Gardening without permission

Richard Reynolds is The Guerilla Gardener, read his profile for more information about his guerilla activities.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of gardening that makes it a rather potent activity for creating very obvious change easily where other activities would struggle.  Gardening is simultaneously both perceived as a genteel, bourgeois and even romantic activity requiring only modest talent or enthusiasm while also being physically ‘in your face’, pretty much permanently if the gardener wishes. This also makes gardeners very approachable. I can’t think of any other past time that could so easily be described as ‘lovely’ or ‘nice’ or ‘inviting’ which can also make such an impact. Piano playing, watercolour painting, adopting furry mammals, these things don’t have the presence. Which means as a gardener you can have an impact on a lot of people and yet neither your garden nor you need suffer the side effect of this by being tagged as some kind of anti-social nuisance. I’ve used this fantastic contradiction for eight years now by gardening where I don’t have permission, typically very public neglected places.

What started as something very much for my own personal satisfaction and enjoyment was readily seen as something so very generous and giving. I was daring to do something delicate, vulnerable and precious in a place where it was at risk and to some extent I was at risk too. Where as those who use paint to create bright-coloured images in public without asking first are blighted with officials on their tail and hide behind pseudonyms those who paint with flowers don’t need to hide. In fact, whilst I used to skulk around in the small hours of the night I soon realized this was pointless. Hiding also prevented me benefiting from the opportunity to inspire people to help out or do as I was doing wherever they lived.

You see gardeners are very approachable people, despite being armed with an array of big metal tools. Conversations start with curiosity: did you plant these, how do you plant these, where can I plant these, who employs you to plant these? Before you know it what began as a conversation about gardening sprouts off in all sorts of directions to one of local politics, the peculiar urban microclimate, the degree to which users of the space abuse it or where the best bar is. If I weren’t gardening out there but doing some other activity I don’t believe people would stop and chat so much. An activity perceived as more arty might make people stop and stare, but whether it’s an artist in the street engrossed in their work or a street artist engrossed in entertaining the crowd, the conversations just aren’t as likely were they just gardening there. Witnessing someone employed in a more menial task gives less reason for comment beyond giving the occasional thanks. There’s a middle ground which gardening fits into. The closets I can think of is dog walking. Those who walk dogs will understand what I mean. Their pet is an icebreaker for chitchat, particularly amongst fellow dog fans. But when the dog walkers go they’re gone and if well behaved they leave nothing behind. When gardeners go we leave our gardens behind and in this way the outreach continues. I spotted someone yesterday stop to photograph the three enormous opium poppies in one of my guerrilla gardens. On this occasion I also called out and gave her a little more information than her camera was revealing. And so hopefully not just pleasure but also inspiration to take part will also follow from this.