‘Guerilla gardeners’ plant native species on UVic lawn but school quickly digs them up

Overgrow UVic planted a small garden on the lawn in front of the campus library. This act of “guerrilla gardening” aims to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity. (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

A group of Victoria University students are using their voices – and gardening tools – to fight for biodiversity on campus.

Overgrow UVic is made up primarily of environmental studies students who met while working on projects for their class. On the dark, quiet night of March 27, they broke ground on a small, unapproved garden in front of the campus library.

They planted nine native plants, including wild strawberries, native flowers and grasses, and a Garry Oak tree.

“We wanted to emulate the Garry Oak meadow ecosystem, which is very rare on Vancouver Island right now,” said Autumn Bissett, a member of Overgrow UVic.

Another member of the group, Bitty Aleah, from the We Wai Kai First Nation, said the plants chosen for the garden also had cultural significance to Aboriginal people.

“They’re a species that’s been found in the area before colonization, so we’re just sort of helping to restore some of the ecosystem that used to be there, reminding the land of what it used to be,” Aleah said.

The group planted the garden in the middle of the night on March 27.  (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

The group planted the garden in the middle of the night on March 27. (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

The group’s action was inspired by a guerrilla gardening project in 2010, when Resistance is Fertile planted a small garden of edible plants in UVic to raise awareness of food insecurity in Victoria.

Guerrilla gardening is a form of activism that involves growing a garden on land you don’t own, Bisset said. Guerrilla gardening, she says, can be as simple as dropping a seed bomb on unused land, or you can even start an entire community garden.

After the seven women in the group were united by a love of plants and a fascination with native species and a disdain for monocultures like UVic’s manicured lawn, they decided to become guerrilla gardeners themselves.

In contrast to biodiversity environments, monocultures consist of one plant or crop, Bissett said.

“The lawn is typically a monoculture because it’s just Kentucky bluegrass, and people actually put a lot of effort and resources into keeping it just Kentucky bluegrass,” she said.

Shaye Ogurek, another Overgrow UVic member, said managing lawns requires fertilizing, mowing and landscaping to keep other native plant species out.

The result, she explained, is fewer pollinators, native insects and native plants that contribute to the region’s biodiversity.

“It has been shown time and again that increased biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystems, so ecosystems are able to resist disturbances such as heat waves from two years ago,” Ogurek said. “Thus, more species create more linkages between species, which creates more ecosystem services.”

Victoria University demolished the gardens just two days later.  (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

Victoria University demolished the gardens just two days later. (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

Ecosystem services include oxygen production, healthy soils that absorb carbon and pollinators that help fruit grow, Ogurek said. Essentially, ecosystem services are things that we humans can use or that benefit us.

In their garden, Overgrow UVic are looking to create a native ecosystem that provides ecosystem services. It worked, the group said.

For at least the two days it was in place, the small garden was overrun with native insects and functioning as an ecosystem, Bisset said.

Shortly after, however, Overgrow UVic said the university removed the plants, and the small garden was turned into a patch of dirt for more Kentucky bluegrass.

A few days after planting, the garden is removed and restored to a field of dirt.  (Contributed by Shay Ogurek)

“We really want to know exactly where Gary Oak went,” Bissett said.

Although Gary Oak is a protected species Saanich Charterthis one is below the size requirement for protection.

“We hope it will end better than those lost earlier, but whatever happened to the physical garden, we believe it sparked curiosity for others,” Ogurek said.

A university spokesman said the school allowed the garden to remain in place for two days to allow members of the group to “state their stance on natural flora,” but encouraged students to learn about the building and grounds use policies.

“While we actively support the use of our campuses as living laboratories to support teaching and learning displays and experiments, there are guidelines to follow,” a university spokesperson said. “Unfortunately, the removal of approximately one square meter of grass to increase the display of plants was carried out without approval.”

The spokesperson also said the plants grown were being stored and could be returned, and reiterated the University’s commitment to biodiversity, citing recovery item And support from groups like the Greater Victoria Green Team.

The group currently has no plans for further gardening projects, and many are graduating soon, but Bissett said she hopes this will inspire others.

“I want this to remind people that guerrilla gardening is one thing, and you can do it,” Bissett said. “Anyone can do it, it’s good for the community and I think it’s great to have it again.”

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