Chelsea Fringe Festival and the rise of guerrilla gardening

“New gardening” has leapt over the garden fence to beautify streets, parks and roundabouts of towns and cities worldwide. There is a generation of gardeners out there who do not look upon horticulture solely as a “back-garden” activity. They achieve beautification in various ways: by creating a community garden; planting flowers in the “tree pits” that surround street trees; or even engaging in “guerrilla gardening”, the practice whereby squads of horticulturists take to the streets at night to plant shrubs and flowers in places that may have been neglected by the local authorities.

In this vision, gardening becomes a benign form of environmental activism and a way of creating “social cohesion” — which in practice means making friends through gardening; it is certainly true that the activity recognises no social boundaries. And there are other factors at work. Studies from both sides of the Atlantic — including a new report by the King’s Fund in association with the National Gardens Scheme — continue to highlight the health benefits of gardening. The Royal Horticultural Society now wants to see National Health Service funds being channelled into horticultural projects in the UK, while in the US and China there are moves for increasing funds to be invested in green space. The trend for growing food has further contributed to the rise in community-based gardening around the world.

The roots of this movement were in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first community gardening groups sprang up in London, Berlin and New York, such as Liz Christy’s Green Guerillas. Back then there was an interest in “self-sufficiency” and an idealistic way of living. Today’s model is perhaps more realistic, with the volunteers who run community gardens often backed by local authorities and organisations such as GreenThumb in New York and Capital Growth in London.

Liz Christy, of New York’s Green Guerillas, in a community garden on the Lower East Side in 1975 © Donald Loggins

There is also a strong political element to this tradition. Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, who is based in London but marshals illicit horticultural activities around the globe via the internet, positions himself as part of a radical political tradition that stretches back to the Protestant reformers Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of Buckinghamshire. Reynolds points to the origins of modern-day guerrilla gardening as having been on the campus at Berkeley, California, in 1969, when students transformed a rubble-strewn parking lot into a “people’s park”. The then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, forcibly closed the park, and in the ensuing riot one man was shot dead by police. Reynolds himself has had his own run-ins with the local council over his gardening activities in the Elephant and Castle area of south London — though nothing on that scale. Today, local authorities are more likely to fund on-street community gardening.

Indeed, with gardening in the public realm generally now looked upon as a social good, confrontation is no longer part of daily experience for the average community gardener. There are strong movements in cities where one might expect such ideals would take root — such as Amsterdam and Berlin — but also growing interest in places such as Japan, where community gardens were set up last year in Nagoya and Fukuoka.

Richard Reynolds of Guerrilla Gardening © guerrillagardening.org

In many cases community gardens are set up on abandoned or unused land, but other initiatives are roving or multi-site. One such is the quirky Edible Bus Stop project, which started when a group of locals decided to make a vegetable plot on an ugly area of pavement next to a bus stop in Brixton, south London. The initiative spread to other bus stops along the same route.

On a larger scale, the “garden city” idea has been used recently in the UK for political point-scoring, when there is little evidence that anything like a real garden city is going to be built in the near future. Perhaps the nearest contemporary equivalent is the “transition town”, a movement that encourages existing settlements of all sizes to set up sustainable schemes based on food, transport, waste disposal and so on.

Closer to the spirit of community gardening, perhaps, is the unique model offered at Todmorden in Yorkshire, where the Incredible Edible Todmorden scheme, dreamt up by local people in 2007, grabbed the imagination of the mainstream and has effectively taken over the entire town. There are vegetable-growing spaces everywhere, the aim being the free and fair distribution of produce among residents.

All this was bubbling away in my mind in May 2010, when I woke during the week of the Chelsea Flower Show with the idea for the Chelsea Fringe Festival. What about an alternative gardens festival, a true “fringe”, where anything goes and risks can be taken, that would burst out of the Chelsea showground to spread across the world? The idea was not only to celebrate community gardening but also to push at the boundaries of what the activity could mean through collaborations with artists and environmentalists.

Edible Bus Stop’s Hoopla Garden in West Norwood, London © theediblebusstop.org

Since its inaugural year in 2012, Chelsea Fringe has expanded across the world. Last year there were about 350 events held across three weeks in London, the UK and various other countries, from the suburbs of Nagoya to the slopes of Mount Etna and the parks of Ljubljana. For the fifth edition this year, we welcome new Chelsea Fringe “satellites” in Sydney, Stockholm and the Isle of Mull, while there will also be multiple cities taking part in Italy. The only rules are that events have to be on-topic, legal and interesting — the quirkier the better. Event organisers pay a small registration fee (usually £25) to join. The Fringe receives neither core funding nor sponsorship and it is volunteer-run.

In London events range from art installations in Grosvenor Square to community-garden events such as a bijou cinema installed in a treehouse in Brixton. Guided historical and nature walks have also proved popular, such as those organised along the Thames at Richmond by the Gardens Trust.

This year we are looking forward to posy-making at the Inner Temple gardens, “flower dog sculptures” and poetry at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, an evening with the Russian vegetable puppet theatre in Lambeth, a floral flotilla in Henley-on-Thames and a stained-glass greenhouse on the Old Brompton Road.

As ever, we simply do not know how many events we will end up with and where they will all take place: registration of new events stays open until the last day of the Fringe. But that slightly anarchic spirit is all part of the fun of it, and of course it’s all a million miles away from the medals, crowds and money of Chelsea Flower Show itself.

Tim Richardson is the founder-director of the Chelsea Fringe Festival, which runs from May 21 to June 12; chelseafringe.com

Photographs: guerrillagardening.org; Donald Loggins; theediblebusstop.org

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