Guerrilla gardening is transforming neglected corners of cities the world over. As a new flower bed is created on a patch of public land in Booterstown this week , YVONNE GORDONhears about the motives that drive the movement
DON’T BE SURPRISED if you leave home one morning to find that the neglected piece of wasteground near your house or office has been transformed overnight into a mini flower garden. This may be due to the work of “guerrilla gardeners” who have decided to reclaim an ugly or neglected space to create something beautiful.
Guerrilla gardening is a worldwide phenomenon, with people taking over abandoned pieces of land they do not own to grow plants and flowers. Because of its illegal nature, many practitioners work at night and in secrecy to create new gardens. Targets for gardening include anything from neglected urban corners to traffic islands and canal banks.
Gardeners are greening up spaces everywhere from London and New York to Dublin and São Paolo. Last summer in Los Angeles, two guerrilla gardening troupes created huge flower beds around the city, with up to 100 gardeners turning up for each dig. In Hungary, meanwhile, 60 teams of guerrilla gardeners performed undercover horticultural actions during “Operation Green”.
This week, on Easter Monday, a group of around 20 people created a large flower bed in a corner of parkland owned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council near Booterstown Dart Station in Dublin. The event was organised by Ruairí Holohan, a local Green Party councillor, who invited people along to transform the patch of ground into a “heavenly garden”. The troops were told to bring bedding plants, bushes, gloves, tools and trowels. According to Councillor Holohan, the land had been neglected by the County Council.
The event was promoted by him through social websites such as Meetup.com and Facebook. At noon, the gardeners dug up an area of stony ground and began to create a garden. Within an hour, the job was done and Holohan was planning his next event.
Where the “guerrilla” group did its work is covered by the Blackrock Park Masterplan, which provides for the development of “the Booterstown Arena” through a youth cafe and gallery, plus a civic space with some car parking, designed for events like circus, farmers market, arts installation and performances.
According to Richard Shakespeare, director of environment and culture with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, unauthorised gardening initiatives on public land without the proper training equipment or apparel “is considered irresponsible. Especially from an elected representative”.
However, Shakespeare says that the council is not going to take any action against Holohan or other members of the group. “I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from it. We would rather get Cllr Holohan and his colleagues around the table to see if there is a community development opportunity in it. Things like this can be seen as opportunities. It would not be in the public interest to go after him.”
He said the Blackrock Park Masterplan went on non-statutory display for comment and has not yet gone though the formal planning process. “The park is due to be done in phases – I don’t know what the phasing is yet.”
Shakespeare added that there are safety issues with “guerilla gardening”, which poses certain public-liability issues for the council in terms of the people who are doing it and other users of public space. “As the landowner, we’re liable. If someone gets injured or hurt, it’s us they turn to. There could be cables that they know nothing about. Before we put a shovel into the ground, we will know where the underground cables are.”
He suggests that if people are concerned about neglected land, they should approach the local authority or landowner and engage with them. “We happily engage with interest groups to work in a planned way. We would prefer they work with us . . . Gardening can be a community development tool and a great way to bond a community.”
Cllr Holohan has told The Irish Times that the activity was not illegal, but accepts that it was “unauthorised”. “It’s an activity taking place in a public park,” he says. “American footballers play there. Let’s say the American footballers got hurt – that is a dangerous full-contact sport, far more dangerous than gardening.
“There is no actual law against it. There is no law they can use to press charges for. If it’s done on private land, it is illegal, is trespassing.”
He said that the event was endorsed by the Green Party, with the party’s Senator Déirdre de Búrca gardening and Ciarán Cuffe TD popping by to have a look and also Twittering about it last week.
One of those who attended on Monday was Erin Fornoff, who used to run a city garden in North Carolina after hearing about it on Meetup.com. But she said the website didn’t explain that it was in effect a protest. “I wonder whether our energy and resources shouldn’t be used on a garden that will stay there?”
Guerrilla gardening is not just about community digs or political messages. Many work alone, simply because they love gardening or want to brighten up a shabby area in their neighbourhood.
One of the pioneers of the guerrilla gardening movement is Englishman Richard Reynolds who started planting flowers secretly at night when he moved into a south London tower block without a garden. He set up a blog about his activities, Guerrillagardening.org, and it soon attracted attention from fellow guerrilla gardeners around the world. Reynolds now regularly digs with others and has also written a book, On Guerrilla Gardening, about his experiences.
“I’m into my fifth year now. I just started doing it on my own and blogging about it, then I rapidly discovered there were other people,” he says. “That’s how I came to write a book about it. I found there was something happening out there.”
Reynolds says the internet is essential for guerrilla gardeners. “It’s always going to be a minority activity because it is illegal. The internet turns that scattering of like-minded people into something tangible, so we can support each other.”
IN NORTH DUBLIN, Maurice Colgan (67) started guerrilla gardening outside his house.
“There was a little shrubbery planted by the county council years back,” he says. “It was overgrown, with lots of weeds. I killed off the weeds and planted geraniums, pansies and variegated cordylines. It’s actually county council property. I see the trucks going past – they look but they leave me alone. I’m also doing an area in a car park off Swords Main Street, and we’ve spotted other likely targets. I do it more or less on my own.”
So does he consider himself a guerrilla gardener? “I’m in the early stages! I only got into it fairly recently, then I saw the other blogs. I’d like to see it extend to the schools around the area. School grounds are very neglected when it comes to flowers. To get children involved would be great.”
John Baker, from Rochestown in Cork, has also been planting in secret around the city. He says he has never had any trouble with the authorities.
“I’ve never had anyone directly trying to stop me. Guerrilla gardening is questioning to a degree the concept of private property. Property is held up as being sacred. I believe that access to land is a fundamental human right.
“A lot of the emphasis with the recession is on business and commerce, not on community. Putting energy into the community may be a remedy for some stuff going on at the moment. It’s getting back to the way people always interacted with the environment – the soul needs to have that connection with the natural world.”
For most guerrilla gardeners, it is not just about an overnight stunt, but about creating something that will last. Richard Reynolds says that, in London, the police usually leave him alone. “It’s a kind of anomaly really. Technically it’s criminal damage, but most of us just go out there with the straightforward aims of creating a garden local to where we live.”
Reynolds adds that local authorities he has come across “turn a supportive blind eye. I’ve come across councils that are rather delighted, but it’s difficult for them to say so publicly because they don’t want to be responsible for our health and safety.”
Ironically, Reynolds has even won prizes for his work, such as a London Green Corners Award.
From web to site: how a mission is planned
Guerrilla gardeners first identify a patch of abandoned or orphaned land, usually near where they live, that needs brightening up.
They plan a mission, usually in the evening. They might announce it on their blog and invite others in the area to join in the dig.
They buy or grow some (usually hardy) plants for the plot.
They arrive at the site, clean it up, remove litter and debris, and create a garden.
“Seed bombs” (seed mixed with soil) can be used for areas that are difficult to access.
Many guerrilla gardeners upload before-and-after photographs to community websites such as Guerrillagardening.org.
Gardeners check on their gardens regularly, removing litter and watering plants.