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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

June 26, 2006
In his list of tips for safe and practical gardening, Richard Reynolds, the man spearheading the Guerilla Gardening movement in the UK, administers first-hand guidance with suggestions both practical and fanciful; "Get some Wellington Shoes," he states matter-of-factly, praising the footwear's versatility by noting that he has "even worn these clubbing." Other advice doled out by Reynolds (like the tip to "Garden with a girl") hints at a bachelor's ploy to disguise social interaction with the thrills of civil disobedience, and his start-up recommendation that aspiring guerilla gardeners "Buy a car" seems rather out-of-step with the ideals and attitudes one might naturally associate with horticultural vandalism, but there is no denying his campaign's potential mass appeal and rapid proliferation.

Reynolds, who also operates a t-shirt company called Good At Magic, has been blogging about his Guerilla Gardening campaign since October of 2004, when he hit the planter at the entrance to Perronet House, a tower block in London. The rectangular brick box had last been cared for in the spring of 1987, according to Reynolds, who cleaned, tilled and planted with flowers and greenery between the hours of two and nine in the morning. That was the first in a series of projects, modeled on an underground network of urban gardeners in early 1970's New York called the Green Guerrillas, that have been completed in late night botanical raids in and around London. The projects range in size and scope, from a 2 floral accent to the 264 renovation of a large neighborhood street planter in Stratford, and were sporadic throughout Guerilla Gardening's first year with Reynolds and a few friends doing most of the shovel work. Recently, however, things have picked up with a groundswell of international media coverage in print and on the airwaves; Reynolds has been interviewed by both the BBC and NPR in the past year and the group's website, an informal brown affair, is half urban gardening blog and half Guerilla Gardening press kit, the group having been cited everywhere from the front page of the Stratford Guardian (under a headline of "Guerrilla War") to the tastemaker corners of Esquire and even Reader's Digest. With tangential ties to environmental and lifestyle issues already in the media eye, not to mention a spiritual kinship to hot-button issues like the American prison at Guantanamo Bay (where detainees have been planting small garden plots of their own), the soft-core outsider aw-shucks rebelliousness of clandestine gardening has an allure to savvy young organic-minded hipsters and fiery grandmothers alike. That wide-reaching and benign thrill is a connection that Reynolds is banking on, having recently kicked off a global campaign to record 100 acts of guerilla gardening across "4 continents" (which ones Reynolds doesn't specify) by September 1st of this year. LAS staff writers Neil Burkey and Eric J. Herboth recently caught up with Reynolds, who graciously took a few breaks from "juggling and weeding" to provide a few answers and a few anecdotes.


LAS: You guys are the stuff of urban legends, you know, the kind that happens and people know they happened though no one sees it happen. Why do you choose to plant at night?

Richard Reynolds: I don't want a confrontation with anyone who has a job description which includes responsibility for the patches I garden. They might be public space, but in theory someone else is responsible for maintaining them. While they appear orphaned, you never know when the parents might show up. Gardening at night means the only likely confrontation is with the police - which has happened twice - and late night post pub drunks - who sometimes join in. The other reason for doing it at night is that is when we're free to work, and given its public space it is usually well lit.

What's the worst altercation you've had, with authorities or residents or dogs or vermin?

No dogs or vermin. "Worst" would have to be the very drunk bloke, who we heard approaching because he was singing and then decided to sit down in the middle of the bed of lavender we'd just planted and tell one of my female gardeners that she was the most beautiful girl in the world. It took about quarter of an hour to coax him away with the suggestion I bought him another cider at the corner shop, but the clincher to persuade him to leave him alone was the remarkable power of revealing my father is a vicar. This drunk tramp turned out to be religiously superstitious, and ridden with guilt as his fondness for cider and women.

When planning a project, how do you choose the spot?

Generally they are local to me, and appear to be in a state of long-term neglect.

Do you take requests?

I occasionally, time permitting, take suggestions of where to go and help out, but only if I know local people are there to help maintain it.

Without any discernable manifesto on your website I have to ask if there are any set, distinct objectives to your gardening - a cause toward which you attempt to move your campaign - or is it more anarchistic? It seems as if some people are doing it simply to implement public use of public space, while others seem to be in it for the "guerilla" aspect.

