Guerilla gardens created in Helsinki concentrate mostly on vegetables and herbs.

Seed bombs and secret vegetable patches - guerilla gardening aims to make the urban world a better place.

THE RAPID urbanisation of the world’s population has resulted in a lack of space, yet an increasing demand for gardens has sparked an enthusiasm for reclaiming neglected land. Urbanisation is lending itself to help create resourceful cities that respect ecological systems as well as encouraging socially and aesthetically pleasing environments. On the frontline of this phenomenon is “guerilla gardening,” the “guerrilla” term reflecting its adventurous, albeit illicit facet – the garden-less’ horticultural incursions and surreptitious cultivations on private land.

Guerrilla gardening’s roots go back to the 17th century when Christian radical Gerrard Winstanely cultivated common land in Surrey, England during the English Civil War. In recent years, predictions centred on the inadequacy of present industrial agriculture to meet the demands of future generations has sparked interest, as have spokespersons such as Briton Richard Reynolds, who has helped popularise the movement further with the help of blogs and online communities.

Regenerating urban wastelands is a simple solution to the more complex alternatives such as skyscrapers harnessing solar and wind power, as well as rooftop and vertical gardens. Because smaller land areas harbour dense habitation, community gardens are an ideal solution. In New York City it is estimated that there are over 600 common gardens developing community cultivation. Sunflowers and lavender are notoriously easy to grow, as are pumpkin vines. Urban plantings can thrive even in surprisingly difficult conditions, making reclaiming verges, lay-bys and parking lots ideal.

A popular weapon for “gardeners-without-boundaries” is “seed bombs.” Often specifically designed for the local environment, enthusiasts can forego their usual twilight stealth missions and leave it to nature. With one toss, any neglected area can be enhanced. A mixture of fertiliser and seeds, the “bombs” take many forms – from stuffed egg shells to condom-filled versions. One Los Angeles-based company even sell their “seed bombs” via renovated coin operated candy machines, demonstrating perfectly the beauty of alternative activism.

In Pasila lies a hidden guerilla garden that offers free vegetables for those who are lucky enough to find it.

Planting positivity

The phenomenon is still relatively new in Finland but leading the revolution is the grassroots non-governmental organisation Dodo. Established in 1995, Dodo aims to explore our shared environment and urban development as they shape the future. Dodo members meet regularly around the country to discuss, and more importantly act, upon a whole variety of issues that may be affecting our future, bringing together people from different backgrounds to exchange expertise, experiences and ideas.

“You can make an impact with a fork, a bicycle, a blog, in a workshop or at work, whether it’s in a courtyard in Kallio or in a forest in Madagascar,” say Pauliina Jalonen, Dodo’s chairwoman, and Pinja Sipari, co-ordinator of their urban farmers. “It is about positive change; it’s about making our cities more happy and ecological,” the pair says.

Finland’s “everyman’s right” concept that gives wider public access to private land does not extend to gardens or the immediate vicinity of people’s homes. The legality, therefore, understandably raises questions of responsibility. “As far as we know, Dodo is the only organisation in Finland that does guerilla gardening openly. What we do does not harm other people or their property. We make the space more beautiful. That is being responsible. It’s about having an impact in the environment you live in. Not just waiting for the government to sort things out, or commenting someone else’s plans. The feedback we get is in general very positive. The media seems to love us and many people appreciate our work,” the Dodo team explains.

Guerilla action

One established example of Dodo’s guerilla action can be found by Pasila’s railway sidings where they have created a burgeoning vegetable plot. “We also have a few other guerilla gardens in Vallila, Viikki and Ruskeasuo,” Sipari and Jalonen reveal. “The guerilla gardening we do concentrates mostly on edible varieties. We hope it makes people think about the food they eat. Hopefully it would make people want to change their eating habits into more ecological ones. We have guerilla gardens also in Tampere and we also do guerilla gardening ‘attacks’. These are not that evident yet, but we are hoping there will be a sea of sunflowers in Helsinki later this summer,” hints the Dodo team.

Guerilla gardening is a perfect example of activism that doesn’t revolve around mere politics and angry sign-waving. “We have (or should have) the right to shape our everyday environment into what we want it to be,” declares Dodo. Action ranges from pranks to more serious challenges of property rights, but the objective is maintenance and upkeep rather than stunts. The instincts go further than being simply subversive; it’s an opportunity to change the public’s perception of their urban surroundings.

Dodo hopes that soon the guerrilla prefix will be rendered obsolete. “We hope that practices and land use regulations will change so that everybody would have the possibility to cultivate fresh vegetables without having to commit even tiny illegal acts. We are already renting a space for that in Kalasatama and we’ve helped build seven container gardens in backyards and kindergartens. That’s a small but good start.”

Unlike a lot of activism, political agendas can be brushed aside here. As Sipari and Jalonen remind, “Everyone can take a seed, water it and see how it grows.” I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone opposed to utilising neglected spaces for something more sustainable, resourceful and satisfying.

Daisey Cheyney