March 21, 2006 -- Late at night on a deserted street corner in a residential part of London, a young man looks shiftily at both sides of the road, to the left, to the right, before trotting to the traffic circle lugging a large garbage bag. A friend joins him. An accomplice, perhaps? The scene looks more suspicious as a crowd gathers, many with long sharp instruments in their hands, all moving furtively.
This was the scene last Thursday on Westminster Bridge Road in southwest London, a rebellious rendezvous of unusual extremists -- the guerrilla gardeners -- who were about to attack. They dug up the patchy earth, the motley-looking shrubs and weeds that the local council offered as decoration, and in their place entrenched a neat line of lavender bushes, bulbs soon to bloom full of color, and a few other strategically placed plants. It took 16 of the renegade horticulturalists two five-hour night shifts to upgrade this island of urban decay.
"It's about brightening up peoples' lives, and it's about putting a bit of green and flowers and happiness into the gray areas of London," says Camilla Maxwell-Morriss, guerrilla gardener by night. They have struck several times across England's capital and hope the trend will spread to other cities around the globe, and to some neglected spots in the countryside too. (The group's first international member lives in rural Spain.)
The phrase "guerrilla gardening" was actually coined in New York in the 1970s. An artist living on the Lower East Side became horrified at where children were playing -- in deserted lots scattered with garbage. Liz Christy tackled these wasted spaces by "bombing" barren-looking land with seed grenades. After some initial success, she formed a group that became known as the Green Guerrillas. Its footprint remains in New York today, at the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden. Construction on a neighboring plot forced the garden to close two years ago, but it plans to reopen in June. A 2002 agreement between the city of New York and the state attorney general's office calls for the preservation of the Liz Christy Garden in its entirety. The garden can be found on the northeast corner of Bowery and Houston streets.
Thirty years later, the seed that Liz Christy planted has taken root across the Atlantic in London. Richard Reynolds, the founder of the U.K. version of the intrepid gardeners, is quickly gaining recruits. But the group's green- thumb activism has also met with a small thicket of complaints.
"I think they could probably say I was a vandal, but I am vandalizing with plants, so hopefully they won't think it's too destructive," says Reynolds. The local authorities, however, are not too impressed with Reynolds' antics. One local councilor tells ABC News, "We do think it's a bit silly; the idea of people going around doing it on council property. We don't appreciate people interfering."
Nevertheless, many residents appreciate the efforts of Reynolds and his horticultural collaborators. While the BBC filmed the group in action, several passers-by reached out and said thanks. "We think it's wonderful what they're doing," said one elderly local.
To learn more about the Richard Reynolds' Green Guerrillas group, visit its Web site: http://www.guerrillagardening.org/.