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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)

Anne Slater, a human resources manager for a telecommunications company, could be found raking aggressively and pulling up stubborn weeds. She has been a guerrilla since seeing an article in a local London paper in February. "I looked at the Web site and thought it might be quite fun," she said. "You get all sorts of people," she said, surveying her fellow green-fingered comrades (in England, the expression is to have green fingers, not a green thumb) who range in age from their twenties to fifties. "It is mainly young professionals. But we have a connection, a common interest, and that's something to start from." And in England, where rules matter greatly, the Guerrilla Gardeners are proud of their somewhat outlaw status. "In a mild, middle-class way, it's kind of anarchic," Slater said.

There are also social benefits to moonlight gardening. "I'm married -- but if I wasn't, this would be a great place to meet guys," she joked. "Fertile ground here, in more ways than one."

On this balmy night in May, the atmosphere around the flower beds was more lively street party than polite garden party. The group took breaks for tea and cookies, leaning on their spades and shooting the breeze. In among the Londoners were several American and German guerrillas, who were visiting the capital and heard about the outing from friends.

"We loved the idea of bringing life to an area where things had died, and just wanted to get involved," said Trisha Taylor, 41, a mental-health counselor from Houston. She said she wants to introduce the idea back in Houston, a place that takes its weeding and pruning seriously. "It's so tropical in Houston that everything grows," she said.

As midnight neared, the area around the bed was a hive of activity. In went the spiky and dramatic striped weeping sedges, their dark green and creamy gold stripes stark against the night sky. Other tough, grassy ornamentals were planted alongside the sedge, including blue fescue, with its rapier-like blades, and some red cordyline for a splash of color.

With the planting complete, the heavy work of the evening began. Reynolds had arrived with more than a ton of gravel to use as a mulch, to retain water, choke the weeds and show off the new plantings. The group revisits previous digs as often as possible to water and weed, but to some extent the patch will depend on the locals.

Periodically, passersby stopped to ask what was going on. Some drivers, seeing the progress being made, beeped their horns in support. Five burly men outside a convenience store looked on in amusement. "I think this is a dowdy and depressing area, and this [gardening] is beautifying it. God knows it needs it," said Edward James, 46, a Stratford dweller who had come to investigate.

"This is something for the people," he said, asking for the Web site information. "I'm definitely going to get involved."

Later that evening, the risks of moonlit gardening were exposed. Around 2 a.m., while Reynolds was doing maintenance work on another site, two cops pulled up. "We've had reports that someone is stealing plants from this traffic island," they said. "Yes, young dandelions mostly, officer. Is that okay?" he replied. One look at the roots and they drove off, an example of the "supportive blind eye" that the authorities have taken to the guerrillas' nighttime antics.

The stealth gardening movement is spreading to other cities, such as Brussels; Erie, Pa.; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Reynolds's ambition is to record 100 acts of guerrilla gardening across four continents by Sept. 1; he has 75 to go. His Web site proclaims the group's rallying cry: "Enlist, and let's fight the filth in our public spaces with forks and flowers."

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