PORTLAND – They started showing up a couple weeks ago.
White buckets filled with black soil, placed strategically throughout the city.
Across from the bus stop on Elm Street. In front of the Nickelodeon movie theater on Temple Street. Two on Commercial Street, another near the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad station.
Each bucket is decorated with artful graffiti. Each includes a note:
“Hi, I am an heirloom tomato. You may see some of my siblings around town. We are here for you to enjoy. Please water me, care for me and watch me grow. When my tomatoes are ready, enjoy them. Please leave me in my spot so as many people as possible can enjoy me.”
The notes are signed, “Love, Portland Paste.”
A simple Internet search revealed that Portland Paste is an “anonymous collective of artists, activists, and troublemakers.” The group appears to have some connection to the Occupy Maine movement, which took over Lincoln Park last year, although that connection is not concrete.
Portland Paste has a Facebook page, where the randomly placed plants are referred to as “tomato bombs” and people are starting to talk about where they have seen them.
William Hessian is one of the Facebook page’s 165 friends. He writes an art blog, called Bearded Bunny, and blogged about the “tomato bomb” project recently.
He said he’s seen examples of “guerrilla gardening” — planting fruits, vegetables or flowers on public property — elsewhere across the country, but not in Portland.
“The other exciting thing about this … project is that it’s kind of a scavenger hunt,” Hessian wrote. He plans to take pictures of as many tomato bombs as he can find and post them on his blog.
Claudia Diller lives on Melbourne Street, where she paints in her bedroom-turned-studio. She walks into town every day and noticed a couple of the tomato plants recently.
“It surprised me because I hadn’t seen anything like that here before,” she said.
Diane Russell, a Democratic state representative from Portland, said she noticed a tomato bomb recently on the sidewalk outside Hilltop Coffee on Congress Street.
“It just randomly appeared one day,” she said. “It’s the cutest thing, really charming,”
Russell said the anonymity and randomness of the plants remind her of the Valentine’s Day bandits who leave red hearts all over Portland every Feb. 14.
“I have no idea who’s doing it, but if you’re trying to build community and promote farming and bring awareness to hunger, I can’t think of a better or simpler way to do it,” she said.
The tomatoes haven’t ripened yet. When they do, they will look less like the tomatoes at a grocery store and more like the tomatoes at a farmer’s market — less round and less uniform in color, and more bumpy and patchwork.
The project is a bit of a risk because, unless they are watered regularly, the tomatoes may not thrive.
“That was the first thing that came to my mind is, who is responsible for making sure these grow?” Diller said. “I mean, who carries water with them all the time? Then I got upset, because this one looked dry and I thought I should run and get some water. And then I had this thought: What if people are urinating on them? I almost picked it up. I still might do that.”
Why does she care so much?
“It’s a living, breathing thing,” she said. “It’s helpless. You just feel compelled to do what you can.”
Besides, Diller said, “Every time I see them it makes me smile.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: