Ellen Miles is a guerrilla gardener in Hackney. Image: Ellen Miles
Almost every neighbourhood has one: a neglected patch of land, covered in weeds and strewn with litter, long ago abandoned by whoever was once responsible for it.
Though a blot on the landscape in most people’s view, to Ellen Miles’ eyes, these unloved spaces look more like an opportunity.
“It’s like window shopping – I walk past these bare patches of land now and am constantly thinking about how I could transform them,” she says.
“It can be quite depressing seeing how many there are, but it’s also exciting.”
Miles, who lives in Hackney and is running a campaign to get nature access recognised as a human right, was first drawn to abandoned spaces at the start of 2020 when local authorities began shutting public parks during lockdown.
Frustrated at her community being locked out from public space, Miles grabbed a trowel and set about sprucing up an abandoned stretch of land near her home, planting flowers and recruiting friends to paint a mural along the back wall.
Without knowing it, she’d joined the ranks of the guerrilla gardeners: a movement with roots stretching all the way back to 1970s New York, when an activist group called the “Green Guerrillas” began throwing “seed bombs” into derelict spaces around the city.
Once a playfully illicit fringe activity, guerrilla gardening is now moving into the mainstream, brightening up cities, taking back space for communities and helping urbanites engage with nature in even the most concrete of jungles.
Richard Reynolds, today the UK’s poster boy for guerrilla gardening, was himself living in an Elephant and Castle flat block in 2004 when he made his first foray into abandoned soil. At the time, his only desire was to improve the patch of land that lay empty next to his building.
Like Miles, it was only afterwards he realised he wasn’t the only one to have had this impulse.
“I wasn’t aware of guerrilla gardening as a ‘thing’. I didn’t have a garden and could see this neglected space every day and thought I’d enjoy transforming it,” he says.
“I just went ahead and did it without permission – if I asked I knew the local authority would take ages, and I didn’t want anyone to block what I was doing.”
Over the years, tales of Reynolds and other guerrilla gardeners donning torches to plant illicit flowers in the dead of night have captured the public’s imagination.
From lavender bushes in the middle of traffic islands to planting tulips in tree pits, his creations have enlivened former eyesores across London, and have been documented in his guerrilla gardening handbook, a popular blog and dozens of news and feature articles.
Though Reynold’s creations are now largely embraced by the public and authorities alike, with nighttime exploits less common, he maintains that it’s the mischievousness of planting without permission that makes guerilla gardening so enjoyable – as well as a potential entry point for people who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged with nature.
“You can use the motivation of the fun and mischief and surprising location as the starting point [to get people interested] then the conventional gardening motivation of seeing something grow can follow,” he explains.
Even 18 years – and a move to Devon – on from his first project, Reynolds still evidently seeks out this mischievousness in his work, leaving people guessing as to whether or not a freshly-sprung garden was his handiwork.
“Confusion over who owns a space is often why it’s neglected in the first place, but it’s also an advantage to me because they assume someone else has planted something,” he says.
“I had a local councillor once say to me ‘I don’t know what you’re able to plant around here because everything is so well maintained,’ listing some of my gardens as examples.”
It was a mistake Reynolds saw as something of a compliment, though, he adds, “frankly I like to think what I plant is a bit more ambitious than that”.
Reynolds concedes that this view of guerrilla gardening as an illicit activity won’t be a draw for everyone, and in Miles’s eyes, it’s actually the wrong lens to look at it through.
“I would define ‘guerrilla gardening’ as grassroots planting in public spaces, with purpose,” she says, adding that – bar one occasion in Los Angeles – “I’ve never got in trouble for doing it”.
In fact, Miles has found guerrilla gardening to be a highly social activity, attracting attention from others in the community and leading to a local Whatsapp group for organising activities in the borough.
“That’s another reason why I don’t like defining guerrilla gardening as something done illicitly on someone else’s land – because if it’s council land and a public space, whose land is it if not the community’s?”
To Miles, guerrilla gardening is a powerful way for communities to reclaim space and connect with nature in large cities like London, where feelings of alienation are common.
“To me it [guerrilla gardening] is all about communities having a say in the places they call home.
“I was raised in Hackney but I never really felt a sense of belonging until I started doing this and feeling like I was contributing to the community and the environment,” she says.
With more than 50K followers on Tiktok, Miles is sowing the seeds of guerrilla gardening much further than Hackney itself, posting regular videos outlining how, when and what to plant to others interested in giving guerrilla gardening a go.
The videos cover everything from making planters out of tin cans to sowing wildflower seeds and making seed bombs: balls of compost, flour and water with seeds embedded into them.
Some would see what Reynolds and Miles do as a form of activism, yet Miles is keen to stress that guerrilla gardening doesn’t have to be political in any way.
“I don’t want to alienate people by making out that it always has to be political or rebellious, It can just be that you’re someone who wants to brighten up their local area,” she says.
Guerrilla gardening can be powerful when used to make a statement, Reynolds says, whether that involves sowing sunflower seeds to show support for Ukraine or throwing seeds into spaces the community has been shut out from.
Yet increasingly, as support for the practice has grown, guerrilla gardening has morphed into community gardening, with groups up and down the country establishing everything from community herb gardens to wildflower meadows for the public to enjoy.
“I’m still a bit pedantic about the definition – that guerrilla gardening is something done without permission – but there’s definitely a degree of normalisation around adopting a piece of public land and making it nice, whereas it was seen as more eccentric 18 years ago,” Reynolds says.
“Ultimately, that was my aim, and I’m not at all surprised because it’s our land to take – it’s public space,” he adds.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the internet without someone complaining, and Miles says she occasionally gets comments suggesting that guerrilla gardeners are endangering the environment with non-native species. She even made a Tiktok about it.
The dissenters are far outweighed by the proponents, however, and the risk of damage to the environment is miniscule, says Reynolds.
“The locations I see most people guerrilla gardening tend to be pretty urban. The chance of seeds being invasive in that environment is pretty slim. The more likely outcome is it will just die.”
If anything, what the world needs right now is more guerrilla gardeners, says Reynolds, who would like to see local authorities facilitating the practice up and down the country to boost wellbeing, beautify communities and get people engaged with green space.
For his own part, he’s still on a mission to go bigger and bolder with every new project he plants.
“There’s something I’ve been doing near an English Heritage site, and in the past people have assumed it was English Heritage that did it,” he says.
“Every year I’m stepping up the wackiness and scale of what I plant. This year, nobody will assume it was English Heritage who was responsible.”
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.