Guerrilla Gardening

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Guerrilla Gardening Book By Richard Reynolds. Picture courtesy Gordon Joly see his flickr pageGuerrilla Gardening Book By Richard Reynolds. Picture courtesy Gordon Joly see his flickr pageAre you worried that our food supply chain will not hold up during these troubling times? If so, it’s time to seriously consider ‘guerrilla’ vegetable and fruit gardening.  And, once lockdown is over, if you can get your whole community involved, it can also be most empowering. Food is security, so read on to find out more about this fascinating subject.

Liz Christy Garden. Picture courtesy Eden Janine and Jim See their flickr pageLiz Christy Garden. Picture courtesy Eden Janine and Jim See their flickr pageThe earliest recorded use of the term “Guerrilla Gardening” was coined in 1973 by Liz Christy and her “Green Guerrilla” group, in the Bowery Houston area of New York. During these early days her original band decided to do something about the urban decay they saw all around them. They threw what they called “seed green-aids” over the fences of vacant lots, and planted sunflower seeds in the centres of busy New York City streets, even planting flower boxes on the window ledges of abandoned buildings. Later they started to transform a derelict private lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets into a garden which sparked the enthusiasm of locals who volunteered to work for free, and it soon became a thriving communal garden, with local stores and nurseries donating vegetables, cuttings, and seeds to the project.

The garden flourished and became the pride and joy of the neighbourhood. This single communal garden sparked a movement, and soon dozens of communal gardens sprung up all over New York City, and today this inner city space is still cared for by volunteers, and now enjoys the protection of the city's parks department. Over 600 other community gardens serve as testament to the vision and innovation of the Green Guerrilla’s, and the organisation has grown with the times, and now operates as a vital non-profit organisation which helps communities cultivate gardens.

Read more about the Green Geurrillas here…

There have always been guerrilla gardeners, and the concept possibly goes back much further than those cases which have been documented. However, those which have been documented are fascinating, and two gardeners, who were active guerrilla gardeners long before the coining of the term, are still celebrated by many guerrilla gardeners today, namely: Gerrard Winstanley, of the Diggers in Surrey, England (1649), and John "Appleseed" Chapman in Ohio, USA (1801).

Liz Christy Garden. Picture courtesy Eden Janine and Jim - See their flickr pageLiz Christy Garden. Picture courtesy Eden Janine and Jim - See their flickr pageThe history of the Levellers, the True Levellers, and the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard is a story far too long to document in length here. In short, the diggers were a group of Protestants, and one of the most radical of the sects that arose in the aftermath of the civil wars in England. The overthrow of the monarchy and the declaration of a free Commonwealth in 1649 was seen by the diggers as a first step towards the abolition of private property rights in favour of the communal ownership of land.

They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time, and their original name “Levellers” came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Acts of the Apostles. The Diggers tried (by "levelling" land) to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on their ideas for the creation of small, egalitarian rural communities. Agrarian parties advocated land reforms to redistribute land on large estates among those who work it. They also wanted village cooperatives to keep the profit from crop sales in local hands, and credit institutions to underwrite needed improvements. Gerrard Winstanley's followers called themselves “True Levellers” but later became known as “Diggers” because of their attempts to farm on common land. Their beliefs, however, were denounced as communism by the leaders of the Levellers.

Winstanley declared that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth"; and in April 1649 about 20 poor men assembled at St. George’s Hill, Surrey, and began to cultivate the common land. This started a movement which spread rapidly, with settlements springing up in various parts of southern and central England, to cultivate waste and common land in the hope that this would begin the process of restoring the land to its rightful owners, the common people. 

Diggers Memorial Weybridge. Picture courtesy Sludge G - See flickr pageDiggers Memorial Weybridge. Picture courtesy Sludge G - See flickr pageWithin a year their numbers more than doubled, and their activities alarmed the Commonwealth government, and roused the hostility of local landowners who were rival claimants to the common lands. The Diggers themselves abjured the use of force, but the rapid spread of the movement provoked a fierce reaction, and the Surrey Diggers were persecuted with legal action, economic boycott and violence; and in April 1650, just one year after the original settlement was founded, the Diggers' shelters were burned down and their crops destroyed. Other communities met a similar fate to the Surrey group and the movement was effectively suppressed by the end of 1650. In 1652, Winstanley published “The Law of Freedom” in which he proposed the introduction of his utopian commonwealth by state action. However, although he was dedicated to Cromwell, Winstanley's championing of the rights of the common man over the rights of landowners had little influence during the Commonwealth and Protectorate.

The diggers movement continues to this day and the Wigan Diggers’ Festival is an annual affair which celebrates the life and ideas of Wigan born and bred Gerrard Winstanley & the 17th Century Diggers' (True Leveller) Movement.

Johnny Appleseed. Picture courtesy Lisa Yarost - See her flickr pageJohnny Appleseed. Picture courtesy Lisa Yarost - See her flickr pageOur second gardener is one of America's fondest legends - that of Johnny Appleseed - a folk hero and pioneer apple farmer in the 1800's. He was affectionately known as "Johnny Appleseed" because he brought apple seeds from Pennsylvania and planted them in the Midwest, and it is said that he would travel hundreds of miles to prune his orchards, which were scattered throughout the wilderness. And, there really was a Johnny Appleseed and his real name was John Chapman, born in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1774. His dream was to produce so many apples that no one would ever go hungry again, and so he did. This American pioneer nurseryman introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the northern counties of present-day West Virginia. This lovely true story may inspire you to become the next Johnny Appleseed, but remember that the sowing of seeds in the wild and especially those which are not indigenous to a region would be considered a crime today, so if you have to grow apples, keep them in your gardens and suburbs.

Today the term “Guerrilla Gardening” is still alive and well thanks largely to Richard Reynolds, who in 2004 started his blog:  At that time he was just a frustrated gardener who did not have his own garden, and who wanted to improve the look of his neighbourhood, so he started his solo guerrilla gardening exploits outside Perronet House, a bleak-looking council block in London's Elephant and Castle district. His blog attracted the interest of fellow gardeners in London, who were doing much the same and who also considered themselves guerrilla gardeners, and so the movement grew, spreading far beyond London. The world’s media caught the buzz , running  with the story, and the rest became history, with stories running in gardening magazines and newspapers around the world,  including:  Reader’s Digest, Marie Claire, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and Vogue, to name but a few. There is even a newspaper article on his blog which was published in South Africa by the Sunday Tribune on the 8 January 2006.

Seed Bombs. Picture courtesy Kevan - See his flickr pageSeed Bombs. Picture courtesy Kevan - See his flickr pageRead the article here…  remains a thriving community and Richard’s blog includes boards where guerrilla gardeners from around the world can find supportive locals, and also includes many useful tips and links. Richard helps to educate the troops, with some even travelling from far and wide to participate and learn from him.

His book, On Guerrilla Gardening, which documents his activities in 30 different countries, was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in the UK and USA in May 2008, in Germany in 2009, France in 2010 and South Korea in 2012. He regularly speaks on the subject to audiences and in 2010 launched a campaign focusing specifically on pavements as an opportunity, to 'plant life in your street'.

Listen to Richard Reynolds Geurilla Gardening TED talk here

Sunflowers Rue Lesbroussart Street Brussels. Picture courtesy Brussels farmer - See flickr PageSunflowers Rue Lesbroussart Street Brussels. Picture courtesy Brussels farmer - See flickr PageThe International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day is an annual international event which was started on the 1st of May 2007 by guerrilla gardeners in Brussels who call themselves the “Brussels Farmers”. It is a day when guerrilla gardeners around the world plant sunflowers in areas of their neighborhood which are abandoned or neglected, like around tree pits, flower beds and roadside verges. They declared it Journée Internationale de la Guérilla Tournesol, and it has been championed by guerrilla gardeners around the world ever since, and continues to garner more and more support each year. In other parts of the world various other plants are substituted for sunflowers if the climate is not suitable for growing them at that time of the year.

See their facebook page

Watch this inspirational youtube video about International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day produced by Richard Reynolds of

For many of us gardening may be a hobby or perhaps just a chore, but for the speakers at a greening the city conference held in 2014 in Sheffield, England, titled “From Grey to Green: Adventures in Radical Urban Gardening”, it was a life-saving necessity. The conference featured five prominent speakers who shared their insights into the beautiful’ rainbow canvas’ that guerilla gardening has become.

Read more about the conference here…

First up was sassy American installation designer Vanessa Harden from Subversive Gardener  a non-profit organization that is a platform for environmental education, design exploration and public intervention connected to the guerrilla gardening subculture. Richard Reynolds of described his experiences and those of other radical gardeners who successfully turned temporary gardening forays into established sites. Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield, and one of the world’s leading voices on innovative approaches to planting design, spoke on the new ecological approach to planting gardens and public spaces.  His work revolves around the integration of ecology and horticulture to achieve low-input, high-impact landscapes that are dynamic, diverse, and tuned to nature.

