Guerrilla gardening and wildlife

by Kate Bradbury

Guerrilla gardening, the subject of a recent radio programme, is the act of gardening on public or private land without permission.

Butterly on a nasturtium leafGuerrilla gardening, the subject of a recent radio programme, is the act of gardening on public or private land without permission. Many guerrilla gardeners grow plants on neglected council land, traffic islands, graveyards, road verges and canal towpaths. Guerrilla gardeners range from those who do not have gardens of their own, who want to improve the look of the local area, to those who want to make a political statement, such as the planting up of a protest camp in Parliament Square. Technically it's not legal, but I'm not aware of anyone being prosecuted for it.

I attended a wildlife gardening conference recently, where one of the speakers, Jan Miller, author of Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and other benificial insects gave a presentation on the importance of neglected brownfield sites for wildlife. She ended her talk by expressing concerns about the increasing popularity of guerrilla gardening and the potential impact this could have on neglected, wildlife-rich habitats. This struck a chord with me, as I was recently wondering how sowing native wildflower seed on derelict land near my home might affect local wildlife.

Jan says brownfield sites have become important refuges for wildlife due to the increasing pressures on our countryside. She says most of our countryside is now a series of monocultures which represent few opportunities for wildlife to forage, shelter and breed. By contrast, Jan claims, brownfield sites have become unlikely areas of high insect biodiversity, some of which are now home to as many insect species as ancient woodland. So, rather than being waste areas, ripe for development, they form an important mosaic habitat for many creatures.

Why is wildlife attracted to neglected land? One important factor is probably the absence of humans, another is areas of long grass, which provide shelter and breeding opportunities. Bare earth and piles of rubble provide warm spots for insects to bask and burrow, while 'weeds' (many of which are native larval food plants for butterflies and moths) are allowed to flourish. Nothing is sprayed, clipped or dug over, the land returns to its wild self.

Of course, this reclaimed 'wild' land, which is often littered and graffitied, can become a prime location for antisocial behaviour and crime, and looks tatty. This is where guerrilla gardeners come in. They plant sunflowers, lavender, tulips – whatever they can get their hands on – and maintain those areas for the good for the community. I am currently 'improving' the bare soil, lawn and palm tree combo in the communal garden area of my flats (though technically this isn't guerrilla gardening, as I live there). As a wildlife gardener, 90 per cent of what I grow is with wildlife in mind, but not all gardeners consider wildlife, and so, neither, by extension, do all guerrilla gardeners.

I asked Richard Reynolds, author of On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries, what he thought about neglected areas being ideal habitats for wildlife. He says he struggles to find evidence that guerrilla gardening threatens wildlife biodiversity: "wildlife haven brownfield sites are just not the kind of places guerrilla gardeners attack. Typical starting points are compacted mud, inconsequential rye grass and very common weeds in tree pits and what's added is more likely to be wildlife friendly." Indeed, he says he and many other guerrilla gardeners deliberately plant a lot of bee-friendly plants, such as the lavender field in Westminster Bridge Road, London, which before was just compacted mud, low grass and rubble.

Richard feels the gardening media has been negative about guerrilla gardening in the past. He says “the caricature of guerrilla gardeners as ignorantly hacking at wildlife corners and filling them with gaudy annuals is one largely invented by Bunny Guinness and friends”. (Bunny can be heard talking about guerrilla gardening in the Radio 4 programme mentioned earlier.) Richard may have proved that not all guerrilla gardeners plant wildlife-poor bedding annuals, but the fact that some do could pose a problem for insects if those plants replace native wild ones.

Patches of the canal near where I live have been guerrilla planted with bee-friendly teasel, viper’s bugloss and borage, all amongst long grass so a nectar source has been added to an existing shelter. Indeed, in her presentation, Jan Miller didn’t call for an end to guerrilla gardening; she suggested that the edges of neglected areas could be planted, leaving the centres undisturbed to provide shelter and breeding opportunities for wild creatures.

Do you engage in illicit gardening of neglected areas? If so, what do you plant, and do you consider wildlife? Vote in our Facebook poll on guerrilla gardening, and do have your say in the comments section, below.

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Gardeners' World Web User 20/11/2010 at 10:49

Great blog - thank you! Forget introducing all sorts of (unhelpful) non native species; I am regularly coming across the issue of native provenance in supplying wildflowers, and have been baffled why no-one has pointed out the problems you mention with guerrilla gardening. Concern over losing local genetic adaptations in plants have led to some wildflower charities ask that seed for habitat creation projects come from sites within a 10km radius!

Gardeners' World Web User 22/11/2010 at 12:13

see book 'Gardening for butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects'

Gardeners' World Web User 23/11/2010 at 16:27

I'm all for wildlife and wildlife friendly greenspaces in our cities. However, will using brownfield sites lead to "Save Our Brownfield Site" groups springing up when somebody wants to redevelope them?

Gardeners' World Web User 23/11/2010 at 20:38

Marygold, they already have. I worked with Buglife on a huge project to show how important brownfields are for insect wildlife. Buglife have been campaigning to stop some of the developments because of the important insect faunas.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/11/2010 at 06:20

We have a strong culture of guerilla gardening in the area I live, in fact I have done some on the field above my garden, with bushes and plants suitable for the wild life and some prickly stuff to prevent children climbing over the fences into the gardens.... my raspberries have sent out runners and planted themselves on the field and the dog walkers come and pick them. One man has planted reeds and flowering bushes in an area that sorely needed some colour to lift it. We have bulbs planted on roadside verges...... We used to have so many lovely plants on roundabouts, but the council planted grasses and put decaying wood on them instead in an attempt to cut down on the budget, these are sponsored by local businesses and are dull and uninspiring..... Bournemouth used to have council nurseries that grew and planted up all the lovely public areas and roundabouts, but no longer the nurseries are now Charity based and the town is sadly lacking in beauty

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