Resources? Use ’em till they’re gone.

However, we’re capable as individuals, if not as a species, of seeing what we take and wanting to give back. The responses to my last post on The Giving Tree suggest that most of us think environmentalism should be about not only reducing our impact, but also acting to create positive changes to foster biodiversity, balance, and sustainability.

I feel like a lot of the popular environmental messages — use reusable bags, switch to CFLs, wash on cold — have gotten a bit bogged down on the reducing impact side. Reducing impact is good; developing the kind of consciousness that will make ubiquitous ’20 easy ways to save the Earth’ type lists totally unnecessary is even better. But at some point, we also need to recognize that we won’t achieve zero impact unless we go back to living like our ancestral apes. (And given our present population, not even then.) However, we might still get the scale to balance if we adopt a more active type of environmentalism that goes beyond our own lives.

Trickier than changing a light bulb, that’s for sure. Especially if you happen to be an introverted homebody who would rather stay home with the cat than get out and do something (ahem). But as I see it, there are three basic categories for action:

  1. Volunteer. Plant trees and restore native flora to reduce soil erosion, spend a few hours a week weeding at an organic farm, participate in coastal clean-ups, trap and spay feral cats that decimate native songbird populations…bet there are some opportunities right within your neighborhood.
  2. Reach out. Get involved with your city government’s green department, provide information and advice to people who are already receptive to going green, talk to people who aren’t, start an office recycling program, be a shining example of imperfect but earnest, thoughtful, and respectful environmentalism. Oh yeah, and keep a green blog. 🙂
  3. Donate. The environmental movement can’t run on idealism alone. Some of our biggest problems occur in places far beyond our individual reach. Although large non-profit environmentalism organizations are not without their problems (Monsanto donates heavily to Nature Conservancy, for example), they do have longer arms and deeper pockets and have achieved significant victories for the environmental movement. Or, if you’d rather the money stayed local, find a small non-profit or environmental project in your immediate area and donate to them.

To put my money where my mouth is, I took a small step and made seed bombs this weekend. They could hardly have been simpler. As with my cooking, I didn’t measure anything, and I used materials I already had on hand. The recommended proportions are 5 parts clay to 1 part soil and 1 part seeds, but as long as you have more clay than soil and seeds, I expect you’ll be fine. You will need:

  • Powdered clay (I used potter’s clay)
  • Soil
  • Native, low-maintenance flower seeds (mine was a California coastal wildflower mix)
  • Water

Mix dry ingredients and add just enough water to moisten. Roll into balls and allow to dry. (Need more detail? Here’s a video on making seed bombs.) Toss into vacant lots, abandoned corners, bare dirt, and anywhere some color and native species would be appreciated. Guerilla gardening at its most basic. I already have several bare lots in mind…

What are your thoughts on making a positive impact? What are you already doing?


28 responses to this post.

  1. Brilliant! In fact … the whole idea fascinated me while reading your last post so … yep … it’s this week’s challenge at “my place”.

    Guerilla gardening … love that idea! Thanks for offering up some ways to give back!


    • Cool! I’m honored. This is actually my weakest point as an activist anything — I hate getting out there. I hate talking to people I don’t know. I hate feeling uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and incompetent. But I hate the thought of not doing my best to be a part of the solution more than that, so I’d better start getting over some of my hang-ups.


  2. Posted by northwestshift on 02/01/2011 at 23:42

    I saw a great kids gift a few months back… a package of seed bombs and a wooden slingshot! I’ve been thinking about making sets for my niece and nephew this year! Seems like a great way to get kids involved!


    • That IS a great gift for any kid. Here, have a sling shot and some environmentally responsible projectiles!


  3. I love this post, Jennifer. This line really resonated with me:

    “But at some point, we also need to recognize that we won’t achieve zero impact unless we go back to living like our ancestral apes. (And given our present population, not even then.) However, we might still get the scale to balance if we adopt a more active type of environmentalism that goes beyond our own lives.”

    It’s true. To-do lists are great, but what if you’re doing all that and still feeling a bit incomplete? That’s where changing your internal perspective and connection with the Natural World comes in. Recognizing the inter-being (inter-connectedness) of all life opens our eyes to seeing the World in a whole new way. A way that fosters that deep appreciation of the gifts the Earth gives to us and the motivation to be stewards of these gifts.

    I might just add one additional category to you list: Lead by example. It’s similar to volunteering (where you’re doing just that), but even in very small ways, when we walk the talk, we help to inspire that action in others.

    And here’s to Guerilla Gardening! Be well!


    • Thank you, Bill. I’m right with you about changing our perspective. The main question is how — how to get enough people who are used to feeling disconnected and entitled to wake up, in a fairly short time frame.

      I love ‘lead by example.’ Unfortunately, it’s not something I’m especially good at, though many of my sources of inspiration are doing exactly that. I thought this morning that a more appropriate title for this post (or at least the seed bomb portion) would have been ‘environmental activism for the socially impaired.’


      • Posted by Emily on 02/02/2011 at 18:57

        Jennifer, you’re doing so much by sharing your voice on the internet. It hardly matters if you’re not comfortable talking with someone face to face. You are reaching so many people just by having this blog!


        • Aww, thank you, Emily. You were my first regular reader on this blog, and I really appreciate all the support and encouragement you’ve offered me.


  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bill Gerlach, northwestshift. northwestshift said: RT @noteasytobegreen Giving Back to the Earth + Guerilla Gardening: […]


  5. You’re absolutely right about giving back in addition to reducing impact. If we want to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, we have to do more than switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

    Can I add one more point to your list? 4. Connect with your community. Once you start looking, it’s really easy to find groups who are doing great “giving back” work. Getting involved with local grassroots organizations can be inspirational and very rewarding.


