Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

Three cheers for Richard Reynolds, who is brightening up the more tedious bits of south London with a spot of stealthy spade-work. He has been titivating the roundabouts and roadside verges of areas such as Bermondsey and Camberwell with shrubs and bulbs, transforming each barren traffic island into a mini rus in urbe.

Reynolds moved into the Elephant and Castle nearly two years ago. "The area was pretty shabby, so I thought I'd do something about it," he says. He now has nearly 200 people on his membership list, some of whom donate money and/ or plants, and some of whom come along to assist in a spot of moonlight planting.

I love the idea of guerrilla gardening and I feel particularly sympathetic to Reynolds, because I know how determined you have to be to succeed in such a venture. The nearest I've got is a handful of seed of Erigeron karvinskianus, or fleabane, whose pink and white daisies can be guaranteed to turn even the most inhospitable chink in concrete paving into a stylish home.

I crept out one night and scattered them over the two square feet of sad soil near the road where I lived. They sprouted, but no sooner had they started to get under way than some council employee came round and flamed them out of existence with a weed burner, along with the creeping campanula I'd been encouraging to grow.

That's the trouble with public gardening. One person's idea of paradise is another's idea of an eyesore. A front garden I owned was nurtured to the point where roses, lavender, rosemary and lavatera billowed over fences and paths. I thought it looked fabulous until a relative asked me when I was going to "deal with it". Then I got a letter from the council asking me to cut it back as it was obstructing the pavement and might endanger passersby.

Reynolds has yet to come up against the horticultural taste police or the Health and Safety Executive. Apparently, he even entered one of his guerrilla gardens into a local "in bloom" competition and got a nomination. Far from battling against municipal interference, he has had no success in getting any authority to admit ownership or responsibility for his patches.

He has more important battles to wage: against the sort of people who think it's funny to break newly planted trees in half, and the Sahara-like conditions of your average London traffic island. Of course, there are those who might say Reynolds is a vandal, but as he points out, he's "vandalising with plants". And while you may applaud what he's doing, he would much rather you got out and did your own bit of guerrilla gardening.

"I can offer support," he says, "but it's very much a devolved revolution, as these patches of land need to be maintained and I struggle with my few areas against the ravages of water shortages, salt, vandals and time. I want to encourage people to do it themselves."

Reynolds' bid to make the city a greener place comes as the Learning and Skills Council, responsible for planning and funding vocational education, and the Royal Horticultural Society, the gardening charity, are warning that "regeneration aspirations" for London and the 2012 Olympics could be affected by a skills shortage in land-based jobs, encompassing landscaping, sports turf management, arboriculture, floristry and green tourism. They say fewer young people - 20 per cent less - are enrolling in such courses, thanks mainly to low schools provision and a reduction in the number of colleges and universities offering "green" courses in London.

It seems astonishing that this should be the case at a time when gardening has never been more popular or, in commercial terms, more lucrative. Perhaps they ought to give Reynolds a ring. What better way to inspire 16- to 19-year-olds to take up a "green" career than by taking them out in the middle of the night and encouraging them to hang around on street corners?

If you want to donate money or plants to Richard Reynolds, or get advice on how to go about guerrilla gardening in your own area, go to www.guerrillagardening.org

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