Could we wage war on unloved places with guerrilla gardening?

Could we wage war on unloved places with guerrilla gardening?

Sjoerd Vogt of Faringdon Free Food says ‘guerrilla gardening is fun because it sounds slightly illegal, though we have permission for everything. This is for the community, by the community

Britain in Bloom judges Jim Lilley and Susan Smith at the Oxford Mail display at London Place in 2002. Below: Herbs could transform areas of Oxford such as near bus stops so passengers could pick a few sprigs for their evening meals

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by

The allotments are alive to the sound of music, or at least birdsong or maybe it’s just the grunts of gardeners mucking in the manure.

Everything was just about to come up roses until…a stranger knocked on my door at night and asked in a hushed voice if I wanted to become a ‘guerrilla gardener’.

I looked blank and he explained. “Where have you been, man? This is a movement with roots going back to the 17th Century when the Diggers fought against land ownership laws and fought for their right to grow vegetables on common land when food prices were sky high.

“We find neglected, overgrown, even hostile patches of land and adopt them, tame them and transform this public space into a beautiful space. It harks back to William Morris when he advised people not to have anything in their houses that was not useful or beautiful and it’s the same with cities, towns and villages.”

He had a persuasive argument. All those fallow roundabouts and verges and raised flowerbeds that blossomed in the heyday of Britain in Bloom were now ghosts of their former glory.

With all the local government cutbacks a lot of weeds had begun to grow.

Indeed, local government had not covered itself with glory in nurturing the local landscape. At the bottom of Headington Hill in London Place, East Oxford, a small verge across from Morrell Avenue was a mess. So Oxford City Council urged the local householders, about 20 of them, to plant the area with bulbs and flower seeds because this was a public space, would enhance the entrance to Oxford and the City would be grateful.

Two years ago when the daffs came up and the other plants were on their way, the City Council sent in a grass cutter to demolish the whole lot. The locals couldn’t believe it. They were incensed.

The question remains: Can Oxford City Council and indeed all the other District Councils be relied upon to maximize the beauty of their areas in this era of austerity?

Just opposite London Place there are still three raised flower beds which the City Council planted and maintained for years of glorious displays which made a spectacular entrance to Oxford.

Now the flower beds are nondescript and overgrown. The ‘guerrilla gardener asked “Why couldn’t the public reclaim them? It would improve the welcome to our city without any contribution from the taxpayers.

“The same argument goes for roundabouts at Banbury, Grove, Thame, Witney and Bicester.

“How about transforming some bus stops, like the one near Manzil Way in the Cowley Road, into ‘edible stops’ with plants of herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary and chives, so bus passengers could pick a few sprigs to enliven their evening meals? It costs nothing, generates local activism and everyone gains.”

I asked my ‘guerrilla gardener’ how he planned to transform the environment in this way?

He had thought that one out. “First keep an eye out for unloved land and there are a lot of sites ripe for guerrilla gardening.

“Secondly tell your local council before you do anything. Keep your elected friends in the loop because strangely as far as the law on criminal damage is concerned there’s no legal distinction between cutting down a tree and planting a tree on land that you don’t own. Local authorities are likely to turn a blind eye, but try to go out under cover of dusk to avoid unexpected difficulties.

“Thirdly, go for low maintenance plants that need little or no tending. Thyme is great and lavender is lovely looking and they both send out exotic smells without requiring much tender loving care.”

One technique my ‘guerrilla gardener’ explained was the ‘explosive egg’. You just suck out the white and yoke of a raw egg through a tiny hole and then drop in seeds especially seeds of wild flowers and soil. Carry them in an egg box the next time you approach the Cutteslow roundabout in Summertown or the Bretch Hill roundabouts in Banbury, or all those traffic islands around Grove.

You may have to circle the sites several times, but according to my ‘guerrilla’: “What’s a bit of dizziness at the time compared with a lot of delight three months later?”

I was impressed by my ‘guerrilla gardener’s’ ideas but I had my own patch to plough. I was busy. But if he had just pitched the idea differently and asked if I wanted to join the ‘Big Society’, I might have joined in. I told him I liked the idea and asked if he could come around next year.

If the cities and countryside were still a mess, and if food prices were still sky high, I might be interested.

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