    • Absolutely! I think you have way more experience in that department than I do, but I think I’m going to take a tentative look around me this week and look for at least one thing I could be involved in.


  6. I need to do these things. Most of all I think it will help me feel like I have a sense of community about this issue, outside of my sheltered blogging world. Often I feel like a lonely greenie in real life. 😦 But my city has just issued a new white paper called “The Way we Green”. I really need to check it out and provide comments. I also want to send my money for good use somewhere; I just need to decide where.

    Thanks for reminding me about these very important steps we all need to take!


    • It’s harder for those of us who aren’t highly social creatures. I have a friend who is, and she’s involved in great things — starting new environmental awareness programs with the city council, petitioning for new community garden space. Oh well; we do what we can. I imagine you’ll find a great cause to donate to once you start connecting with your local green scene.


  7. What a thought provoking post. I wholeheartedly agree that we not only need to reduce our impact on this planet but we need to be proactive and take steps to make change. I love that you made seed bombs-I am envisioning you tossing them all over as you drive around. That would be a good spring project here-since we are covered with about 5 feet of snow.


    • I’m actually planning to drop most of them off by foot. It goes against the grain to fling something out of the car window, and I don’t have very accurate aim anyway. I’m looking forward to walking by later in the spring to see if flowers have appeared.


  8. Hi Jennifer,

    You are really raising the bar in a positive way. I love the idea of replacing “lists” with eco-consciousness. We have adopted a stray cat and did our duty by having her fixed so we have taken one little tiny step in the right direction. Now, seed balls – that’s a fantastic idea! However, where we are in Hawai’i, nature is doing fine on its own. Thanks for these creative ideas and a like kick in the right place.


    • I don’t associate bare dirt with Hawaii, either. 🙂 My sister was surprised that recycling wasn’t available in her apartment building when she first got there for medical school, but they’ve since started. How green would you consider Hawaii?


  9. Hi Jennifer, Awesome post. I’m a huge fan of volunteering and connecting with the community. Like Sherry says, it can be lonely being a greenie in the real world. It really helps to connect with real life people who are interested in similar things. Connecting with the organic gardening community has really helped me stay inspired and motivated. Honestly, there’s nothing like a face-to-face eco-activist connection to inspire me to keep going.

    I love your seedbomb mix, I really want to make some now! I may go get the ingredients this weekend… 😀


    • Hi Lynn! Just a thought on ingredients for seed bombs — you could probably get clay free from a pottery studio (just ask for trimming scraps; you might have to dry/powder it yourself, but they’ll have it in abundance), and maybe it would be worth asking the Cal Academy if they have any local species seeds they wouldn’t mind propagating throughout San Francisco?


      • Thanks for the tips! I was wondering about the clay – nowadays I’m totally averse to buying things. Can I dig up clay from the ground? Clay trimmings from a pottery studio sounds like a good idea to look into. How do I dry/powder it? Is powder necessary?

        Cal Academy is a good resource, there’s the Haight Ashbury Native Plant Nursery too that stocks native plants of all kinds. I don’t think I should have too much trouble finding seeds. Clay is the trickier one.


        • I don’t think SF has the right type of soil where you can just go out and dig up clay; I think once it dries it will crumble upon impact, and you need seed bombs to stay together for at least a little while. Clay trimmings and slip (very liquid clay) can be left out in the sun for a few days to dry. It will turn quite brittle. Then you can easily crush it by 1) putting it in a bag and walking over it a couple times, 2) mortar-and-pestle, 3) rolling pin. I think you do need the dry powder in order to get everything to mix well and make sure your flower seeds aren’t too close to each other. If you’re ever down my way, I will be happy to save you my clay scraps.


  10. thanks for help with gaining perspective on this issue. You’ve really had me thinking since your ‘giving tree’ post and I was racking my brains with how to take up the #ctww challenge. I found the whole thing really overwhelming and was unsure how to break it down into ‘can do’ steps. I like the way you’ve dechunked it into 3 key areas. I’ve decided to give a little TLC to my bee garden (like you I’m a home body!) so this should work in ok for now. I feel so GUILTY though! How do you deal with that?


    • I was actually just thinking about the guilt thing. How much guilt should we feel and how productive is it? I would say that guilt in moderation is a useful tool to get us doing something. I know many of the changes I made started when I realized the full impact of something I had been doing for years, felt like a terrible person, and initiated a change. However, too much guilt leads to apathy, and that’s not very effective, either. I think I’m shifting towards awareness rather than guilt as a mechanism for changing — and one part of that awareness is that, whatever I do, I’m not going to singlehandedly save the world.

      Interesting thoughts, though! I might have to do a follow-up post on that.


  11. […] “I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth.” On bad days, I wholeheartedly agree. As a species, we’re not particularly good at acting for the greater good over the longer term. Resources? Use ‘em till they’re gone. Giving Back to the Earth […]


  12. Posted by Kris on 02/09/2011 at 10:42

    I love the idea of the seed bombs! I’m trying to think of places that it could be placed at..and what materials I might have on hand to make my own. I have flower seeds, a Realtor in our subdivision sends them out every year trying to get business and they just end up in my junk drawer.


    • Your blog has an awesome name. I like. 🙂 I’ll stop by soon.

      Clay shouldn’t be hard to source — there are lots of pottery studios (community colleges usually have them, too), and I’m sure they’ll be happy to give you their dried up clay scraps or powder. Most studios don’t recycle clay because it takes a while for bacteria to grow so that it can be used to throw again. This is a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but I think you’ll find most potters happy to help if you reach out to them.


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