Seeds of rebellion

15 August 2010 - 02:00 By Albert Buhr

Concerned about the grim proliferation of concrete, Albert Buhr infiltrates a group of subversives chipping away at urban sprawl

It's midnight and we're about to invade a vacant lot that lies fallow on the outskirts of Cape Town. Flanked by dark buildings, the dereliction is depressing: cracked concrete, sun-bleached litter and clusters of dead weeds.

Our nocturnal operation is technically illegal, but my five fellow cadres refuse to call it criminal. They are the local chapter of a growing global movement dedicated to horticultural interventions. The flowers are fighting back. This is guerrilla gardening.

We erupt from the back of the van like a crack commando, clad in camouflage and carrying pruning gloves. Some of the gear is heavy duty: shovels and pick-axes ensure we keep our wits about us. Lacking the revolutionary expertise with which my companions start to tear up the paving, I am posted as the lookout. They'll know the cops are coming when I dart hell for leather down the nearest dark alley. The actual ownership issue is on a need-to-know basis - and the less I know, the better.

"This spot has been on our shortlist for a while," says one of the team, who insists he appear in print as Chauncey Gardiner (a safe pseudonym that references Peter Sellers in the 1979 film Being There). "I've done three other gardens and they're still there. We really love this indigenous tree called spekboom, a succulent that gobbles carbon dioxide at a rate higher than tropical rainforest. Next year, I'm keen on creating a cornfield."

Where most of us see urban sprawl, guerrilla gardeners see arable land. "This is definitely gardening against the odds," says another team member, Tara. "But there is so much unused space in the city. Think of all the rooftops. I also love ivy, it's so much prettier than face-brick."

These are but the latest converts in a militaristic movement for the proliferation of pansies. The term "guerrilla gardening" originated in New York, where Liz Christy and her Green Guerrilla group transformed a derelict private lot into a garden in 1973. This space is still cared for by volunteers. Christy also coined the term "seed grenade", the earliest of which were made from condoms filled with local wildflower seeds, water and fertiliser, and tossed over fences onto empty lots to improve the look of the neighbourhood.

The idea finally exploded on a grand scale in 1996, when roughly 500 activists occupied a vast piece of derelict property belonging to the Guinness company on the banks of the River Thames in South London. Their action aimed to highlight what author George Monbiot, who was among the group, described as "the appalling misuse of urban land and the deterioration of the urban environment". A community called Pure Genius! (named after the Guinness advertising slogan) occupied the site for almost six months before being evicted. Inspired by this - and within weeks - a group of 1000 people in Denmark spent a single night transforming an empty piece of land in the middle of Copenhagen into a garden.

On May Day 2000, thousands of people converged on London's Parliament Square in one of the biggest orchestrated actions of guerrilla gardening ever seen. They planted vegetables and flowers, and brandished banners that read Resistance is Fertile and The Earth is a Common Treasury for All (a quote from Gerrard Winstanley).

Often, however, it's simply about food. Locally, communal vegetable patches are sprouting in various corners of the Cape Flats. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the SA shack dwellers' movement, has planted gardens in several settlements. The trend is also prominent in Australia, where many suburbs have community vegetable gardens.

In London, a number of roundabouts are practically a packed picnic, thanks to Richard Reynolds, the founder of One of the world's most active proponents of the practice, Reynolds occasionally runs a 90-minute guided tour of guerrilla gardens throughout London. The route includes a traffic island where tomatoes, cabbages, beetroots, lettuces, runner beans and raspberry canes are coming along nicely. The Guardian placed his tour in their top 10 picks for the London Festival of Architecture this year.

Of course, common sense suggests there are health risks to harvesting edible plants near roads with heavy traffic, due to automotive fluid runoff that could be absorbed by the roots - which makes for one of the reasons some people aren't just pro-plant, but anti-road as well.

However, many guerrilla gardeners merely delight in creating beauty amid urban decay.

It's about two hours since we started and the members of the team are out of breath. We leave behind not a fully grown garden, but an inspiring start. The beds will be watered by the team members on a rotational basis.

"I've mentioned this to people who say they're eager to join in, but that they don't have the time," says Tara. "Then they'll spend five hours in the gym every week.

"Time is money - that's our culture in a nutshell. But when you're gardening you can get so involved in what you're doing, it seems like time practically stops. And that's priceless."

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