Rebel with a shovel talks gardening at Harvest at Jimmy’s

Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds is literally sowing the seeds of resistance when it comes to reclaiming neglected, orphaned land. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE answers his call to arms

WE all walk past patchy bits of land every day; aside from having a moan about the council we don’t do anything. That was never an option for Richard.

Growing up in the Devon countryside, his passion for gardening blossomed early. When his parents called on him and his three other siblings to help look after their large garden he took the lead.

“I was encouraged to garden at school as well which was very good, my mistake I suppose was to move to a flat in London that didn’t have a garden,” Richard laughs.

“It was only after moving there I realised I kind of miss that; I’d always had window boxes even at university. But I can’t do that in a high rise flat, there are no window sills.”

After five months, he’d had enough and rather than writing to the council saw an opportunity to scratch his itch to grow something by transforming the neglected flowerbeds around the Elephant and Castle block he still lives in.

“You just see this filth every day and think ‘oh for goodness sake, why doesn’t somebody do something about it’? It was definitely not my nature just to complain about it and wait for the council to do something.

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“I thought no, why should somebody else do it? I’ll enjoy doing it, it’ll be good fun, I can make it as I want it and in time I realised I could invite people to help me out and do it too.”

His first act of defiance was a solo effort at two in the morning one cold October seven years ago.

Armed with the recently bought compost and plants hidden away in the garage, he got to work breathing new life into the two foot high, raised red bed full of gravel, weeds and dead potted plant outside the 1970s concrete block.

“I stayed up late, drank lots of tea and was quite on edge. It was, in hindsight, completely ridiculous really. I now do it in much more blatant ways. I really didn’t want to upset anyone; I didn’t want anyone to start questioning me and get refused about it that was the thing.”

He removed all the rubbish, dug in the fresh compost, then planted some cabbage palm, cyclamen and lavender.

“I wanted the garden to speak for itself so I did it and didn’t leave any notices. As far as anyone in the morning was concerned it could have been the council who had done it, that was fine by me. I just wanted it done and I wanted to be the person doing it.

“It was a very quiet sense of criminal damage which is technically what it’s classified as. Thankfully nobody passed by and, as they say, it passed without incident,” he laughs.

Now looking after multiple traffic islands, junctions and small tree pits he’s not been so lucky; the council isn’t a fan and he’s even been threatened with arrest.

He didn’t get that much of a hard time when he decided to do a bit of guerrilla gardening on holiday in Tripoli, in Libya, in 2006.

“I got chatting to the head of the local revolutionary youth council. The hardest part was actually finding a plant. But I managed to persuade a market trader to sell me one that he had as decoration and I planted it in an empty tree pit on the pavement and that provoked this conversation.

“He [the council head] was quite flattered and delighted and invited us into his club.”

But he’s found new friends too via his blog, charting his exploits and his book On Guerrilla Gardening, released a few years back.

Fear, he says, is the biggest barrier when it comes to people joining the fight.

“There are so many more opportunities where seeking permission is just going to waste some poor, over-stretched bureaucrat’s time. You’re not going to be causing anyone any trouble; just go about it with a good dose of optimism and pragmatism and you’ll probably be delighted in what you start.”

This isn’t about excluding people or taking something from the community; it’s about giving something back to it.

“That’s why all the military metaphors are quite appropriate. It’s not like a mass invasion, it’s not a blitz, it’s a bit of stealth and bit by bit you win the hearts and minds.

“The worst thing I get in my inbox is people who write to me saying ‘I heard about guerrilla gardening, wasn’t too sure about it so I wrote to the council or the highways people and told them my idea and they said no which was really upsetting. I thought I should have a go but then they knew it was me and I’m now in trouble’.

“It was like ‘oh goodness’, if they’d just gone ahead anyway there probably wouldn’t have been an issue. That’s the thing with councils, they can’t say yes even if they wanted to because of health and safety and liability; in the way it suits them to just turn a blind eye.”

Now an obsession, his words, rather than a hobby the part-time communications consultant’s army of followers is growing; with more people taking the chance to take their love of gardening literally beyond their boundaries.

Some like Richard have no garden or are tired of walking past eyesores, others have wonderful gardens but it’s not enough.

“Once people realise their fears are a bit exaggerated it goes. Then the fun starts. What I really enjoy now, particularly in a new area, is passers-by stopping and going ‘oh wow, are you guerrilla gardeners? Great, I’d like to join in’. It’s then you feel like Father Christmas. But it wasn’t like that seven years ago.

He doesn’t go out at two in the morning anymore, preferring evenings so he can spread his message; which is what he’ll be doing as curator of the growing stage at Harvest at Jimmy’s from September 9-12.

“It was my job is to gather a great group of people together from all sorts of different gardening backgrounds to give some entertaining workshops for both afternoons of the weekend.”

These include Essex’s most elusive guerrilla gardener, the Human Shrub, who is breaking cover to join the list of international stars at this year’s event.

Known as the Banksy of the horticultural world, and dressed in his trademark green foliage he’ll take part in a gardening workshop.

The undercover superhero, whose name remains a mystery, hit the headlines two years ago when he struck out over an Essex council decision to slash its flowers and shrub budget. He’s renowned for replacing weeds with flowers in lacklustre municipal planters.

Finding him proved a puzzle for festival organisers Big Wheel.

“He doesn’t speak on the phone and hasn’t got an e-mail address so all our communication was done via social media. The shrub is a hero; we’re delighted to have him at the festival. I’m not sure what Monty Don will make of him,” says Director Eloise Markwell-Butler.

Harvest at Jimmy’s showcases the best of the British food scene alongside a soundtrack of the freshest live acts and bands.

Bands include the Feeling, Fat Freddy’s Drop and the Divine Comedy. Chefs Gennaro Contaldo and Yotam Ottolenghi will also be demonstrating their skills at the farm in Wherstead.

The family-friendly festival will also see a special visit from CBeebies’ star Mr Tumble and the Gruffalo who will be performing the hit musical adaption of the award winning picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

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