Some lucky Hastings residents have been waking up to see flowers springing up in streets where once there were only weeds. Guerrilla Gardeners have arrived. These activists have been appearing all over Hastings and St. Leonard’s, often carrying seed bombs and trowels. The idea of improving green spaces in the local area is not new, but it gained impetus in April this year with a series of talks held at the Azur ballroom in St. Leonards. The event, hosted by the local group Common Treasury, featured a group of inspiring speakers. 

Sarah Gomes Harris in her guerrilla garden

TURNER PRIZE GUERRILLAS

Hazel Tilley spoke about the way residents of Granby in Liverpool used gardening to rescue four streets of houses from demolition. The project, which won the Turner prize in 2015, now includes a successful street market and a winter garden constructed within the shell of two derelict houses. The Azur talk inspired some in the audience to see what gardening could do for their own communities. 

Writer and animator Sarah Gomes Harris came to Hastings a year ago from London where she had been working on a TV series. Through the local Labour Party she met the networking group Hastings Creatives and began to organise groups with a view to potential action on climate change. The groups, whilst positive, revealed the hugely complex nature of the problem and the uncertainty of what to do about it. 

Sarah, inspired by the Liverpool project and Hazel Tilley’s talk, decided to take action in her ‘own back yard.’ She doesn’t actually have a garden but set to work on small green area near her Quarry Road apartment. The area, like much of Hastings, was becoming heavily overgrown with weeds and looking neglected. On the green ‘island’ the grass and weeds were so high that you could lose a small dog. Once the mowing was done Sarah began creating flowerbeds with a few plants from a stall in the town centre. 

The response from local residents has been considerable. Some stop to thank Sarah or offer help, some donate plants. An elderly gentleman said he was delighted and had now bought a hoe to deal with the weeds now covering much of the pavements around the green. Philip Cooper lives close to the green and said, “The new flower beds send the message ‘we care’ and this is helping to promote conversations between neighbours, and deter dropping of litter.” 

Artist Amanda Jobson attended both the Azur event and a “very useful” training day held by Extinction Rebellion. For the last three months she has been a volunteer at Speckled Wood with Ore Community Land Trust. The small group of volunteers meets once a month at their community shed, near to where they are creating an orchard and wild flower meadow. Amanda says that when she first came to the woods there was lots of rubbish and dog-poo bags dumped along the wayside, but this has decreased since the volunteers became active. The group has been maintaining pathways and repairing bridges, making it easier for local people to walk through the woods. Locals often stop to thank them for their efforts, sometimes volunteering to help.

GROWING FRENCH FRIES

Hollington Garden Friends (HGF) also sprang from the highly inspiring Common Treasury talks. Their goal is to promote biodiversity and homegrown food. Lynne Salvage told HIP that Councilor Maya Evans suggested they offer help to Hollington residents struggling to maintain their gardens. The first customer was “a five year old boy who wanted to grow his own chips”. He soon found himself planting his first potato. The volunteer group is growing but Lynne said, “As a fairly recent retiree I am very keen to engage like-minded elders who love gardening to come and play! Their experience together with contributing a ‘grandparent’ presence…would be invaluable.” 

SWEATY TREES

Cynics may say that a few people scattering seeds or planting sapling trees can’t stop climate change or ‘save the planet’. But evidence suggests that re-greening our environment may have a significant impact. As the planet heats up, the demand for air conditioning has increased dramatically. These units keep us cool but they are actually heating up the planet. They are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. However recent reports reveal that a single tree in a city can ‘do the work’ of five air conditioners. Trees and plants help to cool the atmosphere in a process called evapotranspiration, basically plant sweat. This is part of the planet’s natural water cycle. A single mature oak tree can transpire annually as much as 151,000 litres of cool moisture into the atmosphere.

REVEGETATE

In order to mitigate climate change, restore our environment and create sanctuary for the planet’s vanishing insects and pollinators we need to revegetate. In 2015 the UK government launched a strategy to support pollinating insects. They proposed that ‘Whether you are a farmer, a gardener, or a manager of urban or amenity spaces, there is something you can do to help support our valuable insect pollinators.’ They listed ‘five simple actions’ that people could take…’Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees. Let your garden grow wild. Cut your grass less often. Don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.’ And… ‘Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.’

BIOPHILES

Biophilia is not only the title of an album by Bjork, it’s also a hypothesis about human nature. The theory is that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world. Many may feel this is so obvious that a hypothesis is hardly needed. Gardening makes us feel good even if it’s only a window box or a few potted plants. Since the mid 1980s, forest bathing has become ‘big in Japan’. Research has shown that simply being amongst trees has major health benefits including the production of anti-cancer proteins and improved immune function.

Widespread anxiety over climate change lends another dimension to the love of nature as people try to find ways of doing something positive for the environment. Our innate tendency to seek connection with nature is now added to by a desire to protect her. About 110,000 trees were felled in the UK in a three-year period up to mid 2018. The worst offender was Newcastle where 8,435 trees were chopped down. Sheffield council was caught up in a battle with angry protestors when plans to chop down 17,500 trees were exposed. And whilst thousands of fires rage in the Amazon rainforest, destroying ‘the lungs’ of the planet, Donald Trump has reportedly ordered the opening up of the Alaskan rainforests for potential logging, mining and energy projects. All this in the year when scientists revealed that planting billions of trees around the world was the by far the best and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis.


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