How green was my alley

<strong>On Guerrilla Gardening: a Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries</strong>

Richard Reyno

Maybe it's a girl thing, but I have never associated gardening with warfare. The skill-set seems to me quite different: I have never feared much for enemy fire while staking out my runner beans, and I don't imagine that Che Guevara did much weeding in the Sierra Maestra. But for Richard Reynolds, a former advertiser turned "guerrilla gardener", "cultivating a garden is always a fight". In his "arsenal", plants are "more sophisticated than the most devastating WMDs . . . programmed with DNA that will explode into life in the right conditions". He lovingly crafts "seed bombs" to resemble 9mm pistols, and the friends who help him plant tulips on neglected roundabouts are assigned "troop numbers".

It's exciting, high-adrenalin stuff. This is gardening repackaged for the 21st century: forget Arthur Fowler sipping tea in his potting shed, think instead a dashing Comandante Marcos figure, sowing maize and beans while holding forth on the flaws of global capitalism. Reynolds's gardening crusade began on his housing estate in Elephant and Castle. Noticing that the council was neglecting communal flower beds, he decided to take matters into his own hands, sneaking out at 2am for late-night undercover mulching and planting. (Why the secrecy? On my estate residents have always tended the communal beds. No matter - small details like this would spoil his heroic tale.)

Soon Reynolds found himself tapping in to an international movement of activist gardeners - from Montreal to Brisbane - who take on unused public land and transform it into lush, cultivated flower displays and allotments. He introduces charismatic leaders such as Purple 321, who created a stunning circular garden behind his run-down tower block, and Liz Christy, who founded community gardens on neglected land in 1970s New York which are still there today.

More dubiously, Reynolds traces the history of "guerrilla gardening" back to the Diggers of St George's Hill in 1649, through Johnny Appleseed in 19th-century America, and on to today's Sem Terra (landless) movement in Brazil. It is rare that a book has made me cringe physically, but I certainly did so when Reynolds implicitly aligned his tulip-planting activities with a protest staged by starving workers at a banana plantation in Honduras. I get the feeling that he would be rather pleased if Southwark Council greeted him and his green-fingered troops with a few canisters of tear gas - it would make him feel as if he were doing something subversive, rather than cashing in on a lively subculture.

If only this book weren't quite so annoying, Reynolds and I would be on the same side. I agree that it would be fantastic if we all took better care of our communal green spaces. I, too, can wax lyrical about the joys of compost and the incredible fact that a tiny brown seed will one day become a beautiful, life-giving plant. But I like gardening precisely because it is not fast-paced, or aggressive, or funky and trendy. It is slow, meditative, creative and fundamental. It feels like an intrinsically positive activity, both for one's own mental and physical health and for the environment. I should be generous to Reynolds and acknowledge that if anyone takes it up as a result of reading his book, that is a good thing.

Less hyperactive and, I would think, more inspiring to keen gardeners is The Acorn House Cookbook by Arthur Potts Dawson. Unlike Rey nolds, Potts Dawson actually has some useful information to impart: he is the executive chef at Acorn House, a restaurant in central London dedicated to serving environmentally responsible, first-class seasonal food. He has worked at the River Café and for the Roux brothers, all the while sustaining his own passion for growing his own and sourcing fresh, ethical ingredients. The book is structured around the seasons, with recipes for every month of the year. So no more wondering what to do with all that kale in the veggie box, or how on earth to get through February without accruing zillions of food miles.

The recipes are simple and delicious: so far, I can vouch for the fresh yumminess of May's asparagus, broad bean and pea soup, and the rhubarb sorbet cheekily laced with gin. I have also been greedily looking ahead to June and July, when I can tuck into chargrilled courgettes, lamb with turnip and summer pudding. In addition to the recipes, the book has very good sections on sourcing sustainable fish, helpful tips on growing your own food in limited spaces, and advice on how to conserve energy in the kitchen.

It is a wonderful thing that we are rediscovering the joys of gardening and food cultivation. Me, I aspire to the Potts Dawson approach, integrating what I learn in the garden into my wider choices about how I live, work and consume, while thoroughly enjoying the hedonistic pleasures of working in the open air and eating fresh, flavour-packed vegetables. Reynolds can keep his bombs, troops and political posturing.

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically