They prowl the empty streets at night – planting veggies and herbs
Some activists plant bombs to make their point. And then you get activists who’ll plant something of an altogether more peaceful and constructive nature – posy-sniffing anarchists who’ll swoop on a piece of land that has been neglected by its owner, often under the cover of darkness, and dig it up illegally. By morning, you won’t recognise it – a once grimy patch of earth transformed overnight into an enchanting garden brimming with anything from aloes to agapanthus.
Welcome to the world of “guerilla gardening”, a mushrooming global movement dedicated to “fighting the filth with forks and flowers”, as Richard Reynolds, rogue gardener and author of On Guerilla Gardening puts it. It’s the horticultural cousin of graffiti, if you like; a visual, subversive form of environmental activism that reassigns an aesthetic and functional purpose to abused urban spaces.
The term was first used by activist group Green Guerillas when they transformed just such a New York city municipal lot into a vibrant community garden in 1973. Planted as an illegal but benevolent act of defiance, the Liz Christy garden has spawned 600 others across the Big Apple, all sprouted and tended by volunteers under the banner: “It’s your city, dig it.”
How many vacant plots in your area are crying out for ecological CPR? Succulent bush senecio lure painted lady butterflies. Arum lilies treat sore throats. Spekboom sucks up carbon. These are all indigenous plants, and the reasons for spreading them where they occur naturally – guerilla style – are as varied as the flora of this land.
Born late last year from the desire to green neglected corners of Port Elizabeth, “Secret Sowers SA” is peopled by a group of IT and creative professionals. They marshal support for their missions through an online forum of some 50 followers, with calls to arms like: “Seed bombs away!” and “Got nothing planned for New Year’s Eve? Ready your trowel and seedlings, and pop some bubbly round a freshly planted guerrilla masterpiece.”
So far Secret Sowers SA has completed two nocturnal vigilante missions. The first, in October, involved planting tomatoes and nasturtiums on littered municipal land outside a local office block. A month later the group unleashed a mix of flowers, herbs and drought-resistant succulents on the Stanley Street restaurant strip of Richmond Hill.
“We took out the trash and replaced it with plants. We’re quite concerned with food security so, while we wanted the space to look nice, we also threw in edible plants that people could just pick at as they walk past,” a Secret Sowers operative, who spoke to Green Life on condition of anonymity, says.
“There are also a couple of untended parks in Port Elizabeth, with the municipality apparently not having enough funding to do proper maintenance. (This year) we’d like to go there, and go planting on traffic islands, too.”
This is not the first time guerilla gardeners have set their sights on a traffic island. In 2010, the Witness reported that one such island in Pietermaritzburg’s Hesketh Drive, whose only mates had been a lone aloe and patch of grass, was replanted with flowers and succulents after being ambushed by guerilla gardeners in the dead of night.
Guerilla gardens have been bursting into bloom elsewhere in South Africa too. Last year, a plant-loving insurgent called “The Secret Gardener” embedded plants in Coke bottles and teapots and tied these to Cape Town’s lampposts and fences.
And, in 2010, Brian Green, owner of shoppers’ haunt 44 Stanley Avenue, took a derelict council lot behind his Forest Town home and unleashed a blitzkrieg on its soil. Now it’s a 100m², veggie-yielding wonder of 18 raised beds.
“I usurped the land because they never used it,” says Green, whose garden is fertilised by organic juice from an onsite worm farm. “I also have chickens, which make the most delicious organic eggs.”
Neither the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality nor Joburg City Council would tell Green Life what they thought of the green-fingered vigilantes on the loose in their midst. But then, the guerilla gardeners in question didn’t seem particularly fazed about squaring up to council either – armed, presumably, with nothing but hoses and shears and a legion of garden gnomes in tow.
“It’s not like you can go to jail for . planting things,” the Secret Sowers operative counters. “Imagine having that on your criminal record. ‘What you in for?’ ‘Hmmm, planting veggies on the side of the road.'”
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