We have no manifesto as yet, not ruling one out, but prefer to encourage a common sense approach to the aims and the actions. Guerrilla Gardening takes on many different forms, but all acts could be defined as "illicit horticulture in public space." Some become legalised, but most don't and are unlikely to ever be. Beyond that definition I don't mind what form it takes.

If there is or isn't a directive to what guerilla gardening is, how will you measure its success or failure? Are those terms - success and failure - even relevant to your project?

Success to me is measured for now simply on the acts of guerrilla gardening, not judging the end results yet, but the initiatives, the attempts, the will. So much can intervene to prevent an act actually blooming into a great garden, and the guerrillas do not always win. I'm not yet just judging the victories, in gardening that's almost impossible, because they never stand still. While a land owner might turn a blind eye or eventually give us permission (but never instructions) the natural forces in cities - the weather, pollution, vandals, litter - are permanent opponents.

Gardening has long been recommended as a therapeutic activity, both for the individual and for society. With all the uptight control freaks running around, I imagine that gardening would present a pressure release for the insatiable urge that many have to dominate and control their surroundings. Some companies offer employees memberships to fitness clubs or access to on-site yoga as a means of stress relief - why is do you think that gardens and plants in general have such a hard time finding space in Western culture?

I agree growing things is very therapeutic, and it is seldom integrated into our lives these days. Let's focus on cities, where I think you'll agree there is a greater need for people to de-stress. I see the problem as this: Land is in short supply, a precious resource. Gardens are an expensive use of it, it's generally easier to add another floor to an office block and squeeze in a gym than to put in a garden. Green space in modern/industrial cities have been seen by planners as a specific zone, part of the big infrastructure, rather than as lots of little personal pockets. We have New York's Central Park, London's Royal Parks. Even more modern cities envisaged and occasionally realised by the likes of Le Corbusier used green open spaces at a massive scale, as a relaxing vista, for good air circulation, rather than as a zone in which human's could cultivate. These spaces are not suitable for regular gardening by local people, or even necessarily regular visiting to relax because they require a specific journey to visit them. Local people are no more involved in these than they would be a city beach. There are alternative visions, like Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Movement, and I've begun reading about CPULs - Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes - as well, which are cities in which gardens at a scale people can fully participate in.

Somewhat on the same topic, cities around the globe have begun incorporating more green, public spaces in construction and renewal projects. Seattle has the hanging gardens over the freeway downtown, and other cities are implementing green rooftop plans and small urban gardens. What are your thoughts on urban re-greening, and is guerilla gardening something you see as a part of that.

Yes. Cities are greening for many reasons - air quality, temperature, energy conservation, energy generation, reducing food miles. Richard Rogers and other eco-architects are saying and doing some good stuff. But I do think it's important local people are able to participate in a city's cultivation where possible. Schemes should not solely require expensive and specialist care, which to me seems like a perhaps wasteful resource of civic funds when there are plenty of people who want to garden and cannot.

The lack of a manifesto or FAQ or anything too rigid or organized kind of makes me think that is what the Map of 100 is for- what was the impetus behind the attempt to catalogue 100 acts of unsanctioned gardening before September?

My Map of 100 serves many purposes. The aim gives everyone interested in the movement an incentive; the more acts are recorded, the less intimidating an act of guerrilla gardening should seem. It helps people learn of activity near them around the world, and the diversity of acts. If I had more time and was a better web builder it would do more, like link to the specific story about the location. My website is really rather rubbish, I'd like much more participation from other uses, more sharing of tips, a greater sense of activity. I just don't currently have the time or talent to make it work, and find it generally quite depressing that the huge support and interest guerrilla gardening has received is not more efficiently being channeled into good gardening. Any tips welcome.

SEE ALSO: www.guerrillagardening.org

--
N.D. Burkey
A longtime infrequent contributor to LAS, Neil David Burkey is a painter, writer, sculptor and all-around artistic type. He currently lives in London, England, where he is, at long last, a legal resident.

See other articles by N.D. Burkey.

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