With new guerrilla gardening business, Four Star owner hoping to help grow change

Post by Christie Taylor on 4/26/2012 2:15pm

With new guerrilla gardening business, Four Star owner hoping to help grow change


Customers at Four Star Video Heaven might have noticed a different kind of new release popping up on shelves and flooding the front windows in recent weeks: instead of neat rows of white boxes, its a riot of green, with rosemary, azaleas, cacti, and a wealth of other herbs and houseplants.

The plants arent just decoration. Theyre for sale, along with seed starter materials, trellis and kits for raised beds, reference materials for beginners, and and as the weather warms up, owner Lisa Brennan said, theyll start selling vegetable starters alongside the herbs and houseplants. Brennan will run the business with arborist Sean Gere, who has his own tree care business.

Its not the first time Four Star has had something besides movies on the shelves: as Brennan points out, original owner David Smith actually started it in 1985 as a bookstore, Four Star Fiction and Video, with a small collection of movies on the side.

This, time, though, its actually a case of two businesses sharing one roof. “Naturally we considered names like Movies with a Plot, Rear Window Box, Hollywood & Vines, Pistil Packin Mama, and Soilent Green, but we ultimately resisted the urge to pun and settled on Sprout,” Brennan said.

By sharing space, Brennan was able to start the second business without even taking out a loan. Four Stars new location was already a bit snugger than the old storefront on Henry Street, but Brennan says making room for the plants hasnt been a problem–just a matter of rearranging. And she likes the brightness they bring.

“In some ways its a demonstration of a key concept of urban gardening: making the most of the space you have available,” she said.
Rather than being a straight-up garden supply store, Sprout will instead focus on urban agriculture and guerilla gardening. Brennan wants to help people in apartments or homeowners with tiny yards still be able to take advantage of that space, and shes selling trellises, wall-mounted pocket-like planters and other creative solutions for “vertical gardening,” which maximizes available vertical and horizontal space.

“As I was starting to work on this project last summer, I kept looking at all the balconies and patios as I rode my bike to work, thinking about how great they would look all covered in plants,” she said.

Shes also planning to demonstrate those solutions, with a space-maximizing pyramid-shaped bed outside the store as one example of how creative urban residents can get in growing their own food. And there are plenty of other ideas:

“You can trellis beans and peas on a teepee support and hang out in the shade underneath, set up a potato garden in a stack of old tires, train fruit trees to grow along fences, leaving more space open for other plants, set up a pyramid raised bed to maximize planting space in a minimal footprint, set up self-watering containers with trellises on a balcony, patio or deck,” Brennan said. “There are a lot of options, and once you start thinking this way, some very fun and creative ideas will occur.

And guerilla gardening, in which citizens take it on themselves to plant in public spaces, with or without city permission, is something Brennan has experienced in her neighborhood, where a garden cooperative is working on plantings along a city-owned stretch of the eastside bike path.

“The city doesnt mind because the land is much better tended and the city uses fewer resources taking care of it, and the gardening co-op gets extra land for growing,” she said. “But I also think of guerrilla gardening as using ones own land in unexpected ways, like growing food crops in the front yard or on balconies or putting in prairie plants on the terraces next to the street to reduce run-off and provide habitat for butterflies, bees, and other insects.”

The latter point touches on why Brennan decided to do this in the first place, which is both a long and a short answer. The short answer: having more plants in urban spaces is good for the environment, and can have a meaningful impact on reducing polluted runoff into the lakes, improving air quality, minimizing heat islands, and upping biodiversity. Growing food yourself can help minimize the environmental footprint of large-scale agriculture. And gardening, she said, is a relaxing activity that even students should be able to have access to.

But the longer answer is more about how Brennan sees the role of her business in the human community, and she traces it back to the mortgage crisis that triggered the downturn in 2008. She said she was frustrated with the governments response of pouring money into shoring up the structures that caused the problem in the first place, and began thinking about what communities might need in order to be safer from similar systemic abuses.

“I think that the basis for lasting change lies in all of us working to build more resilient, locally based and controlled economies,” she said. “Consider the number of people moving their money from the big banks to local credit unions, looking for ways to buy locally produced food, patronizing small businesses, and getting involved in local politics, and its clear that a lot of people are feeling this urge.”

And so, she says, a business like Sprout offers residents the opportunity to grow their own food and bypass, just a bit more, bigger institutions: a small step, but, she hopes, a useful part of a bigger turning-away from the trend of “bigger, more efficient, more profitable projects that in the end turn out to be more trouble than theyre worth.”

“I believe small acts are meaningful, and that in our current situation are perhaps the only means to real change,” she said. “I think its time to step back, evaluate our accomplishments honestly and think seriously about where we should be going in the future. Sprout is part of my personal attempt to do that.”

And so, less than a month into the project, Brennan said sales are “pretty good,” and theres plenty of excitement from both old customers, and newcomers at the store. “When I sent the letter out to Four Star customers (announcing Sprout), I immediately got back messages from many people who were very excited about the concept, which they variously described as progressive, creative, awesome, cool, and exciting,” she said. “It seems that interest in small space gardening is growing very rapidly.”

Christie Taylor


Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor covers state politics and sometimes science for dane101. By day she’s a science writer, and by night she can usually be found on roller skates. A Madison native, she’s not sure she’ll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that’s just fine by her. Contact her atchristie@dane101.com.

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