The origin of guerrilla gardening?

“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.”
— anonymous protest poem from the 17th century.

A hoard of snails were on the attack at #ArchHillFarm this spring, plentiful after a historically warm winter, making for a battle to save seedlings, sadly the pumpkins couldn’t be saved from an escape artist chicken (ever watched Chicken Run?) much more voracious than the snails; but despite battling with a lack of rain, tomatoes are ripening, beans have reached for the sky leaving us gifts as they’ve climbed, zucchinis are appearing in every second meal and loads of self seeded surprises have proliferating between the cracks. I hope some of you are cashing in on the bounty of photosynthesis as well. Our launch date didn’t really coincide with projects for your garden — other than maintenance and nourishment — so I decided to introduce you to the rebellious infancy of guerilla gardening instead.

Like any movement, action tends to spring from scarcity, and guerilla gardening was born a very long time ago amongst a bunch of radical Protestants with a bone to pick with the scarcity born from the enclosure of common land.

pictured: Gerrard Winstanley


The fence, Raj Patel maintains, is a “technology of displacement”, a technology we perceive to be associated with containing cows or sheep (or renegade chickens) but originally used to eject the peasantry from common land, leaving them with nothing but their labor to sell in exchange for their subsistence.

Under feudalism, land rights were shared, lords ‘held’, but did not (in the modern sense) legally own their land; they couldn’t sell or exchange it, and commoners couldn’t be excluded from the use of the ‘open fields’ of The Commons – where they could forage, hunt, graze animals and collect water to sustain their communities.

But progress and power weren’t fans of The Commons, taxation and debts imposed on landholders by Henry VII saw the fences start to go up in the late 1400’s, setting in motion a process that would take several centuries in England — peaking between 1760 – 1832 — eventually completely eradicating the way of life of the medieval peasantry. A process which spread through colonization and continues in the form of land grabs throughout the third world.

Enclosure was the original privatisation and the birth of industrial monocultural agriculture. First land was enclosed to pay those taxes and debts with the increasingly profitable enterprise of sheep farming, providing not only land to graze, but also a supply of — now hungry — agricultural wage labor. Later, the land reform of 1646 gave landholders absolute power over previously shared land. Then the Parliamentary ‘Inclosure Acts’ of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century put the final nail in the coffin of the peasantries right to The Commons. Conveniently coinciding with the birth of capitalism, the centralised state and the Industrial Revolution, the Inclosure Acts morph feudalism to landlordism and both the Commons and small farms are swallowed up into massive land holdings.

Enclosure sees commoners became a landless working class, displaced first to provide the cheap labour required by agriculture, and later for the Industrial Revolution. It’s not easy to get a population full of beer and mead with access to land and alternative means of subsistence to tend another’s sheep or to work a twelve hour day in a grimy factory.

The Diggers

But various groups of commoners refused to lay down without a fight. I’ve got a soft spot for The Diggers, a group of Protestant radicals who weren’t having a bar of this injustice and emerged as a reaction to the land reforms of 1646. Understanding the importance of land, the power of food and believing in a connection between people and their natural surroundings — “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth” — they had a plan.

Gerrard Winstanley, a leading thinker in the movement proclaimed that “the power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by [the landholders] ancestors by the sword; which first did murder… men, and after, plunder or steal away their land”, and in 1649 Gerrard and 14 others published a pamphlet called “The True Levellers Standard Advanced”, maintaining that since the Norman Conquest of 1066 the “common people of England” had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class.

The Diggers pulled down hedges and fences, turned the soil and planted crops which they distributed to their followers. Regarding the earth as a “common treasury” they took direct action to put their ideals into practice. An action not dissimilar to our own history at Parihaka.

In April of that year — with food prices at record highs – about fifty families occupied land that had been privatised on St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey. They started to dig the soil and plant crops. Predictably, local landowners weren’t too keen on The Diggers. Winstanley appealed to Parliament for support but they abandoned their settlement in August 1649 under the threat of the state using the army to evict them on behalf of landowners rather than grant them rights to The Commons as they had hoped.

There were also The Levellers and other colonies of diggers at the time and a movement inspired by them in the US in the 60’s, and their admirable spirit lives on in the modern guerilla gardening movement and in hero’s like Ron Finley, still fighting to reclaim the commons, producing free food in public parks, on verges, in vacant lots and with seed bombs.
As Finley says, “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. All you need is a piece of dirt.