Who started guerrilla gardening? Where and why did the movement begin, and where is it headed? Read on to find out about these pivotal historic moments.
The Roots of Resistance
Although the phrase “guerrilla gardening” originates from the Green Guerillas in the 1970s, the practice it describes has far more ancient roots. Around the world, guerrilla gardening emerged during (or following) periods when a society stopped treating land as a community resource, and started treating it as a commodity. During these tumultuous times, what had been common land was seized by ruling classes, leaving Indigenous communities and so-called “commoners” (those who had collectively cared for the common land) without the source of food, fuel, and other essential materials they had until then relied upon for survival. So, some brave folk began to cultivate illicit gardens on the land stolen by their oppressors.
If a landlord were to discover such a garden they would likely destroy it, and imprison its creator (or worse). Even if they were to personally avoid detection, losing the garden would mean a loss of food for the gardener. So, these vital first guerrilla gardens (as with many today) were kept well hidden, as a means of ensuring their – and their creators’ – survival. As a result, they have been lost to history. As environmental designer David Tracey says in his book Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto:
“We will never know the name of the first guerrilla gardener.”
We can, however, point to two known cases of early guerrilla gardening, which confirm it as a reaction to land theft: enslaved African farmers, and the English group known as The Diggers (or The True Levellers).
African Farmers, The Americas (1500s – 1800s)
As European forces colonised large parts of the African continent, enslaved farmers ingeniously braided seeds into their hair to retain autonomy, food security, and a connection to the homes they were torn from. Landing in the Americas, these experts grew in abundance on their oppressors’ land (itself violently taken from Indigenous communities). In contrast to their forced land work, these secret gardens were a form of resistance, survival, and sovereignty.
As scholar Geri Augusto explains:
“Enslaved people took the initiative... to create small plots and provision grounds... either beside the slave hut or... [on] a piece of land that the plantation owner didn’t need... [T]hey would raise vegetables, medicinal plants, and even flowers... They were supplementing their diet, but also it was a small, small patch in which they could be human.”
The Diggers, England (1649)
Starting in the 12th century, and picking up pace between 1450 and 1640, the British aristocracy had gone around enclosing (i.e. stealing) commons, parcels of land that regular folk (known as “commoners”) relied on for food, fuel, and other essential resources. In response to the resulting cost of living and malnutrition crises, a group of radicals, now known as The Diggers, began planting vegetables on a hillside. Their aim was to restore the land as:
“a Common Treasury for All... That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth”.
They probably weren’t the first group to cultivate a former commons. However, somewhat surprisingly, the Diggers didn’t try to hide what they were doing. Quite the opposite: the group’s leader, Gerrard Winstanley, published reams of campaigning papers. While this succeeded in securing their place in the history books, it also attracted scrutiny. The result? Their camp didn’t even last the summer. The landlord drove them out, accusing the peaceful group of illegal assembly, riot, and trespass.
For centuries, guerrilla gardening continued as an illicit, covert operation. Even today, It’s likely most guerrilla gardens are created out of necessity by people pushed to the fringes of society – the homeless, nationless, and moneyless – who keep these lifelines hidden to ensure their survival. The contemporary cases we do know about point to a deep-rooted tradition: the greens grown along train tracks in Mumbai; crop fields cultivated by landless Kenyan farmers; Brazil’s co-created and self-managed favela gardens; and food and flowers tended by Syrians in the Domiz refugee camp are more likely instances of history repeating itself than historical anomalies.
Flower Power, USA (1960s – 1970s)
The ‘60s and ‘70s saw a wave of countercultural (r)evolution and political idealism. It was a time of love and fear, as visions of peace and unity drifted over a reality of neo-colonial war and police brutality. Martin Luther King Jr dreamed and John Lennon imagined, as Black Power radicals founded schools and farming co-operatives, and hippies staged love-ins for peace and nature. This radical zeitgeist supported the first seeds of activity that would later blossom into “guerrilla gardening” as we now know it.
The People's Park
One Sunday in 1969, hundreds of students and protestors responded to a call to transform a vacant lot, which the University of California had abandoned mid-way through building new facilities. The group planted trees, grass, and flowers in the upturned soil, as well playing music, providing food, and setting up a poetry stand.
