On an Abandoned Lot

Photo © ScotchBroom

A Lot at Stake

Not all gardens are planned. There are some that simply materialize while no one is paying attention. That overgrown, weedy lot down the street that’s been unused for years? It may have been abandoned by people, but not by nature. Birds perch on chain link fences or overhead power lines, depositing the seeds of their favorite plants one little fertilized drop at a time. The wind-dispersed seeds of dandelions, red maples, and box elder blow in and settle in the cracks of the asphalt, where they germinate. And with no one to clear away the brush, the sumac seedlings finally take root. Through the process of succession, an accidental bird garden thrives. A single lot may only cover a fraction of an acre, but with urban vacant lots numbering in the tens of thousands for major cities (and climbing every year), that adds up to acres of weedy habitat. In fact, on average, 15% of city land in the United States is vacant 1.

Wildlife creeping through the cracks

Reframe the way you think about abandoned lots: see the potential for gardening and bird counting

Photo © Ed Gaillard

Some abandoned lots have been shown to support nearly 3 times the number of species that nearby backyards support 2. The vegetation in a vacant lot is made up of the seeds of nearby plants. Often the composition includes many exotic species found in local yards, but also the enterprising seedlings of nearby street (and forest) trees or more distant seeds borne by birds.

Poppy in an abandoned lot

Sometimes you have to look closely to see the little beautiful things

Photo © Silverxraven

What simple things can you do to improve the composition of plants on a nearby vacant lot? You could improve the odds that a native plant seed can reach that lot by growing native flowers on your balcony. Help ensure a passing bird is safe in the lot; for example, where possible, organize a group of friends to remove trash, especially anything that could be harmful to wildlife. Don’t be discouraged by the uncertain fate of your lot: encourage a flowering vine’s tendrils to creep up a fence, or plant a sunflower seed or two in the dirt. Your small acts of beauty will focus attention on the positive aspects of the lot, allowing you and other stakeholders to plan a longterm strategy for incorporating the lot into your neighborhood as a small wildlife refuge.

Community Gardening

You’re almost never very far from a community garden. If you enjoy social gardening (as we do), but there are too few community gardens to go around, why not lobby to have one in that vacant lot? The American Community Gardening Association has many resources for getting started, starting a community garden. Build social capital and neighborhood morale by lobbying for a community garden on the lot. The ACGA website is a great place to get inspired.