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Guerilla gardening: going commando

All of them are motivated by a common desire not to let a useful space go to waste

May 13, 2011 | By:

The growth of guerilla gardening, planting on patches of neglected ground, is brightening up some of the dullest and most unexpected urban spaces. Brett Lampitt reports

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Earthly delights: there is no dereliction that cannot be improved by planting. {a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/joethorn/191302609/sizes/l/in/photostream/ ” target=”_new”}Photo by Joe Thorn{/a}

What would you prefer to look at, a pile of junk-strewn rubble or a well-stocked flowerbed? To anyone but the most hardened anti-aesthete the answer is pretty straightforward. Surely it’s a simple matter of ugliness and decay versus colour, light and life.

This basic proposition is what motivates the actions of a growing league of guerrilla gardeners who, fed up with living in an environment of urban neglect, have decided to do something about it and prettify their surroundings. 

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Their activities can range from planting a single tulip at the base of a lamppost to converting a patch of wasteland into a fully-fledged public garden.

Unfortunately, this altruistic behaviour is illegal in the UK. The simplest definition of guerrilla gardening is gardening on land that doesn’t belong to you. Thus the sowing of a few seeds in a small patch of earth by the side of the road is technically a criminal act – criminal damage, to be precise – and, although rare, arrest and prosecution are always possibilities.

This hasn’t stopped an intrepid bunch of volunteers from clearing an unused concrete wasteland in Brighton and turning it into a community garden. The site had been untouched for at least 14 years, during which time it became home to a full collection of rotten sofas, beer cans and the sort of rubbish you’d expect to encounter in an unused but accessible urban space.

Now the efforts of a cross-section of locals have cleared and furnished it with raised vegetable beds, growing food for themselves and the community, and significantly improving not only the site’s usefulness but its aesthetic appeal as well.

Who are the guerilla gardeners?

These volunteers aren’t the balaclava-clad anarchists that the ‘guerrilla’ epithet might suggest. Instead they come from a range of social backgrounds, their ages ranging from four weeks (admittedly only there as a spectator) to 86 years old. All of them are motivated by a common desire not to let a useful space go to waste.

But the plot’s managing agents, despite having done nothing with the space for years, have taken objection to this well-meant hijacking and rustled up an eviction order. They’re threatening to remove the raised beds and garden furniture, restoring the site to the concrete desert it once was. At the time of writing, the gardeners are expecting the bailiffs at any moment.

This unfortunate situation is fairly typical in the UK, with the exception of a few local authorities, who at best encourage a little civic ornamentation, and at the very least turn a blind eye.

Other countries have taken a more lenient approach. In Amsterdam the city’s council will come to your house and remove a paving stone outside your front door so you can fill the space with earth and plant it up.

Guerrilla gardeners are a dedicated bunch. The majority believe passionately that what they are doing is the right thing to do. Despite opposition from the authorities, guerrilla gardening in the UK is very much on the up. Subscribers to one of the movement’s main online portals, GuerrillaGardening.org, have trebled in the past five years to almost 60,000.

Join the army

The site’s founder, Richard Reynolds, has made it his mission not only to celebrate successes but to make guerrilla gardening accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, to normalise it and bring it into the mainstream.

He isn’t doing too badly in his task. In March 2011 he was commissioned by Selfridges in London to help dress five of its display windows with a guerrilla gardening theme, giving Oxford Street’s shoppers a taste of its appeal, albeit somewhat glamourised.

Reynolds is keen to promote the cause and grow the numbers of guerrilla gardeners, and he stresses the simplicity of getting started without any expertise or experience.

“Just do it,” he says. “Do it somewhere local so you can keep an eye on it. And go into it with a good balance of optimism and pragmatism. You’ll be surprised how effective it can be.”