The Balcony Gardener Interview with the Guerrilla Gardener

Over the past few months we have featured guerrilla gardening plenty of times on the blog, and the different ways it is realised in growing projects across cities. We are huge advocates of the movement and the desire to make cities more liveable with more greenery and re-claimed waste ground. We were absolutely delighted when the pioneering founder of the movement, the original guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds joined us for an interview. Richard started his online blog in 2004 as way of recording his illicit cultivation across London, it has now grown into a blossoming community of guerrilla gardeners who share their tales of waste grounds, public space and all things green. It’s a brilliant working forum, and brings to attention many urban concerns about the lack of green space and council often un-willingness to take charge.

What was it that inspired you to start?

Imagining the opportunity in the very visibly neglected landscape that confronted me every time I entered my tower block. To some this blight would have been invisible or perhaps subliminal, to me it was an afront, a depressing insult of neglect from Southwark Council and from other residents. This wasn’t something to complain about but an exciting opportunity, a canvas on which I could once again become a gardener, something I’d missed since living in London and never having had much more than windowsills.

Where have you travelled, and what foreign gardening projects have inspired you?

I’ve travelled a great deal spreading the guerrilla gardening message and meeting other guerrilla gardeners. This has been a wonderful and unexpected side effect of blogging and writing about my activities and the loose global movement. My full travels are listed here.┬áIn terms of what’s inspired me: well of course the mature community gardens in New York, where the term guerilla gardening was coined in the early 1970s. The fact they’ve survived, grown, been endorsed and remain in a context that’s under very different pressures to what was there when they emerged – i.e. land values and development pressure vs urban flight and dereliction. Also the diversity and fun of tree pit planting in Berlin, where some even incorporate seating and murals and sculptures, all very informal stuff. I’ve recently returned from Milan where I met a 1 year old group of enthusiastic guerrilla gardeners from Bologna who attended my lecture. They’re called Terra di Nettuno and really get it.

New York City Guerrilla Gardens, 1970’s and today.

What’s been your highlight so far?

Meeting my wife guerrilla gardening. We were weeding and planting tulips 6 years ago this autumn and got married in June.

Have you encountered any resistance to guerilla gardening projects?

Yes. Some of it has been based on misunderstanding our motives or actions. For example the gardening establishment, the likes of Monty Don, Bunny Guiness, they are publicly negative, dismissive and personally aggressive towards my actions, but their reasoning is founded on ignorance or intentional misinformation. This was quite disappointing at first, but I’m resigned to the fact that they live in a gilded ivory tower, where as I live in a concrete one. Some locally authorities have got excited about how they might channel the enthusiasm, Lambeth get it now. My local authority in Southwark have been negative and unconstructive, in fact they even destroyed the one area of street gardening where I’d done it with permission, where it wasn’t a guerrilla garden. But I’m trying to turn this into an opportunity to change their mindset, for it to be a wake up call. I think I’m getting somewhere. Tomorrow morning the leader of Southwark Council, Cllr Peter John, will be paying me a visit. It’s taken 8 years of guerrilla gardening and two years of requesting this meeting to get to this point. I want them to help facilitate roadside planting as their neighbours in Lambeth Council now do.

Guerilla gardening in Southwark, 2007. Photo: The Guerilla Gardener

What are your tips for novice guerilla gardeners?

Be prepared to do it solo. Start small and very local to where you live. If you don’t succeed try again. Read the landscape, work out what the pressures on your patch might be. Now is a good time to do some, plant some bulbs, and use the success to encourage you to do more and get help.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve just been to New Covent Garden market to stock up on more daffodils, two big boxes of Narcissus Barrett Browning. I’m ‘upgrading’ 10 of the tree pits in London Road which I first planted last summer. The upgrade involves building a scaffold plank high raised bed around the trees, protecting the tree trunks and filling with soil. It’s quite a lot of work but it makes the tree pits easier to tend and much less vulnerable to trampling. It also looks pretty smart. Most of the wood is reclaimed off the street abandoned by construction work. Thankfully there’s lots of construction work around Elephant and Castle.