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Guerrillas in our midst

Olly Zanetti

21st January, 2009

Under cover of darkness, a dedicated team of activists is slowly rescuing unloved pockets of land from botanical meltdown. Olly Zanetti meets the guerrilla gardeners lighting up London.

Loitering after dark on some of South London's dingier street corners is an activity that might initially elicit sleazy connotations. But for one man, it represents an evening's occupation of a more wholesome nature. Meet guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, one of thousands in the hit squad of activists who transform abandoned pockets of land into oases of colour and life.

Guerrilla gardening, says Richard, is 'the illicit cultivation of someone else's land,' and guerrillas operate, alone or in groups, all over the world. Richard's involvement stems from an instinctive love of the outdoors. From a rural upbringing where gardening was a fact of life, he moved to a flat in a tower block in London's Elephant and Castle. The odd window box aside, Richard was a 'frustrated gardener' until he realised the solution was staring him in the face.

‘The obvious thing, as I saw it, was to do the gardens immediately in the vicinity of the building, which were in a very neglected state,’ he says. With no time for the bureaucratic headaches asking permission would likely bring, he crept out in the middle of the night to begin his work. The next morning, he blogged his activities.

That was five years ago, and much has changed since then. Richard is now a vociferous guerrilla gardener, and keen to inspire others. As well as a blog, his site now includes a message board through which gardeners across the world meet and plan guerrilla gardening actions – or ‘digs’ as they are known. With his new book, On Guerrilla Gardening, he hopes to widen the net still further.

For Richard, contemporary guerrilla gardening has a political edge. ‘It’s about our role in space and who’s in charge of it. If we’re not asking permission, or even discussing it with local people, just doing it as a solo act, then that’s a political statement; that’s anarchistic.’

Rather than ‘using plants like placards,’ however, he suggests that it should be a long-term activity on what he calls ‘orphaned land’ – land left untended by its owners.

Whether planning a solo dig or working as a group, Richard advises selecting your site carefully. Most cities don’t have much empty space, and that which does exist is likely to be earmarked for development. Instead, be creative. Roundabouts, traffic islands and roadside planters that the council has long ceased tending are the perfect targets. After all, he explains, ‘I think you can reclaim the streets by gardening next to them, rather than on them.’

Having chosen the site, the next step is to enlist some help. Richard has a few gardens he tends alone, but for larger spaces such as one particular plot in Kensal Green, north-west London, the help of guerrilla gardening comrades is enlisted through a note on the website’s message board. The gardeners (there are about five of them) meet at around eight in the evening.

Is this to ensure that darkness shrouds their activities in secrecy? ‘No,’ Richard laughs, ‘it’s just when everyone’s finished work.’ They arrive in a car stuffed with tools. ‘It’s great when people bring their own, but earthy garden implements are rarely welcomed on packed tubes.’

As the site, a planter on the corner of two residential streets, is covered in weeds, Richard brings a couple of forks so the earth can be turned and weeds removed. Trowels and hand forks are handy for planting, but the biggest essential is gloves.

Where you plant, of course, affects what you plant. Richard prefers plants that are not ‘too showy’, at least until they’re well rooted, as it’s not unknown for thieves to make off with choice specimens.

‘Unfortunately, poor-quality soil is often a given,’ he says, likening the experience of pulling chicken bones from a planter situated between a bus stop and a takeaway to a ‘postmodern archaeological dig’. Similarly, the design of planters often leaves soil parched or completely saturated. ‘At Kensal Green, we went for drought-resistant plants such as rosemary and lavender, which, as well as being cheap, will grow into a thick ground cover that will look, and smell, great.’

A nearby resident, watching the proceedings from a window, allowed the guerrilla gardeners to fill their watering cans in the house. Such local support is not uncommon, Richard says. ‘We get many words of encouragement, but we’ve also been offered tea, chocolate, even soup, in the past.’ Best of all, the Kensal Green site is sustainable. Lyla, a local guerrilla, passes the site every day and so is able to keep on top of general maintenance, and to call on the masses if there’s a big job to be done.

In many cases, guerrilla tactics alone are satisfactory, though if you want them to they can lead to formalised community gardening. Discussing the gardens around his own block, Richard says: ‘I don’t want to be a guerrilla here forever. I don’t want to risk my gardens being mucked up by the council or lose out on funding I could potentially get as an official volunteer.’ A council representative in Southwark, where Richard lives, is quoted as saying he ‘wishes there were more Richard Reynoldses.’ While the borough’s tacit authorisation for his gardening is generally forthcoming, however, even after several years they are loath to put it in writing.

Theoretically, guerrilla gardening is criminal damage, though most police officers, while incredulous, tend to turn a blind eye to proceedings. Richard, however, still smarts from the band of overzealous officers that recently demanded they down tools or face arrest. The gains far outweigh the risks, though, and, as Richard observes, the potential is massive. So, as he says, ‘if you want a garden and you want to improve the space, the simplest thing is to just go and do it.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2008


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