Late last summer my brother and I pulled into the parking lot of a gas station in East Knoxville and parked by the chain-link fence. The fence had a hole in it so we ducked through. We stepped over broken glass, fast food wrappers, stained towels, and underclothes—trash I didn't want to look at too closely. A foot path led down the hill and entered a little tunnel in the kudzu.
"Do you see it?" Daniel asked, pointing beyond the kudzu.
He had brought me to this desolate spot to show me "something great." At first I could only see a blur of green.
I saw the tomatoes first, bright red fruit popping out against the tangle of vegetation. Then, everything emerged into focus: the beds of okra and bush beans terraced into the steep hillside, squash and climbing beans with delicate white blossoms covering the fence—even a couple of rose bushes. It was a hidden garden tucked into a gravelly hillside between a concrete drainage ditch of a creek and a gas station.
The garden belongs to Devendra and Uma Patel, clerks at Fuel Plus, the gas station on Magnolia Avenue. They have maintained the garden for four years, and say they will plant it this year, too.
"She is my partner," says Devendra of Uma. "I built the garden, she does the important part. She cooks the food.
"I love to garden. My father and grandfather were farmers."
"We don't have enough space where we are living now," says Uma.
"And back there was just a bunch of garbage," Devendra says, gesturing behind the store.
When they first came here the area behind the gas station was a "very bad part" of land, says Devendra. There was scrap metal, old tires. Homeless people, who still have a camp nearby, had also left a lot of trash.
"I cleaned up the garbage," Devendra says.
"By himself," Uma says. "No one helped him."
"The land was like this," says Devendra, making a sloping motion with his hand. "I made steps."
His terraces are built with old window shutters and other repurposed materials. It's a casual and functional building style, but the care is evident in this garden carved out of the kudzu and debris. The creek flows by, cars fly over the bridge, people are in and out of the gas station in just a few moments. The garden makes its own peace in a place where everything else is hurrying along.
According to kgis.org, this bit of land belongs to the city, so technically the Patels' garden is a guerrilla garden, and guerrilla gardening can be fraught with peril. The Patels have caught homeless people taking vegetables, and two years ago, the city sprayed herbicide along First Creek killing their entire garden.
"My husband and I were really sad that night," says Uma.
Local guerrilla and community garden advocates complained to the city on behalf of the Patels, and Uma says a short time later some kind of city supervisor came into the gas station:
"‘I'm sorry, Mrs. Uma,' he said. ‘It won't happen again.'"
The Patels, from a small town outside Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, grow a lot of Indian crops: okra, beans, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and squash, but no cool-weather crops.
"The garden's a mess right now," says Devendra.
"Empty," agrees Uma. "It's too cold!"
The Patels credit Brandy Slaybaugh, a community garden advocate, with encouraging their efforts. In the summer, when Slaybaugh stops by the gas station, the Patels share some of their produce with her.
"We don't sell," says Uma. "We only share."
Slaybaugh says she admires the way the Patels cleaned up the site and used recycled materials to build their garden.
"Their garden—it's guerrilla as it gets," Slaybaugh says.
Slaybaugh thinks the Patels have won over some people, including the city, to the benefits of guerrilla gardening. Last year, the city did manage to avoid poisoning the Patels' vegetables. But the Patels did not grow their garden to fulfill a political agenda.
"We like it," says Uma. "That's why we do it."