Ron Finley 'Gangsta Gardener' Picture courtesy US Embassy - See flickr PageRon Finley 'Gangsta Gardener' Picture courtesy US Embassy - See flickr PageThe main speaker was fashion designer and celebrated ‘gangsta’ gardener Ron Finley. Ron, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and is familiar with the area’s lack of fresh produce, described his neighbourhood as a space where it is hell to find an organic apple, “I live in an area basically designed to kill me and everyone else in the neighbourhood. I tried to change that” he said. In 2010, he set out to fix the problem by planting vegetables in the strip of dirt next to the side of the roadside curb, right outside his front door. The City of Los Angeles who owns the parkways and neglected dirt areas next to roads where he was planting cited him for gardening without a permit, but this did nothing to deter Ron and he started a petition with fellow green activists, demanding the right to garden and grow food in his neighborhood, and the city backed off.

His efforts caught the eyes of creative leaders and media voices, who lauded his courageous act of defiance, and so Ron has continued to share his story and vision with the world, giving a TED talk and planning many exciting ways to continue his involvement in mitigating wat is called “Los Angeles food prisons.” He also described what he does not as gardening but as art, “I’m a fashion designer, not a gardener.” When asked,” How do you go from designing clothes to growing your own food?” He replied, “It’s still imagination, its still creativity – it’s just another canvas.” “You get things you don’t expect to get- conversations happened. It changed lives and my life included. It’s amazing what you can do when you put a seed into the ground.” Perhaps this is something we South Africans should seriously consider doing.

Find out more about Ron the gangsta gardener here…

Guerrilla gardening is about ordinary people just like you and me and there are just too many wonderful guerrilla gardening stories to add to this article. Some, however, are just irresistible, and this one is guaranteed to make you smile. It is that of a 79 year old woman, June Turnbull from Wiltshire County, England. This remarkable lady planted and tended a garden on a barren spot outside her home for six years, but when the local authorities noticed, she was told to stop gardening due to health and safety rules. She fought back and the parish and county councils have now agreed she can carry on, as long as she puts up warning signs and follows other council safety rules like wearing a fluorescent jacket.

Roerich Garden Project. Picture courtesy artefatica - See flickr pageRoerich Garden Project. Picture courtesy artefatica - See flickr pageGuerrilla gardening has spread too many parts of the world, with more than thirty countries listed, and simply put, guerrilla gardening is the act of gardening on land that gardeners do not have the legal rights to cultivate, such as abandoned sites, and any other areas that are not being cared for. The land is secretly used to raise plants, frequently focusing on food crops, but not neglecting flowers for their aesthetic purposes. Some guerrilla gardeners carry out their actions at night, in relative secrecy, while others garden at more visible hours for the purpose of publicity, which can be seen as a form of activism. Worldwide, this practice has implications for land rights and land reform; aiming to promote the re-consideration of land ownership in order to assign a new purpose or reclaim land that is perceived to be in neglect or misused.

If you do not want to risk being caught and prosecuted, try guerrilla gardening at home, you will be surprised how many neglected little spaces can be transformed and used productively. And, if you live in a townhouse community, the trustees could be persuaded to integrate some vegetable crops and fruit trees into the garden landscape for everyone to enjoy. And if you have space, it would be easy to start a communal vegetable garden where everyone can participate.

Guerrilla gardening In Milan. Picture courtesy OggiScienza - See flickr linkGuerrilla gardening In Milan. Picture courtesy OggiScienza - See flickr linkPeople of all races, colours and creeds have embraced the movement and do their gardening for various reasons, but no matter the reason, guerrilla gardening  remains an interesting concept which does no harm, and in South Africa it could work really well, helping families to feed themselves, not only during bad economic  times but also during the good years.

Guerrilla gardening is bound to gain an even larger following now that people are realising how delicate their food security really is. Start guerrilla gardening in your own backyard right now, and when lockdown is over, get together with your community and try some guerrilla gardening in your neighbourhood – greening the environment can be done in any sad city spaces – in car parks, up walls, and even on rooftops. It’s rewarding, inexpensive and great fun, plus getting to know your community is also vital right now.

If you enjoyed this article and would like more along the same lines, including which plants are best to plant in South Africa for guerrilla gardening, please vote at the top – this gives me a better idea which articles are most helpful for you.

Keep safe and well South Africa and keep on gardening!