The Che Guevara of Gardening
Guerrilla gardening is not exactly news. In fact it's been around since someone called Liz Christy turned a derelict lot in the Bowery Houston area of New York into an advert for agrarian living in 1975. Liz did such a good job that her garden is now protected by the New York City Parks Department. In the grim, grey, cold United Kingdom, guerrilla gardening has been on the rise since the 1980s and takes place just about anywhere you can scatter a seed, from Parliament Square to outside Harold Shipman's former slaughter parlour. They even turned the idea into a TV show in Australia. But it's the diligent people sowing on a daily basis that make the movement to reclaim disused, rotting bits of urban wasteland one you should truly give a crap about. People a bit like Chris Tomlinson.
I met Chris when I found him holding court in the back of Brighton's radical libertarian cafe, the Cowley Club, a few weeks ago. As he talked about the pros and cons of growing tomatoes in the middle of mini-roundabouts, more than twenty gardeners, hippies and baked students listened rapt to his tales of "attacking the streets". With seeds.
Hailing from nearby Hastings, Chris has made it his life's work to attack as many streets in his local area as humanly possible. He carries around dog-eared notebooks and a copy of the Hastings A-Z – with a lot of roads marked with a cross. That means they've been thoroughly attacked and successfully planted.
Chris takes his illegal planting pretty seriously. Whether it's just the sheer joy he gets from planting a load of squashes in a Tesco car park or the thrill of re-appropriating the land from the multi-nationals, I'm not sure, but he seems to be into the whole deal and it seems unlikely he'll quit anytime soon. He will happily plant in pavement cracks, parks, front gardens, back gardens or just about anywhere that will hold a seed. There is only one rule he abides by – leave land that is already tended. I popped over to Hastings to catch up with him only to find he'd been stopped by four policemen while planting in a churchyard the week before. It's nice to know that Hastings' finest are cracking down on serious crime.
Vice: So how did you get started scattering seeds on land that technically did not belong to you?
Chris Tomlinson: Just by being a human and being sensitive in an insensitive grab-whatever-you-can-get-while-you-can world. Guerrilla gardening makes sense to me and helps me out of my lows. Reading On Guerrilla Gardening by Richard Reynolds was inspiring. So respect to Mr Reynolds for opening the door. Go for it, boy! I've also been inspired by Chico Mendes, John Lilburne, Eillen Caddy, Mike Scott and many others who've crossed my path and encouraged me when I'm up and down. I am always inspired by the spirits of Danny Cullen and Grace Dodd.
Okay, that is a pretty varied list. What is it about guerrilla gardening that floats your boat?
The joy of reclaiming open spaces and gardens to help rebuild communities and the spirit of community. Well, one can dream large anyway.
What else do you do other than sow your wild oats?
When I'm not guerrilla gardening, I work on my small garden or read about horticulture, either in library books or Growing Green International, the journal of the Vegan Organic Network.
So do you do anything that doesn't involve gardening at all?
I eat, read, sleep and play music loudly.
Are you sure that you don't have any deep, dark non-green secrets? Like that you drive a Land Rover?
No. Hence my occasional lows. No selling out here, folks!
Have you ever run ito any scrapes while out planting cabbages in pavement cracks?
I once ran into a right-wing little Englander who gave me some stick, but now he grows veggies in his garden after my chat and action.
Wow, any other highs?
Some fruit trees that I grew were featured in latest National Co-op Membership Magazine, which has a readership of 1.2 million.
Can planting in places you're not meant to really make a difference?
I'm an optimist. I’d encourage others to grow fruit and vegetables in their own gardens and open spaces. I’m happy and enthusiastic about giving talks and actions. Just email me!