Turns out most people appreciate guerrilla gardeners Image Credit: Supplied

Two weeks ago, I alluded to my encounter with a man named Akhil. Slight of frame, thick moustache, hooked nose with a pair of spectacles balanced midway on the bridge. He’d make a caricaturist’s delight, I remember thinking. We were both standing in the same library aisle, browsing for books on the Gardening shelf.

I was looking for advice on growing basil indoors. I had no idea right then that the advice was not to be found on the shelves. It was standing mere feet away. What I do know from experience is that if you say hello to someone and get into even the briefest conversation, they almost inevitably have a story or an anecdote to tell that’s worth repeating.

As it turned out I discovered that Akhil is a retired horticulturalist, migrated to Australia a decade ago. To my question, ‘What do you do with yourself in retirement?’ he had this to say initially, ‘I am a guerrilla gardener.’ I must have looked suitably blank because he explained, ‘I garden in areas I’m not supposed to. Beautifying some public walkway or path.

Technically, it’s illegal, but until I’m told to desist, I’m at least putting my time, knowledge and expertise to use.’ At which point, if I’d been thinking straight, I ought to have asked him about growing basil. But because my mind was swirling with images of stealth and secrecy associated with ‘guerrilla’, I asked instead if there were dangers associated with such ‘operations’.

Guerrilla gardeners

Turns out most people appreciate guerrilla gardeners. ‘It’s not just me, an isolated gardener, there’s a whole bunch of us retirees on the prowl, digging up weeds here, planting seeds there.’ Akhil, quoting John Bunyan, said, ‘You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.’ One local resident, however, took exception some years ago. ‘He didn’t want us anywhere near his driveway. The sides of the driveway were covered with thorny brush. We told him some colour would help improve the place. He told us he’d call the police, and their blue uniforms would be the only colour we’d see.’

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Anyway, a couple of years later the man died and the house passed into the hands of a relative, his sister’s son, who welcomed the offer of having the driveway ‘guerrilla gardened’. ‘By that time there was just me working locally but I was thrilled to have a project to fill my days,’ said Akhil. In this way, working steadily, starting from the gateway near the road and making his way to the house, Akhil began clearing the overgrowth. However, he said, ‘When you’ve been a horticulturalist all your life you detect abnormalities immediately. The brush nearest the house were shrubs of a different kind, more recently planted too.’

Justice was done

Thinking nothing of it, Akhil kept excavating, loosening the hard soil until one day the gardening implement struck something. A dull sound of metal on metal. Curious, he dug around what turned out to be an old, rusting shortbread tin. Wrapped in plastic. He shook the tin gently, ‘And whatever was inside moved from side to side.’ Even more curious he took the tin home. Inside, wrapped in yet another plastic pouch was a simple, fading, blue lined sheet of paper, torn from an old exercise book.

On it was what turned out to be the ill-tempered man’s mother’s final will, signed by her, expressly bequeathing the property not to the deceased man, but to his sister. ‘The sister had sadly passed away but in a way it did come full circle because the house passed to the sister’s son, so justice was done at last, I think,’ said Akhil.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.