‘Lets fight the filth with forks and flowers’ are the words of Richard Reynolds the unofficial leader of the ‘guerilla gardening’ movement, where people garden on land that they are not legally allowed to use and on May 1st people will be sowing sunflower seeds in abandoned and neglected parts of their towns and cities under the guise of International Guerilla Gardening Sunflower Day.
Back in 2004, Richard Reynolds fed up with the grime and neglect of parts of London and frustrated by a lack of any growing space of his own set about tidying up abandoned patches of land, removing litter and putting in plants. It soon became his passion and led him to write a book ‘On Guerilla Gardening’ charting the history of ordinary people challenging authority and asserting their right to culitvate land, from the Socialist Diggers of the 17th century to modern day guerilla gardeners.
He now writes a blog guerillagardening.org, where there are tips on how to be a guerilla gardener and how like-minded people can coordinate their actions. A quick look at his website shows roundabouts, the central reservations of roads, or squares of earth around the base of trees transformed from bare and scruffy patches of earth into little oases of colour, amongst the grey, concrete and tarmac. The movement however has split the horticultural world with some sections embracing it but others disliking the anarchic element.
It could be argued that it is the ‘Big Society’ working, local people taking responsibility for the area in which they live and tackling problems that councils and businesses aren’t interested in dealing with. Volunteers cleaning up litter and beautifying their neighbourhoods with plants and flowers seem like actions that are hard to decry. There are problems though, the most obvious being that permission has not being given by the land owner to use the land and that any gardening would be trespass. However, as you can see from the photos most of the ground used is small patches with no other use and generally council owned. There are safety issues with most of the planting done illicitly at night, being around areas of busy traffic and the possibility that abandoned land might harbour toxic substances or dangerous materials on the land or in the soil. It’s also not a good idea to plant edible food in areas of high pollution such as by the side of roads.
Planting sunflowers and other plants might seem like a bit of a jape by young people, circumventing authority but maybe it goes a lot deeper. Perhaps it is a sign that the ‘powers that be’ are not listening to those in the community. Everyone who is lucky enough to have a garden or allotment understands how much pleasure and joy being in touch with the earth brings. Some would say it is more fundamental to human wellbeing than is often acknowledged. City living, office jobs and modern life have taken us away from nature and the rhythms that our bodies crave. For those desperate for their own patch of soil it must be frustrating to walk past neglected areas, abandoned by their owner for years.
Even where I live in rural Wales there is a patch of abandoned land in a local village that has been like that for at least 6 years and yet there is a ten year waiting list for an allotment. A few years ago some frustrated soul had stuck a poster to a telegraph pole nearby saying it was outrageous that what could be a beautiful, productive patch of land was instead covered in weeds. Maybe the message to those who can shape our communities is the importance of making the inhabitants feel like they can still be in touch with nature. So much of what is built today is cold, grey and uninspiring it’s no great surprise that with increasingly crowded cities, the growth of grow your own but the lack of space to do so that people are taking things into their own hands and greening our urban spaces.