This new “People’s Park” embodied the social values of the politically disillusioned Vietnam generation, making it a political target that went all the way to Ronald Reagan (California's state governor at the time). Reagan made his stance towards the demonstrators clear: “If there has to be a bloodbath, let’s get it over with”. In the carnage that came to be known as “Bloody Thursday”, police shot at the demonstrators, killing one person and harming scores more. The park survived, and was nationally recognised as a Historic Place in 2022, but is still (at the time of writing) under threat from developers.
New York Guerrillas
Over on the East Coast, New York City's extreme financial crisis led to a quiet green uprising. Rebelling against state neglect and wasted land, a group of young artists and residents started throwing seed bombs into vacant lots, planting sunflower seeds in road meridians, and placing planters around adandoned buildings. They called themselves the Green Guerillas, so coining the phrase "guerrilla gardening". The group eventually took over a huge vacant lot on the corner of Bowery and Huston, now named "The Liz Christy Garden" after one of their founding members.
A 10-minute walk away from this garden, from the mid-70s to mid-80s, guerrilla gardener Adam Purple cultivated an entire brownfield block on Eldridge Street. His "Garden of Eden" was filled with concentric circles of flowering trees, fruit-bearing bushes, and fresh herbs and vegetables. “The city was doing nothing about the land,” he explained, “It’s the people’s turf.”
Millennium Bug (2000s)
The 2000s saw another wave of guerrilla gardening sweep the West, as emerging technologies made it easier for groups to rally together, and turn-of-the-millennium fever kicked up revolutionary futurist ideals.
Reclaim the Streets
On 1st May 2000, anti-capitalist and anti-car collective Reclaim the Streets gathered thousands of protestors in London’s Parliament Square, armed with compost, trowels, and plants. They dug up the grass covering the square and laid it across the road, then planted a shrubs, herbs, and trees in its place. Their statement to the press read:
“Under the shadow of an irrelevant government, we were planting the seeds of a society where ordinary people are in control of their resources, their food and their decision-making... a world that encourages cooperation and sharing”.
While these intentions were valid, their method made for terrible publicity for guerrilla gardening. Rather than creating lasting improvement, the group (who'd previously bored holes in the M25 motorway to plant trees in) carried out a merely temporary, performative gesture. The plants were, to no one’s surprise, immediately ripped out and laid to waste, leaving a net-negative impact. Not only that, the scene on the day descended from peaceful celebration into violent chaos. Guerrilla gardeners and anarchists alike have condemned the May Day "guerrilla gardening" protest as a mess.
In 2004, green-fingered ad man Richard Reynolds started cultivating a neglected council flower bed outside his tower block. An avid gardener without a yard of his own, he said, “It came to me that my need to garden could be satisfied through... public beds”. He started a blog, GuerrillaGardening.org, to document his exploits, and news of it spread like wildflowers. He added a forum (sadly no longer in operation) to the site, and called it “The global hub for… guerrilla gardeners”.
This new digital hub – along with Richard Reynold's 2008 book, On Guerrilla Gardening – helped propel the 2000s wave of guerrilla gardening.
In 2009, residents of Athen's Exarchia neighbourhood (known as Athen’s centre of radical political activism) seized the opportunity to turn a car "park" into an actual park. The space had been earmarked to become a community space 20 years prior and, as soon as the car park's lease ran out, locals flooded the lot to create the green oasis they'd missed out on for two decades. They broke up the asphalt, laid in rich soil, and planted flowers and trees, creating "Navarinou Park", which is still community managed to this day.
Now, it's your time...
Today, in the face of global multi-crises – cost of living, rising temperatures, mass extinction, and mental health (to name but a few) – the guerrilla gardening movement is growing again. Contemporary guerrilla gardeners are planting in public places to reclaim public spaces for public and planetary good, in joyful, creative, collaborative ways.
If you want to join this global community of freedom seeders, pick up a copy of the handbook.
Ready to GET GUERRILLA GARDENING?
Our handbook has all the information and inspiration you need to start greening your streets. Follow the tried and tested action plan, packed with expert advice, photos of green transformations, and illustrated ‘how to’s.