“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?” asked TS Eliot of the urban wasteland. The shoots that grow tentatively upon south London’s Elephant & Castle roundabout do not clutch at life accidentally; rather, they are planted intentionally – and illicitly – by guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds.
Guerrilla gardeners transform scraps of public land into urban gardens. The sites are wastelands, lay-bys and pavements. Guerrilla gardeners break the law as their gardens spill over legal boundaries; the handicap – for some the glamour – is that in violating the law, the activity risks charges of trespass or criminal damage.
“Nobody has gone to the nub of what the legal issues are,” explains Southwark council’s spokesman, Darell Carey. “We endorse projects that have the backing of the community.” With no complaints as yet from the public, the main grounds for objection are health and safety concerns. “We don’t want to seem stuffy,” says Carey, “but planting by night on a busy roundabout is a health and safety nightmare.”
The motivations behind illegal gardening are multifarious. For some, it’s about the love of gardening; for others, it is explicitly a political act, posing questions concerning land rights and the use of public space.
Reynolds, who heads the UK Guerrilla Gardening movement, coined the term in 2003. But the activity of guerrilla gardeners has existed for decades – even centuries, with some claiming legacy from the Diggers, a radical squatting movement that emerged at the end of the English civil war. It encompasses a broad spectrum of ideas from different parts of the world.
Richard Reynolds began his project in 2003. “I had no garden of my own but right outside my flat was a grotty bit of public land,” he says. Frustrated by the neglect, Reynolds armed himself with a trowel and set to work. “I just did it. I felt I was morally justified because no one else was.”
Reynolds’ blog allowed him to link up with people from across the world. “I began to connect together independent movements – Reclaim the Streets, the legacy of Green Guerrillas in New York, activity in Vancouver, Berlin, Denmark ... ”
The illicit nature of guerrilla gardening is central to its popularity. Reynolds admits as much. Yet the impulse does not spring from lawlessness but rather from the inherent unpredictability of the action. “It wasn’t the notion that I’d get into trouble that was engaging – but rather the question of whether the plants would survive – or even be stolen.” Did they survive? “Yes! That’s why I’m still doing it.”
No one has ever been arrested. “The fear about why and how we are doing it has diminished in the UK,” says Reynolds. “If you adopt a piece of land and go about it responsibly, there are no problems.”
Ella von der Haide, a gardener and filmmaker, began community gardening in the mid-1990s. “My first influence was the film Green Card (1990). A man arrives in New York, and gets married for a green card; he marries a guerrilla gardener.” She was also inspired by the artist and environmentalist Liz Christy, whose Green Guerrilla movement established community gardens in derelict Manhattan lots in the 1970s.
Two years ago, Der Haide moved on to guerrilla gardening in Munich. The activity soon evolved into a gardening school. “Many of the young people didn’t have any knowledge about plants, so we joined a community garden outside the city, where we are legal.”
In April, guerrilla gardening was legalised in Munich. A local NGO called Green City developed a permit for guerrilla gardeners, working as an intermediary body between citizens and councillors. “We believe that it’s better to co-operate than to fight,” explains Missa Gonslaves at Green City. “The citizens may garden wherever they choose but within the limits of a contract; and if they don’t care for the land properly, the permit is repealed.”
Der Haide says: “We still do the night action, because its fun, and we want more – a city without cars, agriculture without industrial exploitation of plants and animals. But I’d rather call it unconventional gardening than guerrilla gardening.”
Scott Bunnell started gardening illegally in Norwalk, Southern California, more than 20 years ago. “I would drive by a centre-divider on my way to work near Long Beach. It was filled by four palm trees and a lot of dirt. I thought, I can do something there. So I did.” Now Bunnell’s backyard is set up like a nursery. “I have so many plants in harvest that I have enough to supply other gardens. I meet people online who have been harvesting palms and plants for years. When we hook up, I can further expand my plant pallet. I have thousands and I’ve become self-sufficient.”
The principal consideration for gardeners here is the availability of water. “South California is basically a desert,” says Bunnell, but “if you can get control of the water system from local government, then you can put just about anything in.” Bunnell has never been arrested, and often the response from city officials has been overwhelmingly positive. “For one garden, they actually gave me control of the sprinkler system,” he says.
Bunnell’s main project is to plant drought-tolerant gardens. “I want to establish cyclical gardens that are appropriate for this climate.” His activity has affected state programmes, which now favour cyclical gardens. “In the last two years, the government has changed their entire plant pallet from jasmine and boxwood, which don’t fare well in the climate, to succulent plants such as aloe, agaves and echeverias – plants I have been using for years.”