From Melbourne to Montreal, from Calgary to Camberwell, an underground urban movement has grown through the world’s cities – sowing the seeds of subversive environmental pro-activism in the most beneficent of ways, brightening up our public spaces with the power of plants, and allowing flowers to flourish where otherwise there would be only grey; in short, taking disused pieces of land that are going to waste and greening them up for the good. The name of this movement? Guerrilla gardening.
Before we present our list of it greatest works, first a little bit of explanation: guerrilla gardening is political. It’s about reclaiming vacant and neglected sites – an empty city lot, a barren traffic island – and doing what the local authorities should have done a long time ago: putting them to good use and making them easier on the eye. The only snag is, it’s technically illegal, as officially the green-fingered activists need the owner’s permission first. Still, wouldn’t that just spoil the fun?
Armed with trowels, gloves, shrubs and bulbs, guerrilla gardeners aim to give the places they target not only more floral beauty but more purpose – especially when growing crops. In the eyes of the law it’s often seen as a form of vandalism or graffiti, though if the powers that be do care to remove lovingly nurtured piece of guerrilla gardening, they should find them a lot easier to efface than spray paint. In most cases, though, why on earth they would want to beats the horse manure out of me.
Many guerrilla gardeners choose to carry out their operations in covert cultivation under cover of darkness with only starlight and streetlamps for illumination. Others are keen to take back the city’s green spaces less secretively, engaging members of the local community to ensure there are always fresh recruits for activities like seed bombing – throwing balls of soil, compost and seeds into hard-to-reach places, enabling beauty to grow there.
Liz Christy and the Green Guerilla Group, NYC, 1973
The term guerrilla gardening was coined by artist Liz Christy and her Green Guerilla Group, back when hair was long and flares were wide in 1973. Christy and her clod-loving cronies – who also invented the first seed grenades – gave a dilapidated lot in New York City’s Lower East Side a major facelift, transforming it into a decidedly more attractive garden. Still cared for by local volunteers, the space later became legit, and now enjoys the protection of the parks department no less.
Liz Christy community garden 1973
In Christy’s day, people were fleeing the Big Apple for suburban security as rising crime affected the city. Chain-link fences were erected around abandoned lots and these inevitably filled up with trash and dumped items. It took the Green Guerilla Group a whole year just to clear the property and prepare the ground for planting in the first site at the corner of Bowery and Houston. Soon however the gardeners were able to branch out to other vacant lots and urged other people to do the same.
May Day 2000, Parliament Square, London
As part of May Day 2000’s Reclaim the Streets rally in London, a thousand-strong army of guerrilla gardeners occupied Parliament Square, where they planted not mines but veggies and flowers. The gesture was more political than horticultural, but while no long-term garden was expected to take root, the event still left a lasting impression. Banners were hung with slogans like ‘Resistance is Fertile,’ while turf was laid on the roads and the head of a certain wartime Prime Minister.
Planting vegetables in Parliament Square
via Narco News
When the statue of Winston Churchill acquired a grass Mohican, some thought the prank hilarious. Others were not amused, however, and while this piece of horticultural hair styling – intended to challenge the British establishment – was easily removed, the red paint on the plinth left a more indelible impression on MPs and the press, who heavily criticised the stunt. The perpetrator, an ex-British soldier, was fined £250 and sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for defacing the statue.
GuerrillaGardening.org, London and beyond
Created in 2004 by former ad man Richard Reynolds, GuerrillaGardening.org began as a blog to record his solo acts of “illicit cultivation” around London. The first spot he tackled was close to home – Perronet House, a shabby council block in London's Elephant and Castle area – his motives those of a frustrated gardener hoping to beautify the neighbourhood. However his website drew the interest of comrade guerrilla gardeners in London and beyond, not to mention the media.
Work by GuerrillaGardening.org in London
Since then, Reynolds's horticultural antics have reached many other pockets of London – from anonymous roundabouts and verges to famous landmarks like Westminster Bridge – and called others into action. Troops from the Big Smoke and further afield have stepped up to the frontline, while Reynolds himself has guerrilla gardened in Libya, Berlin and Montreal. GuerrillaGardening.org is now a hub for a thriving community of likeminded green-fingered insurgents across the globe.
Pothole Guerrilla Gardening, Mexico and UK
Pothole guerrilla gardening is an interesting if inevitably short-lived take on the phenomenon. Plants and flowers are of course sacrificed to the die under the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle, but neither this nor the dangers involved in planting them have stopped people in different continents seeing it as a way to make a statement while allowing bright, colourful fauna to briefly emerge from the craters that litter our roadways, a scourge to cyclists and motorists alike.
