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Planting seeds on stony ground

21 August 2015

‘Guerrilla gardening’ is bringing new life to urban spaces, and Richard Reynolds is its best-known proponent, as Paul Northup explains. Additional reporting by Jemima Thackray

richard reynolds

Looking on the bright side: sunflowers bloom in Denmark Hill, south London

Looking on the bright side: sunflowers bloom in Denmark Hill, south London

YOU could almost describe Richard Reynolds as the Banksy of the gardening world. But if you come across him about his secretive business, you won’t find a spray can in his hand, but a trowel and a dibber.

In 2004, Mr Reynolds started transforming unloved pieces of London ground such as traffic roundabouts and bits of scrubland into riots of colour. It started when he moved to the Elephant and Castle, an area of London known chiefly for traffic and grime.

He had grown up in the small market town of Holsworthy in north Devon, surrounded by farmland, in a county where almost everyone had a patch of greenery to call their own. But, at the Elephant, Richard, now a freelance strategic advertising planner, had nothing for his itchy green fingers to work on. "I started guerrilla gardening to relax," he says. "When I first started working in advertising, the job was really frustrating, and I didn’t have a garden of my own. I wanted to create something and make it beautiful."

So he found nooks and crannies that were privately or publicly owned, but which had been neglected, and took their care into his own hands. Before long, he found that guerrilla gardening wasn’t his invention, but that he was part of a growing movement all over the world, particularly in urban environments.

Indeed, for the past decade, 1 May has been designated as International Guerrilla Gardening Day, galvanising more than 5000 supporters to plant sunflower seeds in neglected public flower beds and road verges.


MR REYNOLDS began to blog about his activities, and ended up as the unofficial co-ordinator of other like-minded gardening activists across the UK through his website www.guerrillagardening.org.

When he gets home from work, he checks in with his fellow gardeners online and then, as like as not, he says, "I pack up my tools and meet others at a traffic island or roadside verge for an hour-and-a-half of weeding or planting."

A few months after he started his project at the Elephant and Castle, he came to the attention of the media. When the council finally cottoned on to what he was doing, rather than force him to stop, it sanctioned the activity as a form of community gardening. It quickly took over his life: he even met his wife while gardening on a traffic island, and he now has a two-year-old daughter who is already a seasoned guerrilla gardener.

He is not raging against the machine so much as simply getting stuck in. "There is something anarchistic about what we are doing because we are not asking for permission — not because we want to bring down the state," he says, "but because the state is befuddled in bureaucracy, and it is simpler just to get on with it than to wait for them to do it." In the end, he says, "you just want to cheer [people] up, and, hopefully, inspire them."

He has only once been threatened with arrest. He was digging up a plot on the Elephant and Castle roundabout. "Normally police are just confused but ultimately let me get on with it. This time we had no plants or seedlings with us to back our story up. It led to the police uttering the immortal line ‘Put down your tools or we’re taking you in.’"

Mr Reynolds follows in a tradition of green-fingered radicals who have long been using planting as a means of protest. CND activists have been creeping into military bases for decades to plant peace gardens. More recently, guerrilla gardening has gone hand in hand with environmental politics. There is even a burgeoning urban gardening movement in Greece, where pop-up vegetable patches are planted as a symbol of the decline in food security.

Reynolds uses his influential voice to campaign for safer and cleaner public spaces in the capital, most recently standing against the enlargement of the ring road at Elephant and Castle, in a campaign he called "Save Our Subways".

Another of his campaigns, "Pimp your Pavement", seeks to encourage people to take ownership of the street right outside where they live, particularly "tree pits", the muddy, sandy or gravelly spaces around trees. Reynolds explains that the somewhat risqué campaign name deliberately "appropriates the language of the street for the good of the street life. . . [It] seeks to change the way we look at and use the public realm, whether as residents, maintenance staff, designers, or policy-makers . . . turning the public realm into a borderless community garden, getting people spilling out of their private space and being creative there."

Apart from his habit of clandestine community gardening, Mr Reynolds now spends a great deal of time touring the world, giving talks and encouraging others to join in his vision, besides promoting his book, On Guerrilla Gardening: A handbook for gardening without boundaries (Bloomsbury), which has been widely published in English, German, French, and Korean.


Richard Reynolds is talking at Greenbelt 2015, 28-31 August.





A stitch in time

GARDENING isn’t the only sedate ac­­tivity that has an un­­expectedly anarchic subculture. Alongside "guerrilla gardening", the 2015 update of The Oxford English Dictionary welcomes into its pages the term "guerrilla knitting".

Otherwise known as "yarn­bombing" or "yarnstorming", guerrilla knitting is now a global phenomenon. En­­thusiasts will anonymously de­­corate public spaces, wrapping statues and lamp posts with multi-coloured scarves, or dotting little woollen animals along bridges. Most secret knitters are motivated by a desire to liven up dull public spaces, although occasionally a more political agenda is visible when tea cosies are draped over the rifles on war memorials.  

The movement was started in Texas by Magda Sayeg, who began by knitting a sheath for the "Stop" signpost outside her clothes shop. The concept was then brought to London by Lauren O’Farrell, who developed it into a form of street art, a non-permanent craft graffiti that she now creates under the pseudonym "Deadly Knitshade". She has also founded London’s first guerrilla-knitting collective, Knit the City; and the guerrilla-knitting phenomenon is popping up all over the UK.



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