Planting the future: guerrilla gardening in Ireland

A look at a growing subculture in the gardening community

Living in a city can often feel draining. Dublin is known for its greyness, and as office space increases, nightlife wanes, and urban artwork is removed, it becomes increasingly difficult to find any colour in the city. Thankfully, this has only increased people’s enthusiasm for grassroots action and activism. Artists, protestors, and ordinary people have taken to the streets to try and rejuvenate the Irish urban landscape. This has led to a growing interest in guerrilla gardening around the country.

Guerrilla gardening is defined as the act of gardening on land that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to cultivate, such as abandoned sites, areas that are not being cared for, or private property. The term originated in New York City in the 1970s, but the movement’s roots lie in 17th century England, where political philosopher and activist Gerard Winstanley led a group that cultivated local land and distributed food for free to anyone who worked with them. Since then, guerrilla gardening has been used all around the world for recreational purposes, to grow food and as a means of protest. Ireland is no exception, and in recent years the guerrilla community has made huge progress, as well as some eye catching headlines. Trinity News spoke to some key figures in the guerrilla community to get a sense of what the movement means, and why it has been so successful.

The guerrilla gardening community in Ireland largely keeps in touch via the community page of guerrillagardening.org, a blog set up by Richard Reynolds after he began guerrilla gardening in London in 2004. Reynolds has become one of the faces of the guerrilla gardening movement worldwide, giving multiple talks on his work and publishing a book in 2008. When asked what guerrilla gardeners’ most common motivation is, he says that a love of gardening is at the heart of the movement: “By far the most common motivation is a passion for growing things, and gardening.” He explains that many guerrilla gardeners, himself included, do not have a garden of their own, and that they find that they can get just as much out of tending to other land.

The guerrilla gardening community is a lot larger than might be immediately apparent to some people. That is because, as Reynolds says, it consists mostly of individuals working on their own chosen patches of land, rather than local groups working together. Reynolds believes that individual gardeners can be more efficient. “Groups just aren’t not necessary for long term guerrilla gardening, you don’t need a large group of people to maintain something like a marginal verge (a typical setting for guerrilla gardeners)”. He says that it is most effective to have households or individuals maintain small areas near where they live. He also points out that it is more in the spirit of Guerrilla warfare to have individuals working on their own projects, rather than try to lead a large group.

Local groups do exist however, and there are a number of them in Ireland. The Plant Bandits are a guerrilla gardening group affiliated with Extinction Rebellion, who want to foster a stronger connection to the earth in order to gain support for climate activism. The group came together last year with a wide range of gardening experience. Cillian Byrne says that he was initially attracted to Extinction Rebellion as a protest movement, and that his passion for gardening grew when he was introduced to guerrilla gardening by others in the movement. Robert Miller and Eleanor Hulm say that they came into Extinction Rebellion with the intention of encouraging guerrilla gardening. The group garden around Dublin, and hold workshops to get more people interested in their work.

A number of Irish individuals and groups have used guerrilla gardening as a form of activism in the past. They have protested against declining biodiversity, for profit forestry and climate change. These protestors often make the most noise, and become the faces of the guerrilla movement. Earlier this year, a woman was brought to court for cutting down over 500 Sitka Spruce trees in Cork. Sioned Jones, a Welsh woman living in Cork, cut down the trees in a neighbouring Coillte Forest in order to promote the planting of Native Irish Broad Leaf. Sitka Spruce is a non native species and can harm biodiversity by making the soil more acidic and blocking out sunlight. Jones had planted Irish Broad Leaf in the forest, and was found not guilty but was warned that she could face jail time should she continue to cut down trees.

In 2012, a group called “NAMA to Nature” planted native trees in ghost estates owned by NAMA, to shed light on the number of vacant properties in Ireland, as well as to beautify the local landscape.

“Jones had planted Irish Broad Leaf in the forest, and was found not guilty but was warned that she could face jail time should she continue to cut down trees.” 

Although most guerrilla gardeners do not garden as a direct form of protest, Reynolds does believe that the illicit nature of guerrilla gardening is a huge part of what makes it so popular. “It’s the mischievous, slightly self righteous, fun of it that makes it so attractive.” He also believes that this is what draws so much attention from the media, saying that they have often “encouraged a portrayal that is more illicit than the reality”

Reynolds says that the average guerrilla gardener does not face much opposition from local authorities, and that most of his interactions with council officials and police are based on misunderstandings about his motivations. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so vocal about it, to try and correct that misunderstanding.” The Plant Bandits say that they haven’t done anything that would warrant attention from local authorities, but that they would like to in the future: “It becomes a really good platform to engage the authorities on areas where they are failing.” They also believe that guerrilla gardening can challenge people’s perception of what should and shouldn’t be legal in relation to public land, saying that “people can be stuck accepting laws at face value even when they make no sense and they don’t have citizens’ health and wellbeing in mind.”

When genuine concerns are raised about guerrilla gardening, people tend to worry that gardeners are putting themselves in danger, or that they are uninformed about proper methods. Reynolds says that such concerns are legitimate, but says that it is based on “virtually nothing”. He laments the fact that many high profile figures within the gardening community tend to look down on guerrilla gardening, recalling a BBC panel that branded them “dysfunctional” and “japesters.”

The decentralised nature of the guerrilla gardening community means that there are few specific guidelines for those wishing to get involved. One key instruction is to avoid the use of invasive species. This does not necessarily mean non native, as Reynolds points out that many non native species can be beneficial to biodiversity, citing sunflowers and lavender as two examples. Invasive species will often spread rapidly, and damage the quality of the soil. A popular trend among guerrilla gardeners is the use of seed bombs; balls made up of soil, clay and seeds that can be thrown into otherwise inaccessible patches of land. These can be bought or made at home, and might be fun to use, but Reynolds expresses doubts about their efficacy compared with traditional gardening methods. The Plant Bandits have run workshops on making and using seed bombs, and are more optimistic about their use. They agree that they are not always as effective as traditional methods but say that they are very effective at getting people interested in gardening. “The most important thing that they do is cultivate a community around guerrilla gardening”

In many ways, the existence of guerrilla gardening highlights flaws in local planning and maintenance of public lands, but the Plant Bandits believe that local councils are not entirely to blame. They say that our education system does not put enough emphasis on engaging and working with nature, and that our cities are unfriendly to horticulture by design: “The areas we live in aren’t designed around nature, they’re designed around maximising the efficiency of the people living in them.” All this and more will need to change if we want to see the “ecotopia” envisioned by the Bandits, but guerrilla gardening looks like a small step in the right direction.

Patrick Coyle

Patrick Coyle is a News Analysis Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh English and Spanish student.