activism books food transition towns

On guerilla gardening, by Richard Reynolds

I saw this in a closing bookshop ( alas, the mighty Borders has fallen) and two reasons for reading it immediately came to mind. First, I read about Incredible Edible Todmorten last week, and how guerrilla gardening has transformed a whole town’s attitude to food.

Closer to home, there’s a small and neglected park about 100 yards from where I live, round the back of the chip shop. Having ignored it for about twenty years, the council now wants to build flats on it, but it’s the only green space on the whole estate and the only spot large enough to play football. The local residents are determined to save it, and if the council can’t be persuaded to plant trees and flower beds on it, perhaps we should just get on with it ourselves…

Anyway, to the book. Richard Reynolds founded guerrillagardening. org a few years ago, giving a name and a face to a hobby/movement that’s been rumbling on for decades, if not centuries – Reynolds mentions Gerard Winstanley and the diggers as early pioneers, right back in 1649. This volume collects lots of stories of projects around the world, picking up common themes and challenges. It’s also a manual, detailing what to plant, where to plant it, and how to avoid getting caught, because as Reynolds points out early on: if you have permission, it isn’t guerrilla gardening.

The simple definition of guerrilla gardening is ‘the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land’, and there’s lots of reasons why you might choose to do it. You may not have a garden yourself, but want to grow things. There may be ignored or neglected patches of land in your neighbourhood. You might want to make your street prettier, grow some food for yourself, or make a political point about urbanisation or land distribution. All of those are legitimate reasons for secret gardening, although some are more important than others – for many, this is a subversive hobby. For others, especially in developing countries, it is a matter of survival.

Reynolds covers all types. There are hippies planting flowers, Londoners decorating roundabouts, Honduran peasants reclaiming agricultural land from the Chiquita banana company. There are some great stories. I liked the ‘phoenix gardens’, the miniature gardens planted in the ashtrays in Vienna’s stations after the smoking ban came in, or the vegetable plots that cropped up along the central reservation of Kenya’s highways, making use of the only patches of land left in the heavily built up areas. Perhaps most symbolic of all is the guerrilla gardening that went on inside Guantanamo Bay, when a prisoner asked for permission to plant a garden and was refused. Instead, he softened the ground with water and scraped it with a plastic fork. When he had enough soil, he planted melon and pepper seeds saved from prison meals.

The book is full of such stories, dozens of them, from huge projects involving dozens of people to those who just scatter wildflower seeds out their car windows as they drive down the motorway. It’s easy to see how you could get started, and it’s given me lots of ideas, to my wife’s consternation. For someone like me who doesn’t know a whole lot about plants, it’s also very practical. The sections on what to plant in dry or shady spots is particularly useful.

One thing that surprised me is how far Reynolds takes the guerrilla aspects of his craft. There are discussions of Che and Mao’s books on guerrilla warfare here. All the gardeners are referred to by their first name and a website registration number, giving them a codename. Reynolds refers to his plants as ammunition, his tools as weapons, and his volunteers as troops. He even recommends ‘shock and awe’ plant choices. It’s funny and tongue in cheek of course, but it reminds me of the early French proponents of Parkour, or free running. We see people leaping about on buildings, but to them it was a radical statement about the politics of urban space. Guerrilla gardening can be a similarly creative protest, a subversive statement about land ownership and use – let’s not forget, 69% of Britain is owned by just 0.3% of the people.

I haven’t decided if and how I will strike, but reading On Guerrilla Gardening has certainly inspired me to look at the streets around me differently. I’ve spotted a couple of neglected beds between my house and the station, and some sizeable plots of boring lawn crying out for some daffodil bulbs if nothing else. I’ll let you know how I get on.


  1. Hi Jeremy
    Thanks for the review, perhaps the most thorough and fair I’ve read. In hindsight I regret using troop numbers for everyone, I should have only used them for those who wanted to disguise their identity, but at the time it seemed fun, and still is. It just makes what we do seem perhaps more dangerous than it really is. Anyone, onto less important but more intriguing matters. Did the book in Borders really have that cover you’re showing?! I think that was a graphic used with in book shop catelogues, but perhaps it made it to print, in which case you’ve got a copy I didn’t know about. The three official covers can be seen here:

  2. Aha, the actual cover. I did a google image search, couldn’t see the exact one I’ve got, and figured that one was close enough. I’ve corrected it now.

    Although I wouldn’t be surprised if some rogue versions appear. All kinds of wierd books and alternative covers and uncorrected proofs turn up in a closing down bookshop.

    Thanks for dropping by – always great to hear some feedback from the author.

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