Guerrilla gardener

Rich Strickwerda '64


Spring 2010

The sign on the Highway 400 off-ramp at Barrie, Ont., reads “Welcome to Beautiful Barrie.” But Rich Strikwerda ’64 couldn’t help noticing how decidedly unbeautiful the area was.

“Every time I’d drive up the ramp I’d say, ‘Somebody’s got to do something about all this litter,’” Strikwerda said. “Well, who best to start but me?”

That was over three years ago. Since then the retired schoolteacher has been on a mission to keep the four-foot-wide, quarter-mile-long strip of land true to its signage.

He began by picking up the litter, including every cigarette butt. Each time he went back to the spot, he saw as much litter as before his cleanup. So he cut the grass. “My thinking was,” Strikwerda explained, “that if it looks nice, people won’t litter.”

But they did.

“So next I got my shovel,” he continued, “and put in five beds of yellow tulips. When the tulips died, the city provided me with marigolds for the beds. I found people really appreciate flowers.”

But not enough to stop throwing cigarette butts out of their car windows. That item of litter especially rankles Strikwerda. He picks them up by hand and counts every one. “That little strip averages 90 cigarette butts a day,” he noted.

Hoping to curb the practice, he next tried posting a hand-lettered sign: “Cigarette butts are litter, too.” When that proved ineffective, he tried heaping a pile of butts where drivers stop at a light and posting the sign, “Doesn’t this make you sick?”

Next idea: the Butt-tub. “I painted a bathtub forest green—very sharp—and put on it the words: ‘Keep Barrie Clean. Use our Butt-tub.’ I thought drivers sitting in their cars could at least take a shot at the tub.”

Newspapers, radio and TV, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., took note of the novel deterrent. But within two days the chain securing the butt-tub had been cut and the tub taken. 

Not everyone rebuffs his efforts. “Drivers stop and say things like, ‘Boy, we really need more people like you,’” he said. “But as far as I know, no one has said, ‘I could do that, too.’”

The city of Barrie, besides providing him with garbage-picking tools, safety pylons and pickup service for the litter he collects, has heaped awards on Strikwerda for his beautification labors. Parks and recreation director Mona Boyd points to him as the kind of citizen that has helped Barrie win the highest award for community involvement in the international Communities in Bloom program.

The Highway 400 off-ramp isn’t the only plot of Strikwerda’s guerrilla gardening. He also regularly cleans a commuter parking lot and a lakeshore trail. Any public, littered land is apt to become his project—the grounds surrounding schools where he substitute teaches, empty lots he bikes past on his way home from Bible study, bus stops and store lots—all the trash sorted, counted and bagged. His Excel spreadsheet records 135,520 separate pieces collected in 2009.

“He can’t resist,” said his wife, Sandy Wiebenga Strikwerda ex’66. “If we go for a walk in the evening or to a campground in the summer, Richard picks up litter. It’s his mission.”

“We’re stewards of God’s creation,” Strikwerda said. “We have a responsibility to care for the gift of the earth so that future generations can also delight in its beauty.”