Sowing Sneinton: Guerilla Gardening

Photos: Debbie Davies
Interview: Aly Stoneman
Monday 20 February 2012
reading time: min, words

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t get alarmed now. It’s probably Donya Coward and Suzannah Bedford – collectively known as Sowing Sneinton – who have taken up the cause of guerilla gardening in order to improve the neglected flowerbeds and public spaces of their broken fridge-encrusted neighbourhood…


How did Sowing Sneinton get started?
Donya: It started the day I wrote about eight letters that said: ‘I’m a resident of Sneinton - would anyone be interested in getting together for a drink and discussing making some positive floral changes to the area?’ I included an internet link to a guerilla gardening book as an introduction to the idea of positive action through gardening, suggested dates when we could meet and posted the letters through some doors.

Which doors, and why?
Donya: I chose houses that looked loved and had plants outside that were colourful and still alive - and Suzannah’s was one of them. I thought the people living there might want to be involved because they were already trying to make a change on their immediate doorstep.

Suzannah: Getting an anonymous handwritten letter really appealed to my sense of mystery and drama.

What’s the difference between community gardening and guerilla gardening?
Suzannah: A community garden is a space for gardening that is accessible and where efforts are made to involve all sections of the community. They generally start with a community getting together and wanting to change a negative derelict space. With guerilla gardening you don’t have questions of ownership or issues around involving the community or working with the authorities - there is a kind of excitement and frisson to planting bulbs by moonlight in a place you shouldn’t be.

You started with lawless intentions, but you have been planting with Nottingham City Council’s blessing. How did that come about?
Donya: At the start we had to decide whether to go guerilla and plant without permission or go legit. Suzannah already had a good relationship with the council from her other voluntary work, so they took us seriously. We did a walk around with Councillor David Mellen and somebody from the council maintenance team and showed them the spaces we were interested in. After our meeting the council maintenance team said they would do all our dirty work – such as digging and removing rubbish from the sites we had identified – so we got council manpower, council money and a colour-coded map identifying what was city council land and what was privately owned. We were bowled over by how much they were willing to help.

And you received some funding as well…
Suzannah: We were given £600 worth of funding for buying plants, but we couldn’t have planted everything on that. Gardeners, shops and allotment holders often donate plants to us when they are having a clear out. We also partnered Ecoworks who had funding for one year to work with groups planting fruit in urban environments, so the fruit trees and bushes came from them. We received some money from the Unlimited Fund, part of the Millennium Commission, which is intended to support social entrepreneurs. Part of this will be used to get some signage made and installed to help make people aware that this is a community project and also to provide a bit of information.

Were you already experienced gardeners?
Suzannah: We started with enthusiasm and some gardening experience but we are not qualified experts. Our main skills are that we know how the authorities work, we like working with people, we are enthusiastic and we use allthose things to make Sneinton better via flowers.

Donya:  I would say I’m a gardening enthusiast; I’ve volunteered at Ecoworks and I’m learning as I go along. When people donate plants to us that I’m not familiar with I look it up on Google, go to the library or go to Stonebridge City Farm and say ‘Excuse me, I’ve got this plant - what do I do with it?’ The key thing is to be interested. We also attended an Introduction to Permaculture course through the WEA at Ecoworks in 2011.

What’s Permaculture?
Donya:  Permaculture is the way nature works to support itself but it can also be applied to community and society, so it is a set of principles.

Suzannah: Its about harnessing natural systems to get the most yield with as little intervention as possible - letting nature do its work and learning to plant in harmony with the environment and seasons, that kind of thing.

Are you recruiting for volunteers?
Suzannah: Being a small group, we are always looking for volunteers and groups to get involved. Some volunteers might not be interested in the actual planting but they can support us by driving to pick up compost or designing fliers, for example. We’d also like to partner up with other organizations in Sneinton and get them maintaining some of the existing spaces so that we have time to get involved with new projects.

Donya:  When we are planning an activity we put a call out on Facebook or we text people and ask if anyone can help. The best way to get involved is to join our Facebook group or email [email protected].

How many garden sites have you got, where are they and how did you decide what to plant?
Suzannah: We’ve got four sites around Sneinton Dale. We never imagined when we started we’d be creating woodlands and fruit gardens between Akbars and the crummy garage, but you get so used to areas being left to twigs, rubbish, patchy grass and the municipal overgrowth - ratcatchers as we call them - and it just isn’t good enough. We like woodlands, orchards and wild flowers and so we thought, let’s put those things into Sneinton; it might be an urban area - but why not?

Have you formed links with groups doing the same kind of thing outside of Nottingham?
Suzannah: We visited Incredible Edible in Yorkshire and community gardens in London because we wanted to look at projects who were doing similar things and see how they innovated to get their message out to engage people and how they were structured as an organisation. The key thing is that all our gardens are open and publicly accessible all the time because our project is about reanimating neglected spaces, while the gardens that we visited - except Incredible Edible - are gated.

Donya:  Most community gardens are to do with growing foods, but ours is unique because it’s about being pleasant. The majority of the things we plant can be eaten or used in the herbalist sense, but it’s not about growing cabbages to be self-sufficient.

How has the community in Sneinton responded?
Suzannah: We sometimes get comments from half-cut lads like ‘Looking for treasure?’ or ‘You could come and do my back yard’ and also about being lady gardeners and how we need to find ourselves husbands. Or some bright spark will spend 20 minutes telling you ‘there’s no point, don’t bother’ and you can’t help thinking they could spend that time helping out instead.  But nice things happen - a guy in a van pulled up one day when it was really hot and gave us iced bottles of water and that kind of gesture makes you want to wipe a mud-stained tear from your eye.

Donya:  People say ‘Oh I thought that would all be torn out when I first saw you, its really good that you’re doing it’. We aren’t trying to teach anyone anything - all we are trying to do is show people that it’s possible to change their environment if that’s what they want.

You put a lot of time and work into this project – how do you reply when people say ‘what’s the point’?
Donya:  The point is making Sneinton better. If it looks agreeable then you feel happier, if it looks rubbish it makes your day less enjoyable on your way to and from work. We deserve better and Sneinton deserves better – it’s a very colourful place with a rich history.

Suzannah: It is also about encouraging people to take ownership and responsibility – not just by not dropping litter or vandalizing – but also by realising that they can make a difference to their street by something as simple as planting flowers outside their house.

Plans for the future?
Suzannah: We are in discussion with Sneinton library about housing a shed in their garden that would be a work and information space for Sowing Sneinton. The library is a fantastic resource, a real community hub. Everyone goes there to find out what’s going on, so having that kind of presence would mean that people could engage with us more easily. The focus will always be the gardens and planting but we would also set up a programme of monthly activities – discussions, planting sessions, gardening know-how workshops and talks.

The secret of your success?
There are lots of groups and lots of committees sitting around saying ‘What if?’. Both of us were really clear that this is about taking action rather than over-thinking it and ending up doing nothing at all.

Donya:  And also, knowing that, if you have a dream you want to realise, you can achieve it with complete strangers so long as you have similar aims.

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