It’s always surprised me how quickly guerrilla gardening has become so readily accepted in the nation’s newspapers and magazines as an exciting thing to do. The media love it; growing things without permission on land that doesn’t belong to you is the new black. Gardening types doing something ever so slightly naughty with pretty flowers is a “story”.
But guerrilla gardening in the UK is a sign of failure; a sign that the local community is not functioning properly; that citizens are not talking to elected local councillors; that people feel isolated; that the urban environment is poor. It’s not a solution. Guerrilla gardening is a self-centered response to a situation “no one will let me do what I want so I will go out and do it anyway, whether the community wants it or not”. And that’s a good point – if people are guerrilla gardening, there is nothing that anyone else in the community can do about it if they don’t like it, because by its very nature it is secretive.
And if you encourage that sort of maverick have-a-go mentality, at some point someone will decide that the local pond could use some extra plants from their garden pond. Oh wait… they already have, that’s one of the reasons why invasive pond plants are now banned from sale in the UK.
Where I live in north-east England we have a special Local Wildlife Site designation based on a community of native and alien plants that have both historic and biodiversity interest. They look messy. They are not that pretty. I’m sure most people would prefer to see masses of poppies. Perhaps the guerrilla gardeners would just get on and sow them, but meaning well is not a substitute for knowledge and understanding.
What the guerrilla gardeners have totally neglected is the power of not fighting the system but playing it, which ironically all the people more concerned with substance have got completely sorted. Not for them a radical proud defiance of an uncaring system. No, no. Up and down the country there are practical, sensible people who “can’t be doing with all that fuss of planting in the dark”, quietly getting on with changing their local neighbourhood to make it better – during the daytime, so everyone can see and join in if they wish.
They are the “friends of” groups, the Britain in Bloom-ers, the neighbourhood groups – all with their own constitution, their own bank accounts and access to grants, their connections with the local community including the local council and councillors. They get results that far outclass the guerrilla gardeners. Get a grant and you can get free training for local people, educational trips, quality tools, exciting plants and help from experts to create something unique with the minimum of frustration.
In the UK we have some of the finest horticultural designers in the world, unparalleled access to exciting plants, and universities trialling exciting new ideas. Community horticulture can transform towns, generate tourism, help make local biodiversity more robust, or even just make areas happier places for people to be.
The sad thing about guerrilla gardening is it encourages people to settle for planting sunflowers as a sticking plaster for poor urban horticulture; we can set our sights much higher.
• Martin Allen is a botanical surveyor and artist