Get with the movement

In his seminal anti-Vietnam war song Alice???s Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie (son of the legendary Woody) neatly summarises how to start a mass movement:

???walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him [in the draft]. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.??? (extract from:

Well perhaps it???s not quite that simple but if you are interested in how the organic gardening movement took off in the last quarter of the 20th century, or you want to find out about some more about guerrilla gardening then there are two books I???ve recently read which I can highly recommend. The books are Organic Gardening: The Whole Story by Alan and Jackie Gear (Watkins Publishing, London, 2009), and Guerrilla Gardening ??? A Manualfesto by David Tracey (New Society Publishers, 2007). Both books focus on how small numbers of people with big ideas get their story out to the rest of the world and spread their message as they go along.

In the early 1970???s Alan and Jackie Gear answered an ad in the paper that saw them take up positions at the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), founded by Lawrence Hills in 1958. They stayed with the HDRA (now known as Garden Organic) until they resigned in 2003. As such they were in the right place at the right time, working with other HDRA staff and members, to progress the concept of organic gardening throughout the UK. In the 1980???s they were responsible for creating Britain???s first organic demonstration garden at Ryton.

I think what surprised me most while reading this book was the relatively short period of time it has taken organic gardening, as represented by the HDRA and its members, to become a major movement in the gardening world. This is due in no small part to the HDRA???s insistence on scientifically based trials to support and develop their approach. Alan and Jackie were also involved with promoting the concept of organic gardening, which is more than just gardening without chemicals, to the ordinary gardener. In part they did this through the pioneering TV show All Muck and Magic? which introduced the wider British public to the principles of organic gardening and also through a huge amount of effort and fund raising under Jackie’s supervision to develop various demonstration gardens throughout the UK.

While this is not a ‘how to’ book there is plenty of useful information to be gleaned on the way. At the end of the book there is a good list of contacts in countries around the world, including Australia, should you want to get active. Unfortunately from a quick check of its web site the Australian arm of the HDRA seems to be rather moribund. You might be better served visiting the main Garden Organic website where there is a lot of information available even to non-members.

It is clear that what the HDRA achieved over the time that Alan and Jackie were at the helm is a monument to their dogged persistence to their goal, and this was based on their youthful commitment to a big idea. If this sounds all too worthy then be relieved to know that Alan and Jackie tell their story with a light and entertaining touch.

There is a similar mix of ideals and persistence displayed by the protagonists in David Tracey???s book on guerrilla gardening. It is in part a history of guerrilla gardening from the perspective of the north-west coast of the US and Vancouver, Canada, where David is a landscape architect, as well as a manual on how to become a guerrilla gardener (gg). Surprisingly you can become a gg without having to even go out at night wearing dark clothing! (and don’t even consider that excrable show that briefly appeared on Australian TV as a real example of what guerrilla gardening is about!). All sorts of people do it. You can do it by yourself or with a group of friends. You can choose to weed and water a neglected plot, plant a vertical vegetable garden on a chain link fence or set up a community garden. For heavens sake they even talk about working with your local council to achieve your goals! Most importantly David sees gg as a way of connecting not only with the environment, but also with your local community.

David’s light touch with his prose which makes this book a very easy read. In his section ‘Guerrilla gardening is fun’ David asks “How did environmental politics get so earnest and dull? Has there ever been a rallying call more numbing than “sustainability”? Who decided that anyone working on environmental issues must appear grimmer than the consequences involved?” David draws on his own experience as well as providing interviews with a wide range of people, from activists to used-car salesmen, who’ve taken it on themselves to do something to improve their local spaces. The book includes lots of practical information on how to go about your chosen task, including what to if you get stopped. One note of caution I would add is that some of the ‘power plants’ that have been suggested for use, such as the California Poppy are already an invasive pest species in Australia and should not be encouraged. Ditto the Leyland Cypress which may not have any formal pest status in Australia but is considered a very unwelcome specimen in gardens across Europe.

You may find that you will develop a more active interest in guerrilla gardening after reading this book. In which case I may see you out there on the streets.