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Dig for victory

Armed with nothing more than trowels and a vision, guerilla gardeners are part Alan Titchmarsh, part Che Guevara. Their green acts of disobedience are transforming cityscapes around the world. By Joanne Clarkson

September 1, 2004
4 min read

What is it?

The pursuit of planting up vacant corners of the city is not just a game of aesthetics. Guerilla gardening can also be about regenerating urban social spaces that we are otherwise told to avoid. And it helps ward off rats, dirty needles and rubbish tipping within the disused nooks and crannies on desolation row.

Stories from the trenches

In the 1980s disused lots in disadvantaged areas of New York were turned into gardens for local Puerto Rican, Colombian and Polish communities. One of the better-known examples of what is known in the US as “avante gardening” was the Chico Mendes Garden in the Little Puerto Rico district of the city: a high-yielding vegetable patch was cultivated on what was formerly a useless area of waste ground. The garden was eventually bulldozed in 1997 thanks to the efforts of New York’s Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his developer cronies, who were seeking to gentrify the area.

Closer to home, thousands of guerilla gardeners descended on Parliament Square in Westminster on May Day in 2000. The activists sowed the seeds of anti-capitalist sentiment on a grand scale, and distributed to their fellow demonstrators more than 10,000 leaflets stating: “Guerilla gardening is not a protest; by its very nature it is a creative peaceful celebration of the growing global anti-capitalist movement.” Their actions had a long-lasting impact: several months later a crop of marijuana plants was found sprouting in the shadow of Winston Churchill’s statue.

Sowing the seed

The online information network Primal Seeds is a hub of resources for guerilla gardeners everywhere, and supports grass-roots movements around the world. It aims to challenge the streamlined monoculture of monopolistic agribusiness, and promote instead a kind of food production that is based on diversity and community. The site is a useful primer for budding eco-rebels, and has information on soil health, methods of compost and how to make your own “quick rot guerilla pots”.

Around 97 per cent of the UK’s vegetable types have been lost in the past 100 years. In an attempt to halt that process, Primal Seeds supports the swapping of rare, local seeds by small community groups. Seed-swapping meetings, such as Seedy Sunday‘s occasional gatherings in Brighton, are market-style events that help maintain the tradition of sowing “heritage” seeds from local areas that are specially suited to local conditions. Sharing older varieties of seeds helps protect biodiversity. Corporations like Monsanto, in contrast, develop seeds that are designed to become sterile after one season: the emphasis is on profit at the expense of sustainability.

Getting your hands dirty

So why not cultivate your local area? Try railway embankments, back gardens, golf courses, roofs, car parks, even cracks in the pavement: anywhere where there’s a bit of soil. “The flower beds in your town centre could be growing your crops, right in the heart of the consumer landscape of burger bars, chain stores and supermarkets,” advises Primal Seeds.

Plant all kinds of seeds. To ensure a lurvely spring bloom, tulip and daffodil bulbs are best planted now. Or just spread wildflower seeds in areas that get lots of sun and be patient.

If you’re more adventurous, take small cuttings of a variety of plants from city parks, where you can really take your pick (it’s not really stealing), and sprout them at home – thereby increasing the odds of survival. Use recycled plastic containers as plant pots (yoghurt cartons with punched-out holes in the bottom are always good). Then go forth and brighten up nearby derelict plots.

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