Gather Magazine

How guerrilla gardeners are cultivating community

Community gardeners Incredible Edible are bringing people together over greenery.

With limited access to publicly owned outdoor spaces in towns and cities, recent decades have seen a rise in people taking it upon themselves to repurpose neglected strips of land to grow food or flowers. Known as guerrilla gardening, this grassroots movement has been quietly transforming unused spaces into vibrant community assets. Why the term ‘guerrilla’? Planting tulips or fruit trees on the verges outside your home isn’t technically legal, because you don’t own the land. Some gardeners do seek council permission, but in reality, there seems to be little opposition to those who want to turn overgrown patches into more meaningful spaces.

Transforming towns with flowers and kindness

Incredible Edible Todmorden has been practising guerrilla gardening since 2008. What began with growing edible plants in forgotten areas illegally, today has transformed Todmorden. Projects have included a full medicinal garden outside the local health centre; Little Libraries, a series of mini book-swap stations; and even a revamp of the local police station’s grounds. As you wander around the town, huge Hollywood-style ‘kindness’ signs promote their message and strips of edible plants are free for anyone to forage from. Fortnightly ‘Gardening Sundays’ encourage people to turn up and volunteer locally, and there’s even a ‘makers’ repair shop for clothes and appliances and a tool shed for the community to use free of charge.

Growing a community

‘It’s radical community building in action,’ says Mary, chair of Incredible Edible Todmorden. ‘By radical, I mean it’s because we’re self-sufficient. We don’t apply for grants and we don’t ask for public money. Our currency is kindness,’ she smiles. ‘It’s about connecting people to each other, to the soil, to the seasons and being active citizens, not being victims of politics or economics. So if a job needs doing in town, we don’t say who should we blame? Shall we bring in the council or shall we fix it? We just do it.’

It’s this ethos which has led to huge change within Todmorden over the past two decades, something Mary is certain wouldn’t have happened if the local authorities had been involved initially. ‘We’re people who believe that sometimes it’s better to say sorry than to ask permission,’ she says. While originally there was ‘objection to many of us’, Incredible Edible has since gained support from the community and local authorities. ‘Fourteen or 15 years ago nobody wanted to let you plant anywhere,’ says Mary. ‘Now, with the current economic crisis and eight years of austerity [the local authorities] are happy to hand over a park… Pre-covid, if we had 20 volunteers on a Sunday we’d think it was a lot. Now, we have 50 people regularly.’

Bringing people together

What began as a gardening initiative now encompasses far more. Mary says that these days Incredible Edible is more about connection than it is about gardening. Their open-table post-volunteering lunches every other Sunday have led to a big increase in participation, including people not involved in growing. ‘We eat together at a long table two Sundays a month. We do gardening work and then at midday anyone can come. People can walk off the street, bring their granny or bring anyone. No money changes hands and we all eat together…The emphasis now is very much about kindness and reaching out to other people,’ she says.

Incredible Edible has developed a diverse following. ‘We always want to encourage people who are in recovery, whether that’s drugs, alcohol or a broken heart,’ says Mary. ‘We’ve got two beautiful people called Nora and Anna who’ve both just lost their husbands. We’ve got people who’ve got no ability to speak at all with severe learning difficulties. We’ve got your executive people and we’ve got young lads. It’s just a really beautiful mixture.’

Changing the world

Over time, Incredible Edible’s work has transformed not only neglected spaces in the area, but also the mindset of the Todmorden community into one which is connected and supportive. The ‘Hollywood’ signs have inspired the creation of the Kindness Café which is run by individuals in recovery from drugs or alcohol. The Sunday lunches have inspired people with a passion for cooking in the town to create their own pop-up curry business. But what is truly incredible is how far it has stretched beyond that. There are now more than 100 Incredible Edible groups across the UK and the initiative has gained widespread attention from around the world. Incredible Edible has built a reputation in Japan, with their project being featured in a Japanese government schoolbook and there are more than 600 Incredible Edible groups across the globe.

While each of these groups works in their own unique way, they all galvanise community through transforming disused patches of land and growing food. They are a collective demonstration of the transformative potential of guerrilla gardening for urban greening and social cohesion.

Words: Lydia Paleschi