Groups of gardeners who plant crops and flowers on neglected urban spaces without permission are sparking mixed reactions from locals, says Hannah Stephenson
How would you feel if a piece of disused land or a neglected urban space, such as a grass verge or roundabout, was suddenly made into a productive veg patch or pretty flower field?
Well, on the surface it might seem a no-brainer, but according to a recent study by university professor Peter Larkham, not everyone takes kindly to guerrilla gardeners cultivating land that they often do not have the legal right to use.
Professor Larkham has now written a book, Informal Urban Agriculture: The Secret Lives Of Guerrilla Gardeners (springer.com), in collaboration with his former PhD student Mike Hardman, in which they interview and observe groups of guerrilla gardeners in the Midlands, where a lively community has formed in recent years.
Professor Larkham, associate head of Birmingham City University's School of the Built Environment, says: "Guerrilla gardening is an international phenomenon. Those involved take part for a number of reasons, from brightening up their neighbourhoods to using gardening as a form of political protest.
"The land they are targeting is quite varied. It seems to range from traffic roundabouts and roadside grass verges to bits of land that one planner once called SLOP - Space Left Over after Planning - to derelict sites, unused patches of land which are clearly in somebody's ownership but aren't in any sort of productive use.
"In the book, we particularly focus on the guerrilla gardeners who plant edible crops, investigating the reasons why they get involved - for some, it is more 'naughtiness' than the wider public health benefits that could result."
He says it is not known how many guerrilla gardeners there are in this country - or how much land they cultivate - partly because the practice is illegal and partly because land ownership is so fragmented. But it has changed as social media has enabled individuals to link together to form small groups.
The reaction of landowners to these guerrilla gardeners is usually negative, he observes.
"They don't like their land being interfered with. What the guerrillas do can be quite varied. Some of them just want places to look a little nicer, so they just scatter flower seeds. In one famous case in New York, guerrillas threw bundles of flower seeds over fences into unused patches of land and called it 'flower bombing'. Others go on to the land and clear it, cultivate it and grow either flowers or productive crops. It's the trespass which landowners don't like."
However, some communities have come together through guerrilla gardening, he says.
"Look around our towns and cities and there's a massive amount of unused land which could be used. Our research was looking at what happens to these guerrillas once they've made their point. Do they start looking for land they could cultivate legally? I suspect that's the future, that guerrilla gardening is part of a wider urban agriculture movement."
The research found that the impact of guerrilla gardening on communities was mixed.
"A small number were negative. They weren't consulted. They felt aggrieved that it was being done on land adjacent to their property. But the majority were very supportive. They could see the change being positive, the land being used, being looked after a bit more."
There are some areas where guerrilla gardening has really taken root and inspired and brought together the community, such as Todmorden, in Calderdale, West Yorkshire.
"A small-scale guerrilla gardening movement was looking to make prettier what was a small industrial town. That grabbed everybody's consciousness and the movement took off, legal sites were found and it's really at the forefront of a legal urban agriculture movement which now comes under the label 'Incredible edible Todmorden'.
"It's made a significant difference, particularly in summer when the plants and the crops are much more visible. The place is greener, more interesting and is helping a lot in building a community response as to what sort of opportunity we can make of derelict patches of land.
"When the council found it was a positive thing rather than purely a case of illegal trespass, they got behind it.
"Other places are supporting legal urban agriculture. A lot of local authorities are taking notice, partly because of concern for food security and also because of big agendas for health and wellbeing. Agriculture provides both psychological and physical wellbeing, although urban agriculture is probably more important for building communities and promoting healthier lifestyles than for producing large amounts of crops."
Best of the Bunch
Solanum (winter cherry)
If you're fed up with red-berried plants this season, look out for winter cherry, or solanum, a welcoming houseplant which produces a vast array of vibrant orange berries, their green leaves acting as a perfect foil. If kept in a cool place, the berries should remain on the plant for months. They look great in different planting schemes, whether as stand-alone subjects in copper pots or to add colour and form to other indoor planting schemes. They need a cool spot in bright light with some direct sun and should be kept moist. Don't let children near the berries, which can be poisonous.
Good Enough to Eat
Christmas nuts may not be the easiest things to grow in our climate - and indeed, the walnut tree originates from Persia - but self-fertile varieties are proving more successful in this country. Certain types can tolerate our wet, cool conditions and crop well. Walnut trees should be planted in a sheltered sunny spot and protected from late frosts which may destroy their new growth and flowers. Choose varieties such as 'Buccaneer' or 'Rita' (even the smaller varieties grow up to 25ft) and plant them in the autumn, staking the tree for several years, until established. Keep it well watered during its early years and enrich the earth around it with compost. Fully ripened walnuts can be harvested in September, when the husk starts to split. They should be dried straight away by a boiler and then put in well-ventilated bags and kept in a cool, airy spot.
- Check that fuchsias packed in compost for the winter do not become completely dry and protect the crowns of hardy fuchsias outdoors with garden compost.
- Open greenhouse ventilators on sunny days but close them early in the afternoon before the temperature drops.
- Check plants in the greenhouse, in cold frames and under cloches to see if they need watering.
- Check over all crops in store and remove any which show signs of rotting.
- Enrich soil with compost where beans are to be grown, if weather permits.
- Use cloches to protect alpine plants from damage by winter cold and rain.
- Take cuttings from greenhouse chrysanthemums.
- Plant lilies in patio pots, keeping them in the greenhouse to develop.
- Avoid pruning fruit trees if they are covered in frost.
- Take root cuttings from oriental poppies, acanthus, verbascum, Primula denticulata and Phlox paniculata.
- Make a polythene tent to stop rain falling on wall-trained peaches and reduce attack by peach leaf curl.