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Guerrilla gardener Diana Oppenheim, 23, took a photograph of a finished area of Smith Park in Chicago where she and her friends planted flowers that evening on July 23. Photo by McClatchy Newspapers

CHICAGO • They work at night, at some of the less attractive spots. They work quickly. And they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty.They are guerrilla gardeners.Once a month, Diana Oppenheim leads a small group of friends who plant flowers in Chicago’s public areas, spots that need some spiffing up.“One day you walk by a place, and there’s nothing there,” she explained. “The next morning you wake up, and there’s flowers. It’s a kind of instant gratification.”There have been five outings so far this year, about once a month.“I originally started out to do this every week, but that was too ambitious,” said Oppenheim, a student in the urban planning and community development program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I tried to get florists to contribute, but they were reluctant to just give flowers to the weird girl.”So now she finances the excursions out of her own pocket, with a $20 limit each month.The target on a recent July evening was Smith Park on Grand Avenue, a park that was once the location of a city dump. Oppenheim had targeted an area in the park’s southwest corner, near a line of uninspiring bushes.“I was thinking how people come by here a lot, and it could be prettier,” she said.To remedy that, she purchased a flat of 24 white vinca plants and a nine-pack of pink begonias.Oppenheim led her crew — Amanda Meeks, Jenny Weston, Chris Detmer and Moriah Spicer — to the dig. (The number of co-conspirators has ranged from two to about a dozen.)The gardeners discuss strategy. A straight line of plants might not survive; it appears the area gets a lot of foot traffic. Detmer suggested putting them around the base of three 4-foot bushes.Like doctors before an operation, they spread out their tools on the sidewalk — a couple of trowels, a pair of gardening gloves, a hand cultivator, a screwdriver.The guerrillas get to their task. In less than 15 minutes, everything was in the ground.Oppenheim said she tries to plant flowers at locations she rides by on her bike. That way she can keep an eye on them and provide some watering if necessary. Sometimes, others pick up the cause.“We did some planter boxes over on Augusta by St. Helen’s (Church),” Spicer said. “I go by there all the time, and I check. They’ve been kept up — or added to. It’s kind of cool.”There have been no problems with the law or local residents.“Sometimes,” Oppenheim said, “passersby will come over. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Planting flowers.’ ‘That’s awesome.’”“Technically it’s illegal,” Oppenheim acknowledged. “It’s trespassing if you’re planting flowers in somebody’s empty planters. And this is defacing property. But I’d like to see Mayor Daley say something.”The gardeners hope their efforts not only add some color to otherwise barren spots around the city but feed a movement as well.“If this can inspire other people to do this, great,” Spicer said. “It’ll energize gardening.”“If a broke college kid can do it, you can do it,” added Oppenheim. “There’s no shortage of empty space in the city.”_

If anyone knows of guerrilla gardening groups in the Colorado Springs region, please e-mail

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