Guerrillas in the Garden

Founder Richard Reynolds and his fellow Guerrilla Gardeners in London.
Founder Richard Reynolds and his fellow Guerrilla Gardeners in London. (By Jonathan Warren)

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By Alexandra Topping
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

LONDON

At a few minutes to 11 on a recent balmy night in East London, a black Ford crawled along the dimly lighted street. The suspicious driver rolled down his window to quiz a young woman by the curb. "What are you doing here?" he asked. The reply came quickly, cheerfully. "Gardening."

She was one of two dozen men and women gathered at a long-neglected public flower bed about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. Under flickering street lamps in the bleak urban landscape, they spent the next four hours transforming the block with pitchforks and spades, fresh soil and plants.

These are London's Guerrilla Gardeners, a fast-growing force of renegades who are breathing life into neglected and timeworn pockets of open land across this vast metropolis.

Similar grass-roots movements are long established in New York, Philadelphia and, on a smaller scale, Washington. But the idea is relatively new to Britain, where people are more likely to wait politely, if vainly, for their municipalities to fix up the public open land.

What makes the British version particularly odd, though, is that it is done under cover of darkness, reinforcing the idea that this is rebellious and illicit. The guerrillas work at night to avoid run-ins with authorities, some of whom may not take kindly to trespassers working on land that is not their own.

The movement was started two years ago by Richard Reynolds, 28, a freelance advertising executive and passionate gardener who first tackled the wasteland around his high-rise apartment in the Elephant and Castle neighborhood in south London. He tells of setting his alarm for the middle of the night and attacking the littered flower bed on his block. He planted vibrant red cyclamens and cordylines, the latter chosen because they were "evergreen, strikingly sculptural, and they echoed the pattern of the spiky metal burglar-preventing fence at the top of the wall."

Soon he was enlisting the help of friends to mount more ambitious raids and, thanks to regular blogs on his Web site ( http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ ) and interest from the British media, Reynolds found he was welcoming more people on every dig.

Today, the Guerrilla Gardeners number more than 1,000 and counting. Reynolds continues to fund most of the plantings himself, but also receives donations from supporters. He tends towards hardy, drought-resistant plants because they won't need much maintenance. A favorite choice is lavender: "It's wind-resistant, drought-resistant, sweet-smelling, floral, honey-bee attracting." Two or three times a month Reynolds sends a group e-mail informing his troops of the next dig's secret location. A select group of the guerrillas comes armed with tools, and sometimes plants, but Reynolds is always at the vanguard, handing out gloves and trowels and directing operations.

Like a lot of big cities, London has its attractive parks and squares, but residents also live with open space that is neglected, trashy and a blight on the urban environment.

"We're lucky in London because we have big, beautiful parks, but there is a big difference between going for a day out in a park and having greenery on your doorstep," Reynolds said. "What's important about the little patches of land around people's houses is that you can actually see things growing. You're in touch with the season, the rhythm of life."

The name Stratford conjures the bucolic image of William Shakespeare's picturesque home town. The recent foray was to the other Stratford, and to a patch of dirt that sits next to a towering apartment building and opposite a men's hair salon called Elvis Style Barbers.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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