Armed with trowels, and possibly a sturdy pair of gloves, an underground movement of horticulturalists are defying the law to change the faces of our cities… for the better? Michael Bailey reports on a new type of germ warfare in London.
“They know what I’m doing but they don’t talk about it.” These are the words Richard Reynolds uses in one video to describe his preparations for a “strike” on a busy area of central London. He is dressed in non-descript clothing as he slips on a pair of gloves. On his choice of location he says, “We need somewhere that is going to have maximum impact, maximum disruption.” A small group gathers around him, ready for the task ahead. What is this nefarious activity he describes and exactly what trouble has Urban Travel Blog got me into this time? Guerrilla gardening.
The textbook definition of guerrilla gardening is any gardening done without permission on land that is not your own. As such nobody can claim to have invented the practice, but Reynolds can rightfully claim to be the creator of www.guerrillagardening.org, a blog he uses to vent his own frustrations on the state of the world’s inner cities and to promote community action to improve them. Technically what he does is deemed criminal damage, which is quite a grand-sounding name for planting pansies. Never one to shy away from sending me on missions for which I am destined to be hideously inept, the editor sent me along on International Guerrilla Gardening Day to find out what it’s all about.
We met at the heart of London’s Elephant & Castle, not the most attractive part of London but a fine place to demonstrate the spirit of the endeavour, since Reynolds himself is accountable for many of flowers you see growing there. The crowd were a mixture of seasoned gardeners (guerrilla and otherwise), aspiring beginners plus a good number of the merely curious. London being London they came from up and down the country and a not a few from other shores. I certainly wouldn’t say that the party was buzzing, but everybody had purpose, everybody had a smile and a number of people had trowels.
International Guerrilla Gardening Day itself was the creation of a loosely organised group who call themselves the Brussels Farmers. While guerrilla gardeners in general might be interested in anything from nasturtiums to turnips, these guys have dedicated themselves to the planting of sunflowers. They say that sunflowers stand out, are very easy to grow, that they’re a useful flower (the seeds can either be eaten or used to fuel your car) and they give a positive feeling to all who see them. Their aims for the day seem to be spreading the word of guerrilla gardening around the world, getting interested gardeners together and “bringing life back to cemeteries of canine excrement.” That seemed a slightly harsh description of Brussels to me but it’s their city so we’ll let it stand.
In small groups of six or eight we set off on our quest to make London a little greener. So far the highlight of my gardening career had been killing my mother’s streptocarpus through excessive watering so my hopes weren’t high. I soon found out that though that planting sunflowers is not the most complex of manoeuvres. All we would do was walk along keeping half an eye open for any ugly pieces of dirt. The planting involved nothing more than scraping away whatever garbage was in the way and dropping a seed or two into an inch deep hole in the dirt. Rain was forecast for later in the day so we didn’t even need a watering can. All in all it seemed as much a chilled way to get outside in the sun with some friends as it did a neighbourhood crusade.
A guerrilla gardener, without the cover of either darkness or ninja stealth, will not ply his trade unnoticed. A fair few passersby did query what we were doing but their suspicion turned to at least cautious amusement if not outright praise once they found out what we were up to. Nobody accused us of criminal damage. The only slightly negative comment we got was from a man out planting in his own garden and his chief objection seemed to come from the strange conviction that the only flowers worth planting were blue ones. It seemed safer not to question him too closely. The girl leading our little group commented on how sad it was that so many people could spend so much effort on their own gardens yet never spare a thought for roads they walked down every day.
For a few hours we wandered the streets of SE1 until, not far from Kennington Park, we parted company. Some headed home, some to the pub but all carried away a small sense of civic pride. An inch below the surface seeds were waking up with thoughts of germinating.
A few months on and what has happened since? Am I now I hardened practitioner of criminal horticulture? Well no, truth be told, I’m not. Let’s face it, I was always going to be a tough customer. On the other hand, I was cycling past a poorly maintained flower bed on Brixton Road the other day when I noticed a bright yellow head poking out at me. A true convert I may not be but it was with a certain warmth in my smile that I thought, I planted that!