Flowerbed in the road
For Shannon Spanhake, creating these beautiful miniature gardens in roads across the city of Tijuana in Mexico was part of gesture intended to involve the community there, documented in the book Tijuana: A Fantasy of Absolute Place. Artist Pete Dungey, meanwhile, carried out a similar project in Britain to raise awareness about the prevalence of potholes: the flowers act as a kind of hazard light road users swerve to avoid and some have survived as long as a day.
Melbourne and Sydney, Australia
The guerrilla gardening movement in Australia has grown from strength to strength. Many of Melbourne’s suburbs have community vegetable gardens, while land alongside railway lines has been regenerated for native vegetation. Outside this division between the native planter and communal food grower camps, a community group called Permablitz voluntarily build veggie gardens to teach residents how to grow their own ready for when food prices soar.
Guerrilla gardening artwork in Sydney
In Australia, there was even a controversial network TV show called Guerrilla Gardeners – axed in 2009 – featuring a team of cheeky guerrilla gardeners who sneakily made over council-owned urban eyesores.
Guerrilla gardening artwork in Sydney
And in Sydney, efforts to brighten up people’s lives through guerrilla gardening have taken a more irreverently creative slant: in 2008, a pink VW Beetle appeared on the border of Surry Hills and Redfern – a playful mixture of public art installation and permaculture.
Canada too has seen its fair share of offbeat floricultural urban activism. In 2009, Toronto-based street artist Posterchild began turning disused newspaper boxes into planters. Amazed by the fact that flyer boxes are everywhere in the city, taking up valuable sidewalk space yet empty for years, Posterchild saw an opportunity. Prior to this, the guerrilla gardening street artist filled flowerboxes with celosia plants and hung them on telephone poles around Toronto’s Kensington Market area.
Poster pocket planters
Though unsure whether what they are doing is guerrilla gardening per se, Toronto resident Eric Cheung and Sean Martindale have certainly engaged in organic culture jamming of a sort with their poster pocket planters. Cutting through posters, the duo make little pockets they then fill with soil and plants, growing greenery that blends into the built landscape. While plants have been stolen or simply replaced by the former advertising, the project was well-received by passers-by in 2009.
For many, guerrilla gardening isn’t a problem so far as brushes with the law are concerned. One gardener has said that whenever the cops stop him to ask what he’s doing he just tells them “gardening” and is left alone. However, the authorities have taken a dimmer view of certain high profile spins on the trend, and though we can’t see why, one of those is moss graffiti. With a recipe of beer, sugar and of course garden moss, the artistically-inclined can create their own.
Mossenger moss graffiti
A zillion times more eco-friendly than paint graffiti, it’s difficult to see how anyone could object to this natural take on street art. One of its exponents, London-based artist Anna Garforth has been featured here before.
Mossenger moss graffiti
Inspired by guerrilla gardening collectives, Garforth decided to explore the possibilities of this greenest of art forms, pasting poetry to walls using biodegradable ingredients. The hope was that the moss would colonise and grow, and it certainly has in people's imagination.
Grass-covered vehicles may not be guerrilla gardening in the strict sense of the term, but then – who sets the rules here? If this form of environmental urban subterfuge is all about re-considering land ownership and re-purposing neglected property, why not bring automobiles into the picture? Not only is it a brilliantly ironic kind of urban camouflage, but what better statement to make than by covering a car in the very stuff that will help cut back on the emissions the vehicle contributes to?
Truck covered in grass and plants, California State Fair
Danish artist Morten Flyverbom – also featured previously on EG – enveloped a VW Beetle in grass as part of his collection of ecological art pieces. Elsewhere, a similarly turfed picture of what some have speculated to be a Mazda has circulated widely on the web. We also came across a cool picture of a green truck swathed in grass, and with vegetables and flowers growing in its rear, spotted in the farm area of the California State Fair. Right on hillbilly types; guerrilla gardening is for everyone.
We’d just like to conclude by saying that this list is by no means definitive. Many honourable projects have sprung up around the world, from the inner city Leaf Street Community Garden in Manchester, UK, to the gardens planted by the Abahlali based Mjondolo shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa; and from the Have på en nat ("Garden in a night") made by the Økologiske Igangsættere ("Organic starters") in Denmark, to the birdhouses and gardens of Richmond, VA.
Guerilla gardening in front of Flying Pigeon, LA
Guerrilla gardeners of the world, bleary eyed from behind our computer screens, we salute you all!