Muck and Mischief

Guerilla Gardening

Caption: The hedgerow outside Oregon’s oldest Mercedes dealership is augmented to make it a peace sign, planted by Sandy 990

I wrote this review of Richard Reynolds’ On Guerrilla Gardening in 2008 but, for a range of mostly bad reasons, it hasn’t seen the light of day until now. That’s a shame because Reynold’s book is a terrific resource into which to dip for inspiration when you’re looking to mess with the institutions of private property in ways that are constructively anarchic (and I admit that this is something I try to do regularly). More below the fold.


In 2050, when there are nine billion people living mainly in cities, it’s not entirely clear how we’ll feed everyone. Industrial agriculture, with its dependency on vast tracts of land, deep cheap water and endless fossil fuels, won’t be able to help – we just don’t have the resources to farm for 9 billion people in the future the way we now farm for 7 billion.

A group of 400 scientists who’ve been bending their minds to this question recently announced their findings, and their answer looks very different to the way we eat today. The International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, headed by Bob Watson, the former World Bank Chief Science officer and now Chief Scientific Advisor at DEFRA, came up with some surprisingly anti-establishment ideas. They suggested that in order to feed the world, we’ll need local agriculture, ecologies that build soil fertility and maintain ecosystem balances without chemicals, and a much more intimate geographical connection with our food.

It’s a fine manifesto, and important to anyone concerned about the future of food and our planet. But if this is where we need to go, we’re faced with the question of how to get there, and what’s it going to be like along the way. A field of answers to this perennial question is to be found in the delightful On Guerrilla Gardening, by Richard Reynolds (Bloomsbury).

Reynolds is well placed to talk about Guerrilla Gardening, being comrade #001 (in the language of the book, he’s Richard 001) in a movement that now has thousands of regular recruits from California to Cape Town. With actions that range from pranks (see picture) to serious attempts to Feed the People, guerrilla gardeners are a worldwide phenomenon, and one with a serious agenda for social change for which Reynolds’ book is a thoughtful guide.

What all attempts at guerrilla gardening have in common is a deep challenge to relations to property. If the gardening isn’t illicit, if it isn’t on someone else’s land without their permission, then it isn’t guerrilla – it’s just gardening. Reynolds understands the history behind the idea of changing relationships to land. He quotes Che Guevara’s observation that ..“it is tractor and tank at the same time breaking down the walls of the great estate… and creating new social relations in the ownership of land”.

Reynold’s book is salted with aphorisms from Mao and Che, but the real eminence grise is Gerrard Winstanley, the True Leveller or, to use the more appropriate shorthand, Winstanley the Digger, the original guerilla gardener. A Christian radical in the English Civil War, Winstanley held private property in vocal contempt. The 1649-1650 organisation, occupation and cultivation of common land in Surrey with which he is most famously associated was ultimately undone by the authorities, but the spirit of the Diggers lives on, and Reynolds’ coming-to-terms with Winstanley is one of the reasons to read On Guerrilla Gardening.

When I talked to Reynolds a couple of years ago, his main complaint was that “Winstanley made too much noise” and ended up alienating potential allies. Winstanley chose to speechify, rather than to sow. Reynolds sees the need for less political grandstanding, more potted guile. Which is why his book is styled as a manual, full of sensible, practiced advice. If you’re stopped by the authorities, for instance, try saying that the community wants to make the place nicer, and you’re a volunteer. It’s hard for people to stop that unless they’re particularly officious.

In addition to tactical insight, Reynolds also has strategic advice, particularly about which common land to shoot for. In language that, at least half jokingly, summons the authority of a general at war, Reynolds says “my recommendation is to focus your attack on neglected land. This is a tangible enemy, and an adversary against which you are more likely to win support.” Part of the reason for the support is that, on neglected land, improvements will swiftly be noticed. A more beautiful and productive bit of green space is a victory for the movement and, pragmatically, nothing succeeds like success.

Of course, guerrilla gardeners aren’t the only group to be taking on the challenge of reconfiguring our imaginations about public space. Perhaps most spectacularly, London-based Reclaim the Streets did their own bit of guerrilla gardening in July 1996, when they took over the M41, drilled into the concrete, and planted trees while 7,000 danced in the lanes.

Reynolds wasn’t terribly impressed by all this, and gently scolds them, pointing out that the thousands of pounds that it cost to repair the motorway might have better been spent actually promoting more permanent green spaces. I think, here, there’s a trick missed. The purpose of Reclaim the Streets events aren’t to create, in perpetuity, an arboretum on the Westway. They are a radical breed of political art that makes us rethink urban space, and the way we move through it. Yes, the cost of filling in holes on the motorway was high – but, as citizen-driven art, it was a bargain.

It’s tempting to read Reynolds’ response as a little curmudgeonly and, at times, he does seem a little ranty. Take, for instance, his critique of marketing approaches used by certain guerrilla gardeners, some of whom “use grinning, flower-hugging gorillas as a badge for their battalion. Please stop this! Where there is a place for witticism within the guerrilla gardening ranks, let’s leave gorillas out of it.”

This isn’t, however, the sign of a young fogey so much as someone who’s serious about the business of urban politics in the real world. His agenda isn’t to build temporary autonomous zones that rise and burst like bubbles in cola. He’s grappling with the business of how to make subversion sustainable. And in this vision, there are strategic arguments for seriousness.

This isn’t to say that guerrilla gardening is all work and no play. One of the comrades in the book practices her guerrilla skills by pouring Miracle-gro on other peoples’ plants. The result is a riot of greenery quite beyond what the original planters intended. “If it had been weedkiller, it would have been different,” says Reynolds. This robust feeling for radical mischief is one that is to be found in the DNA of pretty much every group that’s trying to get us out of our current environmental and social crisis.

What On Guerilla Gardening provides is just one possible, but eminently practical, roadmap. It’s both manual, manifesto and, unexpectedly, a coffee table book, at least in its production values. The pages are lush with photographs of everything from Severin 888’s cannabis plants in German public gardens to Christopher 1594’s seed bombs (a mush of soil, seed and fertiliser to be lobbed into a chosen territory) moulded in to the shape of 9mm pistols. Yet despite the sometimes annoying language of the military, this is the sort of radical manifesto that you can give your maiden aunt (he dedicates it to “My Mother 008”). And it’s a book that deserves a very audience. What Reynolds offers is the prospect of transforming ourselves from spectators to activists in a daily, sustained, way. He does it by generating an infectious sense of possibility and hope that’ll be indispensible as we try to pull ourselves out of our current agricultural and urban quagmire. We’ll need to dig for victory against capital and environmental crisis, and if you’re wondering how that’ll happen, Reynolds’ got answers in spades.