Oddly Enough

"Guerrilla gardeners" sprucing up London by night

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - They defy the power of the state with raids under cover of darkness using grenades, slingshots and surreptitious sprinkling in an all out war to beautify the capital’s neglected public spaces.

'Guerrilla Gardeners' plant flowers on a spot of urban wasteland in south London April 22, 2008. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

London’s “guerrilla gardeners,” armed with spades and trowels, are behind a number of the floral displays on the city’s roundabouts (traffic circles) and roadside spaces.

They often operate in the dark of night because they are gardening in public spaces without permission from governmental authorities who don’t often take kindly to their interference.

“I will do it at night or when it’s pouring with rain,” said Richard Reynolds, founder of website and author of “On Guerrilla Gardening.”

“When it’s a new location it’s better out of hours. You’re less likely to have confrontation with a contractor,” said the 32-year-old, whose job is in advertising. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Some participants start operating in daylight as they gain confidence, he said, and add their own touches to the city when no one is looking.

For weeks, one city worker has been sprinkling thousands of wild flower seeds in the capital during his daily walk to work, because he wants to brighten up the city, he said.

The term “guerrilla gardening” arose in the 1970s, when New Yorker Liz Christy set up a group called Green Guerrillas to garden in neglected public space.

The area that the New York group first developed is now protected by the authorities and kept up by volunteers.

But even as far back as the 17th century, English political activist Gerrard Winstanley was sowing the seeds of guerrilla gardening when he planted crops in public spaces.

Local authorities can be dead set against guerrilla gardening or turn a blind eye, Reynolds said.

He aims to rally government support for public gardening with a “Pimp your Pavement” campaign.

“I’m seeing if I can change some policy in London to get local authorities not just to silently tolerating what we do, but to support it, as has happened in Berlin, Vancouver, and Amsterdam,” he said.


Today, in central London’s Lambeth North area, any passers-by admiring a traffic island brimming with tulips, lavender, shrubs and cabbages are looking at a recent act of guerrilla gardening by Reynolds, he said.

“It shows what you can get away with,” he said, adding the display lies on the border between Southwark and Lambeth councils. He said council views on guerrilla gardening differ.

Lambeth was encouraging, but wanted gardeners to “get in touch” before any projects. Southwark was less welcoming.

“By its very nature, the guerrilla gardening initiative seems to need to operate in a covert and surreptitious manner and acts on an assumption that there is no other means of achieving its aims,” a Southwark Council Spokesman said. “This is something that the council would take issue with.”

Reynolds has also gardened in public spaces in Libya, France, Germany and the Czech Republic and said successful guerrilla gardeners share similar character traits:

“Optimistic, imaginative and a bit mischievous.”

Some guerrilla gardeners follow the example of New York’s Christy and use “seed grenades” -- clods of earth and seeds that they throw onto land. The first seed grenades, in the 1970s, were made by stuffing seeds into condoms.

And professional gardeners, too, can be mischievous.

“One method would be to wrap seeds in water-soaked tissue paper and just hurl them somewhere,” said Karen Meager, a professional gardener and landscaper in London.

“I have plans to do it from a canal boat and sling-shot seeds onto wasteland. I’m going to do it along the Regents Canal this summer,” said Meager, 40.

Guerrilla gardeners plan meet-ups through blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, and thanks to the internet they can now work together across borders, even organising simultaneous gardening events in different countries.

May 1 will mark “International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day,” when people across the globe are set to plant sunflowers in public spaces.

The event was inspired by Brussels Farmer in Belgium, a group of guerrilla gardeners that plants sunflowers across Brussels.

A page on Facebook that Reynolds dedicated to the event has registered nearly 700 potential participants so far.

“Guerrilla gardeners are livening up places that really could do with it,” Meager said.

“Just seeing those green shoots lifts your soul entirely.”

Editing by Paul Casciato