The revolution will be composted: adventures in radical gardening

The Urban Physic Garden in Southwark, London

Gardening isn’t all about pottering among the petunias: Ruth Jamieson on the rebel gardeners who are using plants to say something politica

Type «gardener» into the Google in your head and you’ll probably get something a little like this; gentle, patient, fond of pottering, sartorially biased towards corduroy.

Yes, yes, not all gardeners are like that, but that’s undeniably the stereotype. Anyway, this post is not about that type of gardener. It’s not about tending our own private utopias behind a safe boundary of leylandii. It’s about something altogether more dangerous and sexier than that. It’s about rebel gardeners: those people who use their botanical skills to make political, economic and social statements rather than say something about new directions in decking.

They are the kind of activists who carry farming equipment not to symbolise the proletariat, but because they’ve got some serious hoeing to do. They’re not mild-mannered; they’re angry. And while they may be patient when it comes to buds flowering, when it comes to urban wastelands, unsustainable town planning, the food industry, unemployment, social exclusion and the relentless grey, grey, grey of our towns and cities they are extraordinarily feisty.

Over the coming seasons, we’ll visit various rebel gardening projects. Every month we’ll talk to the people involved and, should you choose to take up the thorn-proof pruning gauntlet, we’ll find out how you can muck in and get involved, or even start a similar project in your area.

We’ll visit radical socialist gardeners like those in Incredible Edible Todmorden. This Yorkshire town is planting every available surface with veggies. They are on a mission to reject the global food industry and become the UK’s first food self-sustaining town. We’ll drop in on The Plant in Chicago where rebels are transforming a disused industrial building into a zero emission farm.

As our high streets wither in the shadow of recession, radical gardeners are reimagining our shared social spaces as green ones. We’ll meet the people following in the muddy bootprints of Ebenezer Howard, creator of the original garden city, Letchworth: like the team behind Cardiff’s vertical gardening project, How Green Is Your Alley? Or Elephant and Castle’s original guerilla gardening Richard Reynolds, currently busy with his Mobile Gardeners project.

We’ll meet Wayward Plants, masters of temporary conceptual gardens. In the past they’ve brought us the Urban Physic Garden in Southwark, the Union Street Orchard also in South London and Algaegarden, a garden planted with pond grasses and hung with plastic tubes filled with different coloured algae that appeared at the 2011 Metis International Garden Festival in Quebec.

Elsewhere we’ll visit gardeners expressing ideas about equality and opportunities for disadvantaged groups. We’ll look at organizations like The Comfrey Project which works with refuges and asylum seekers on allotment sites across Newcastle and Gateshead. Or the Redhall Walled Garden where people with mental health issues are introduced to the therapeutic benefits of green fingers.

We’ll speak to the people answering the question «how do you eat local when you live in a tower block?» These are people like Something & Son who have transformed a Hackney shop into a farm with their Farm:Shop. And Food From The Sky, the edible garden above a Crouch End supermarket. A flight of stairs! How’s that for reduced food miles?

Depending on how historical we’re feeling we may look at the roots of radical gardening too. The Green Guerillas of 1970s New York, the original community gardeners and throwers of seed-bombs. And the UK’s own Meanwhile Gardens near Westbourne Park, where the wasteland turned adventure garden boasted the UK’s first skateboard pit.

For now I shall leave you with this: the word «radical», whether you take it to mean reformist in the political sense, or unconventional in the cultural sense or just plain awesome in the 1970s teenage sense, derives from the Latin word «radix», meaning «root». Radish is also derived from radix. So gardening and revolution, not such unlikely allotment-mates after all.

Do you know a gardener, greener, community gardener or adopter of feral lands who’s digging for a better society? Perhaps there’s someone in your life who’s on a mission to change the world one vegetable patch at a time? Let us know below about the projects you find inspiring and perhaps we’ll feature them here.

In the meantime, remember, the revolution will be composted.

The revolution will be composted: adventures in radical gardening | Life and style |

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