Joseph Fioccola’s wife describes him as “a Santa Claus gardener,” and it’s not hard to see why. You can spot Fioccola and his bushy, white beard every Wednesday afternoon at a small garden filled with shrubs and black-eyed Susans at the intersection of Hilliard and Clingman avenues.
“When a space looks like it’s taken care of, people will respect it,” says Fioccola, who is a founding member of the West Asheville/ Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Advisory Committee and the sole member of the WECAN Garden Club. In contrast, he points to an unmaintained hillside nearby where garbage and beer bottles are scattered on the ground.
WECAN’s spot, like many spaces in Asheville that now hold ornamental and edible gardens, is public property that was once overgrown and unused. Through the efforts of nonprofits, gardens club, business owners and individuals, these spaces are being transformed into gardens that beautify neighborhoods, increase safety or even combat food insecurity — though the methods that brought the transformation sometimes differ.
Many gardens that have been installed on lands that are owned by the city of Asheville, the Department of Transportation or even private citizens are there without the knowledge or consent of the property’s owner. It’s a method called guerrilla gardening — essentially using land, public or private, without legal right to the use. It’s the gardening equivalent of being a squatter, but some say it’s preferable to jumping through the hoops of bureaucracy.
Fioccola says the WECAN garden on Clingman is technically a guerilla garden. The group took over the spot in the late ‘90s and Fioccola says he isn’t entirely sure if it’s city or state property — though he feels by this point the garden has a tacit agreement to continue. And while that approach is working in the case of this one garden, it isn’t something Fioccola would always advocate. For his other projects, particularly on land owned by the city, he has sought permission — though he acknowledges the wait time between request and sanction can be substantial.
“It might not be easy, but it is legal,” Fioccola says. “When you work with the city, you’re creating a contract that protects them and protects you if something happens or someone is hurt.”
But self-described “girillia gardener” Lauri Newman says guerrilla gardening can be a way for neighborhoods to take ownership, particularly of public spaces that are already theirs.
“These spaces belong to everyone,” Newman says. “So if a small space can hold a tree or a bush that is able to provide food to someone, why wouldn’t you put one there?”
Newman, whose background is in biochemical pharmacology and landscape architecture, has installed flower gardens in the medians on Haywood Road and fruit trees in abandoned lots, all without the permission of the city. She advocates that guerrilla gardening is an empowering activity and hopes to see Asheville develop a network of edible gardens, sprouting up from as many unused public and private spaces as possible. In some ways she is comparable to a graffiti artist — she may shrug off the repercussions of illegally using property (“I really doubt anyone would arrest me for making something beautiful and helping to feed people”), but she does admit to one drawback.
“You really have to be able to practice letting go,” she says. Newman says that when her work schedule demanded she take a break from maintaining her guerrilla spots, nearly all of her projects were cleared away by the city or other gardeners, an experience she describes as “heartbreaking.”
Eric Bradford, volunteer coordinator at Asheville GreenWorks, says the fluctuating ownership of guerrilla gardens can be a problem for both gardeners and the city.
“There are a lot of different groups that do [guerrilla gardening], but it’s kind of like leaving an orphan on someone’s doorstep,” Bradford says. “If you plant a tree in a city park without the city’s knowledge, who is going to take care of that tree? You may even have planted it in a spot where the city will be forced to remove it.”
Bradford says organizations like GreenWorks and Bountiful Cities are able to help gardeners work with the city and DOT to gain permission, as well as figure out what kind of garden would be easiest to maintain in a space.
“It is a little bit difficult [to gain permission],” Bradford continues. “You have to vet yourself with [the city], let them know you’re carrying the amount of insurance that you need and that you have the right safety measures in place. It can’t just be me and a Weed Eater out there. Which is why it can be helpful to work with an organization that already knows the ropes.”
Bradford adds that DOT manages a large amount of properties and that maintaining all of them can be a challenge, which is where GreenWorks volunteers come in. Currently the volunteers maintain three areas of public land through funding directly provided by the businesses and individuals surrounding those properties. They are also able to help establish new projects when approached.
“We don’t drive around saying, ‘That spot would make a great garden,’” Bradford explains. “But when someone says to us, ‘This corner looks awful, and I have to look at it every day. Can I do something?,’ then we can help.”
Back in West End, Fioccola says WECAN hopes to take over two spots near the Asheville Transit System building. One is a mostly unused lot with a small playground where he hopes to install a community garden. The other is a large, overgrown DOT property filled with litter, broken glass and signs of occupation— a skateboard, a suitcase, numerous beer bottles and lighters — that he wants to see transformed into a usable space that neighbors feel safe walking by.
Fioccola says he has been speaking with both the city and DOT since early spring, but despite “encouraging words from the city,” both projects are still waiting on official sanction.
After taking some time to launch a business and mourn the loss of her guerrilla gardens, Newman says she’s ready to return to her passion once her work allows. She has already drawn up plans for a garden by the Welcome to West Asheville sign near the Clingman bridge and would love to see the project receive community support and involvement, though construction of the Haywood Road corridor may put that project on hold for some time.
“I just have this dream of seeing beautiful, edible gardens everywhere,” she says. “Even if there are challenges and even if I build something and it gets wiped out, I want to fight for that potential.”