The General Services Administration, the federal agency that manages government office space, had given him the go-ahead to plant these flowers, which he said included an exquisite mix of sunflowers, morning glories and Cardinal flowers.
But the GSA didn’t give him the OK to stake 15-foot-high trellises in his flower arrangement earlier this month, and removed them from Docter’s “Wild and Free” flower display on Thursday.
“The flowers Mr. Docter planted are growing beautifully, and were part of his original agreement with GSA. The trellises, however, were not,” GSA spokeswoman Kamara Jones wrote in an e-mail. “Consequently, the flowers remain, and the trellises have been removed. We appreciate Mr. Docter’s commitment to beautifying public spaces, and look forward to watching the beautiful flowers he planted grow.”
Docter conceded that when he mapped out to the GSA what he would be planting, he didn’t sketch out what the trellises would look like or explicitly say how high they would be.
“This was my screw up,” he said. “But it was a pretty exciting screw up. It’s hard to balance artistic creativity with the needs of our city and sometimes I guess I get a little ahead of myself.”
This is all part of Docter’s style of “performance art,” as he calls it. For more than three decades, the self-described “Phantom Planter” has planted flowers around the cities he’s lived in to “create beauty” where he sees voids. If it rankles some bureaucrats along the way, so be it. That could bring even more attention to his flowers.
His artistry hit a head with Metro in 2013 when the transit agency threatened to arrest, fine and even imprison him if he tended to the morning glories and other flowers he had planted in 176 empty flower boxes near the top of the north escalators at the Dupont Circle Metro station. The agency subsequently ripped out the flowers over reported safety concerns that Docter had planted on his own dime.
Since that time, Docter says he’s planted smaller-scale flower installations in front of the National Zoo, at about five Metro stations and at the National Gallery of Art with few problems.
“I think people are finally starting to understand me a little bit and that I’m just trying to make the world a little more beautiful,” he said, adding that if he thinks officials are unreasonable, he’ll typically go ahead and plant without their permission. “There’s been a lot of progress on my emotional front in terms of working with the officials.”
The original plan for his latest project near the FAA building was for the vines and flowers eventually to grow around the “electrical metal conduit tubes” — meant to symbolize the electricity in our bodies and souls — that he used as trellises. The GSA, he said, carefully removed them so the flowers are still intact.
The entire installation cost him less than $300. And overall, he said, he views this minor setback as progress. The trellises, after all, did stay intact for about 10 days and the flowers won’t be removed.
“I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that this was a little surprising,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has seen poles like this in their entire lives.”