This guide digs into guerrilla gardening, explaining what it is, where the name comes from, and if it’s legal or not. Whether you're keen to start your own guerrilla gardening project or are simply curious about the idea, read on to find out about this growing movement.
What is "guerrilla gardening"?
Guerrilla gardening is a peaceful rebellion that’s spreading like wildflowers. It’s a form of direct action that involves transforming bare, desolate scraps of urban land with bright bursts of plant life – without seeking permission from authorities. Here's the ultimate definition and breakdown:
Guerrilla gardening is growing plants in public places – with purpose, without permission.
Guerrilla gardening is all about growing: adding plant life to urban habitats, not removing it. So, scattering wildflower seeds on a road verge, planting bulbs in a street tree bed, and building an allotment on a vacant lot are all great gardening gardening ideas, whereas unnecessary “weeding”, crop sabotage, and plant theft don’t cut the mustard.
With grey streets as our canvas, guerrilla gardeners paint the town green. Guerrilla gardening reclaims public space for public good, transforming sad, shabby patches of public space into colourful little oases in ways that can benefit everyone in the area (local wildlife included). There are sure to be plenty of great places to guerrilla garden near you.
Guerrilla gardening has a huge range of benefits for people and the planet. Whatever their passion, guerrilla gardeners are rebels with a cause: boosting biodiversity, strengthening communities, creating beauty, growing fresh food, making political statements – often all at once.
What makes it “guerrilla” gardening is that it’s done through grassroots, autonomous action. Guerrilla gardens grow from the "ground up" – they're designed, created, and managed by local residents, without municipal influence or involvement. In other words, guerrilla gardening is about uniting flower power and people power.
Why is it called "guerrilla gardening"?
You may be wondering where the phrase "guerrilla gardening" comes from, or even what the word "guerrilla" means. We've got you covered, with this straightforward etymology (origin story) of the term.
The Green Guerillas
The phrase “guerrilla gardening” was first documented in the early 1970s, when a group of radical residents began greening up neglected corners of New York City. At the time, financial crisis had led to deserted buildings, decaying infrastructure, and around 25,000 vacant lots across the Big Apple. While these rat-infested, litter-filled blocks might not have struck the average person as an ideal place to grow a garden, visionary artist Liz Christy – along with several other like-minded locals – saw their potential.
This group of green-fingered vigilantes started throwing seed bombs over fences, planting sunflower seeds in road meridians, and decking abandoned buildings with window boxes. They called themselves the “Green Guerillas” – so coining the phrase “guerrilla gardening”. The Green Guerillas went on to reclaim a vast vacant lot at the junction of Bowery and Houston, transforming it into a flourishing garden that still exists to this day.
War and peas
So why did the Green Guerillas pick that name in the first place? Where did the word “guerrilla” come from? Literally translated as “small war”, “guerrilla” is a diminutive of the Spanish word guerra (“war”). The term originated in the early 19th century when small, independent groups of Spanish and Portuguese rebel fighters, known as guerrilleros, helped defend the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s Grande Armée. “Guerrilla” warfare thus meant small, independent groups of fighters carrying out autonomous, irregular combat.
Then, in the mid-20th century, the term was adopted by communist revolutionaries Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, who used it to explain their military tactics and title their manifestos: “On Guerrilla Warfare” (游击战争的) and “Guerrilla Warfare” (La Guerra de Guerrillas) respectively.
After that, the term “guerrilla” evolved away from warfare, to describe all kinds of impromptu, unauthorised actions, including guerrilla art, guerrilla marketing and, thanks to the Green Guerillas, guerrilla gardening.
Do note, although they were the first to call it “guerrilla gardening”, the Green Guerillas were by no means the first people to reclaim land with plants. Read our potted history of guerrilla gardening to discover the movement's ancient roots.
Is guerrilla gardening illegal?
Despite what many assume, guerrilla gardening is not inherently illegal. The reason being, there’s no law that specifically prohibits the act of independently planting in public places. Presumably because guerrilla gardening hasn’t (yet) caused enough of a stir to push policy-makers to create such specific legislation.
But – and this is a big but – there are various laws and by-laws about property and public spaces that can be used against guerrilla gardeners. These include vandalism, trespass, public nuisance, public endangerment, and environmental laws (such as not spreading invasive species). Such laws can be (and indeed have been) brought against guerrilla gardeners. Fear not; it’s very rare for this to happen. And, when it does, the cases increasingly close ends in the guerrilla’s favour – as with these two headline-hitting cases:
In 2010, Los Angeles city authorities instructed fashion designer Ron Finley to rip out his road verge vegetable plot or pay for a $400 permit to keep it, citing a by-law that sidewalks and curbs remain “free of obstruction” (precisely how $400 would prevent the pavement from being obstructed, as they claimed it was, is unclear). When Ron rightly refused to do either, they sent a warrant for his arrest. Not one to kowtow, Ron started a campaign in protest, which was swiftly backed by major global media outlets. The city council not only backed down, but changed the law: now, Angelenos are by default allowed to plant in parkways outside their homes. Read an interview with Ron in Get Guerrilla Gardening.
In Pretoria, South Africa in 2021, The City of Tshwane similarly issued a fine to Djo BaNkuna for “interfering with municipal infrastructure” by planting brassicas in bare streetside soil. “The Cabbage Bandit” (as he soon became affectionately known) refused to pay the fine and, after representing himself in court, won his case. Amidst this, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to “ensure the unrestricted development of urban and pavement gardens … to increase food security.”
Reactions like this are becoming increasingly rare, as governments wake up to the need for greener neighbourhoods. A 2022 report in the international Crime, Media, Culture journal described guerrilla gardening as “a form of urban intervention that is broadly accepted and welcomed, even by those who enforce the law.” However, it’s important to stay vigilant. If you want to find out more about each of the crimes related to guerrilla gardening and how to avoid being accused of them, read our guide to getting away with it.
How do you become a guerrilla gardener?
Guerrilla gardeners are people who plant in public places – with purpose, without permission. Simple as that! There’s nothing to sign, sign up to, or subscribe to. You just need to take action: transforming a neglected scrap of public space into a thriving pocket of plant life.
If you want to learn just how to do that, grab 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.