Guerrilla Gardening: Cultivating Concrete
by Lucy Purdy
J G Ballard wrote that the “suburbs dream of violence”, describing town and city dwellers counting down the days until the “nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world”. While poets, artists and storytellers have long been fascinated by this dynamic of stultifying yet addictive city life, guerrilla gardeners, Lucy Purdy discovers, are turning to the soil to grapple with ecological and social disintegration.
You may have come across guerrilla gardening already –gardeners who cultivate land they have no claim to. Maybe you’ve seen clusters of seeds encased in clay or mud – seed bombs – wildflowers often, ready to be lobbed earth-wards and launched into life. Or perhaps you’ve craned your neck for a second glimpse of a flower-filled patch of land, beautifully incongruous against the trackside nettles and graffiti, as your train roars past.
Richard Reynolds is one of the movement’s best known exponents. He runs www.GuerrillaGardening.org – thought to be the largest social media hub for guerrilla gardeners around the world, where people share inspiration, ideas and action. Reynolds began guerrilla gardening in 2004 when he’d never even heard the term, beginning a simple blog where he recounted his experience of gardening land not his own. And like bindweed on an allotment plot, things escalated sharply. Within 18 months, having captured people’s attention, he was appearing in the international press, and so triggering the ‘coming out’ of other guerrilla gardeners and encouraging many more to give it a go for the first time.
I asked Reynolds what he finds so powerful in this kind of growing:
“Because it shows potential in land where it appears there is little. Because it shows that human neglect and abuse can easily be defied – that a landscape and community is not as harsh as it seems. Because the incongruous sight of a bright plant or even food growing where it’s not expected, brings joy and wonder about how different our landscapes could be, and because in the act of gardening in places where amateurs are not expected, you can have some brilliant conversations,” he explains.
“It’s shared public space, so rallying others to join in and garden together is possible without the barriers or exclusivity that come from the sense of an enclosed community garden or private space. For me, it’s important because of the conversation starters being out there doing it, creates. It makes people see their community at work, caring.”
All around the world, others are feeling the same says Reynolds. “There are pirate gardeners in Germany, there’s a stealth gardener in London, a vigilante gardener in New York. What’s going on in Italy is perhaps most visible at the moment: there are guerrillas in Naples, Bologna, Rome. It’s very dynamic there.”
Guerrilla growing projects are tremendously varied. Ron Finley, the self-styled ‘gangster gardener’ was motivated to create community gardening projects after witnessing food poverty in South Central Los Angeles, the home, as he puts it: “of the drive-thru and the drive-by”.
Finley, whose TED talk about his work has been viewed almost 427,000 times, told The City Planter: “I grow my food, so it is hyper-local. I know where it came from, what went into it, not like the vegetables I buy that I can’t figure how they last as long as they do.
“For me, what I do isn’t about hope, it’s about opportunity. That’s what the kids I work with need. I can’t eat hope. I have 12-year-old kids calling themselves gangster gardeners and they’re recruiting others from around their neighbourhoods. It’s not about having hope, it’s about action. It’s already happening.”
Much is happening in the UK too. Incredible Edible Todmorden used guerrilla gardening as a way to motivate their community to make their landscape more edible, digging up verges and even – reportedly – unattractive council planting and replacing them with herbs like rosemary, mint and fennel. The town’s profile has soared since the project was established, becoming a blueprint for a sustainable community.
Brighton-based CommuniTree is a community guerrilla gardening scheme aiming to improve small unused and unloved spaces under trees. The founders, artist Adam Johnson and graphic designer Dan Mackey, aim to brighten up the streets by planting mini gardens in tree pits, to act as a talking point within the community and encourage biodiversity at the same time.
“We started CommuniTree when we realised the potential in the small squares of soil that we walked past every day,” explained Mackey.
“It started with a few seeds and has grown to a passion. We tend to get to tackle the tree patches that need lots of work at night, introducing soil and clearing rubbish, leaving the natural debris for wildlife. Then every time we walk past we plant something new!”
For many, guerrilla gardening is a way of connecting to the landscape, of answering an intrinsic desire to connect with nature. Reynolds explains, “It’s helping nurture a living thing in a landscape that’s not got much of that in it.” It’s a way “of sensing the changing seasons, of making your personal mark like a street artist might want to.”
And Melissa Harrison, a nature writer and author of Clay– a novel set in a park in the heart of a city – agrees. She told me: “It’s easy to feel detached from nature in urban settings; what there is can feel municipal and remote rather than a shared environment. But sowing seeds or tending plants can give you a stake in the natural world around you, and a sense of connection to it. For me, that’s really valuable, and answers a deep and human need.”
Guerrilla gardening is a diverse movement for sure, but all who practise it understand that something as simple as a line of green amid grey granite paving slabs can be a symbol of revolution. This is urban growing at its most raw: not tame, controlled or complicit with the global horticultural industry, but wilder and real: green, human and powerful.
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