As a small child in the late '60s in Vancouver I remember our family driving through Stanley Park and seeing rows of daffodils growing on the green banks by the side of the through road. Each and every bulb was donated by locals, requested by citizens and thrown out of car windows in passing to take root where they fell.
And each and every bulb represented one soldier who had died or gone missing in action in Vietnam.
It's a powerful and evocative image that still resonates with me today - and it was my first taste of Guerrilla Gardening.
What do wars and flowers have to do with each other?
Wiki defines guerrilla as:
mean(ing) 'little war' in Spanish and was created during the Peninsular War. The concept acknowledges a conflict between armed civilians against a powerful nation state army...
Guerrilla tactics are based on intelligence, ambush, deception, sabotage, and espionage, undermining an authority through long, low-intensity confrontation...These tactics are useful in demoralizing an enemy, while raising the morale of the guerrillas.
Lack of personal green space, the urban environment, feeling faceless and nameless against a local authority are all pretty demoralising, but a growing number of people around the global are taking to the streets in a covert operation that greens up empty lots and disused areas, filling them with flowers and vegetables.
The practice is not a new one. Both the UK Diggers, led by Gerald Winstanley in the 17th century, and the legendary Johnny Appleseed in the US sought to take back the land for the poor. But in 1973, a group of volunteers in New York's Bowery section transformed a derelict private lot into a community garden and the term Guerrilla Gardeners passed into the everyday lexicon.
London-based Richard Reynolds documents the phenomenon in his excellent book and website, where volunteers - referred to only by their first name and a number, a nom de guerre if you like - take to the streets and transform patches of waste ground into abundant spaces full of colour and life.
The practice requires only that you construct a seed bomb, usually earth and seeds compacted together into a projectile, a hi-vis jacket for safety and to appear official, the desire to plant and later maintain your patch, and the realisation that what you're doing is ridiculously illegal.
Ridiculous, because planting aesthetic and necessary crops seems so innocuous compared to the proliferation of guns and knives in an urban environment; non-violent direct action as opposed to crime and pollution. Which would you rather see by the sidewalk; sunflowers or used condoms?
There are essentially three distinct types of guerrilla gardener; the social, the communal and the political. Social guerrilla gardeners steal out and fling their seed bombs to beautify patches on an individual basis. Their work is covert and without glory. You may see a bunch of flowers spring up around the kerb one day and that'd be the work of a lone guerrilla gardener. You might even decide to water the flowers from time to time and pass on the love.
Then there are the communal gardeners, groups of urbanites in generally down-at-heel neighbourhoods who take it upon themselves to seize waste areas and turn it into crop-bearing land. Reynolds has a pretty comprehensive list on his site; the Green Guerrillas in New York, the Clinton Community Garden, gardeners in Glasgow, and yet more. Vancouver city authorities even have a handy set of instructions for would-be guerrilla gardeners on their municipal website, with tips for hardy plants that can stand a little drought and car fumes, and guides on safety.
And then there is the political - although all forms of guerrilla gardening have a political element - and The Pansy Project is just one outstanding example of this.
Artist Paul Harfleet started the project in 2004 as a reaction to homophobic abuse on the streets of Manchester, and began planting pansies on the sites where attacks took place. He explains:
The Pansy Project acts as a formula which prevents the ‘victim’ from internalising the incident, the strategy becomes a conceptual shield; a behaviour that enables the experience to be processed via the public domain in this case the location where the incident occurred and latterly the website which collates ands presents the incidents and operates as a virtual location of quiet resistance...The pansy instantly seemed perfect. Not only does the word refer to an effeminate or gay man: the name of the flower originates from the French verb; pensar (to think), as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought. The subtlety and elegiac quality of the flower was ideal for my requirements. The action of planting reinforced these qualities, as kneeling in the street and digging in the often neglected hedgerows felt like a sorrowful act. The bowing heads of the flowers became mournful symbols of indignant acceptance.
The project has grown steadily and globally over the last five years.
So, what does this tell us? Even if your resources are limited to a balcony or a windowsill, or even if you don't have that, you can still plant and nurture. One flower is all it takes.