A new, combative lexicon has entered the world of urban gardening: seed bombs, seed grenades, war against filth, horticultural front lines – these terms form the everyday arsenal of a growing tribe of guerrilla gardeners.

A purely urban gardening movement, guerrilla gardening has been defined as the illicit creation of gardens on patches of public land, however large or minuscule. This is an almost vigilante-style fight against concrete, neglect and the lack of ownership over land by those who yearn to make their cities greener. Thus far, the movement has spread from the derelict lots of New York to the roundabouts of London, gardeners Moscow, Gdansk and Seoul are joining this green army, whose weapons of choice are hoes and trowels. If India wants to replenish its depleting water tables, clean the air and reclaim its natural beauty, it’s time for us to join the movement.

Outsider artist

This is how guerrilla gardening works: in cities with strict control over public land, small platoons of gardeners venture out under cover of darkness to create a green space before dawn. Roy Finley, a guerrilla gardener in Los Angeles, is one of the best known proponents of this movement. In the documentary Can You Dig This? he cultivates rundown lots and kerbsides for growing vegetables like kale and tomatoes.

If Indians were to emulate Finley and plant vegetables in public spaces in cities, the yields would most likely be picked before reaching edible size – given that globally, India ranks an abysmal 97 in combating hunger. Flowers might be considered purely ornamental (they are not – flowers encourage bee populations, and bees are essential for the survival of the human race) but are also more likely to stay planted. Flowering shrubs with spines also come with an in-built armour against foragers.

India’s best known guerrilla gardener is Nek Chand. He created Chandigarh’s famous rock garden much before the guerrilla movement existed, and was bestowed with the title of an Outsider Artist. He recognised the healing and uplifting power of gardens, like a character from the much-loved children’s novel by Frances Burnett, The Secret Garden. As an inspector in the Public Works Department, Chand toiled in his secret garden for 18 years on land that belonged to the government, before being discovered.

Nek Chand among the idols in his Rock Garden in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Reuters

The rock garden in Chandigarh is an amazing kingdom of mosaic art, which uses the most imaginative recycling of industrial and household waste. When bemused sarkari supervisors discovered the acres of garden created by Chand, they were so caught up in bureaucratic red tape that they seriously considered demolishing it. He did not have permission to build a garden, and more importantly (at least for the officers) the land did not belong to him.

Luckily, the people of Chandigarh supported their guerrilla gardener. Chand’s rock garden brings visitors from across the world to Chandigarh today, and his name has been immortalised in the list of most notable gardeners in the world.

Faridabad’s green oasis

The most celebrated gardener in the Northern Capital Region today, who created magic out of a government-owned wasteland in Faridabad that was fetid with garbage and overrun by pigs, is the businessman Shell Jhanb. Thanks to his painstaking labour, something foul and ugly was into a place of beauty.

Persian carpet floral patterns in the wasteland-turned-garden of Faridabad. Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Good intentions are not enough for the greening of a large space – a garden the size of Faridabad’s former wasteland required effort, patience, time and funds. Jhanb was willing to expend all of these, but his work schedule left him short on time. As a result, he habituated himself to four hours of sleep every night, so he could be up at the crack of dawn to lavish personal attention upon intricate flowerbeds, laid out like Persian carpets.

In winter, busloads of horticultural societies arrive to marvel at his efforts. Faridabad’s municipality has wisely recognised him as one of the best things to happen to the area. Apart from a small part of the garden where Jhanb keeps his rare and expensive collection of succulents from all over the world, the rest of the flower-filled space has free entry.

The rare and diverse collection of succulent planted by Jhanb. Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

Reclaiming concrete from red-tape

If one dedicated person can transform such a large urban space, why don’t the well-staffed horticulture departments of municipal corporations learn a lesson or two? Many departments tender residential parks to petty contractors who have no knowledge about flowers, and hire untrained gardeners on contract (most of whom can barely recognise a marigold by sight). The average rate for the tender of a regular park in a residential colony, is between Rs 11 to 12 lakh per annum. The park is already laid out with grass and permanent plantation, the tender is only for seasonal flowers and maintenance, so this amount should yield a huge bouquet of blossoms per season. When I volunteered with the Residential Welfare Association to take care of the garden in our sector, the horticulture department did not allow our association to fill out the tender – in other words, we could not choose how our money was spent on a sub-par garden.

State government-run Public Welfare Departments have a mania for laying concrete on every available surface, also for obviously lucrative tenders. Do town planners see nothing depressing about the miles and miles of grotesque yellow and red concrete blocks that are rapidly bordering the internal roads of even small towns?

From mounds of garbage to verdant wonderland, Shell Jhanb's garden is open to all visitors. Photo credit: Shell Jhanb

These prevent percolation of rainwater which replenishes the water table. Earlier, pavements were made of bricks laid out on soil, in tightly-packed herring-bone patterns fringed with bits of grass. Brick pavements were cooler, looked better and allowed for the health and growth of trees and the earth by allowing percolation. Rainwater now simply runs off onto storm water drains, which are often clogged, adding to water-logging and certainly not feeding deep-reaching tree roots.

The space around trees is also usually usurped by concrete, despite the National Green Tribunal’s directions to de-concretise trees. Consequently, grown trees cemented and constricted up to their trunks, wither and die. Concrete pavements are also so bad for another reason – poorly laid, they collect rainwater in little hollows, creating mini-nurseries for mosquitoes.

Rainwater logging due to cement paving. The author removed large parts of concrete and replaced it with plants. Photo credit: Arjun Kharbanda

Inspired by the London-based guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, I no longer complain. I just go out with friends and rip up the concrete around trees – this is most effective especially when done in an area of up to four-square-feet around the base of the trunk. This is not illegal – it is in regulation with National Green Tribunal’s guidelines and is a good way to reduce water-logging. We comfort ourselves through the labour required in wielding pickaxes by telling ourselves that it is slimming. If anyone objects, we point out that this will probably save them from dengue, and the complaints disappear. Inserting a few flower seed bombs in the area drastically improves the tree’s surroundings within a few months.

Children in the neighbourhood between the ages of seven to ten can be enlisted to help make these seed bombs. For inspiration, do tell them about 18th century seed disperser Johnny Appleseed, who planted the seeds for a huge section of mid-Western America’s gardens. You might even encourage them to spend time outdoors, away from screens and learn about flowers, root systems, water tables and the life cycle of creation.

Selina Sen is the author of Gardening in Urban India, DK, Penguin-Random House.