Ciaran O’Byrne’s friend calls him the “plant bandit”, but he prefers “guerrilla gardener”.
He has earned the sobriquets for his one-man crusade, releasing trees across Dublin from the ties to wooden stakes that strangle them, and planting trees, flowers, and a cruciferous vegetable or two, with seed bombs or bulbs donated by fans.
“Trees are planted for a beautification process, and greening the streets, by the council, and inevitably they don’t come back and release the trees from the supports,” says O’Byrne. “So the trees are getting choked, then there’s a weak point.”
(Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t get back to a query on Tuesday about this.)
In the 1990s, O’Byrne planted some chestnut trees in Clonmel, which is how it all started, he says. Over the last 12 years, he has catalogued his work on the guerrillagardening.org website and on Twitter.
“The reason I continued is, it’s the equivalent of if you go to a nativity play to see your children, and you’re sitting in the audience and you see your child come up on stage,” he says.
“When I’m cycling around I can point to the flowers that I’ve planted, and I can say, they’re my flowers, that’s my tree.”
There’s anticipation, he says. Excitement, too, when you’re waiting for the flowers to bloom – but then they get vandalised, or stolen, or thrown on the ground.
Sometimes, he gives talks on guerrilla gardening in Walkinstown library, or demonstrations at gardening festivals on how to make seed bombs – seeds that are rolled in compost and topsoil mixed together, and can be chucked onto vacant sites or neglected verges to reappear months later in defiant bloom.
“Seed bombs is like the entry-level drug of guerrilla gardening,” he says.
The Tree Surgeon
O’Byrne has an uncanny memory of the trees he has released over the years.
He cycles, fast, through housing estates, back-roads and an industrial-looking wasteland. With one hand on the handlebars, he gestures and points with the other towards his rescues, and the daffodils, chestnuts and cabbages he has planted over the years.
He calls them out from across the lane, a tall man on a well-used bike, weaving seamlessly through traffic, almost like he doesn’t see it.
He takes a rapid succession of shortcuts, deftly navigated, and stops short at two trees near Ballyfermot.
With the back end of a hammer, a screwdriver and an adjustable pliers wrench, he opens up the cage around the tree, which is stuffed with paper cups and crisp packets.
This first tree is bulging over its support band, and as it peels off, it leaves deep welts in the bark. It might be a sycamore, he says, but he’s not sure. It’s taller than him.
This is a particularly difficult one, says O’Byrne. His knuckles are bleeding.
The second isn’t as tough to liberate. The tree is tied to a wooden stake by its support band, about a metre and a half up. But he says there’s little need for the stake.
“Ironically, they put a timber stake beside it, made of another tree that’s dead.” As before, he pulls out the hooks holding the support in place, and the nails keeping it tight.
There’s some flexibility in the supports to make room for the trees to grow, he says. But after a few years, the space left gets smaller and smaller, and the trees need to be revisited and released a little.
He loosens the support and puts everything back as it was. Kids stream out of a nearby school, some approach to try to get a closer look.
The operation is over in about 15 minutes. O’Byrne is careful to re-use the nails and supports, and to straighten out the bent and rusted hooks.
His mother was a keen gardener, and what he knows about trees he picks up as he goes.
Hanami in Crumlin
O’Byrne has taken his guerrilla gardening to Slovenia and Portugal, to Austria and Hungary. He has even worked in Japan.
But he says there was a particular delight to being in Crumlin around springtime – a benefit that he calls the “hanami effect”, after the Japanese tradition of welcoming spring with a cherry-blossom festival.
The main street used of old Crumlin village used to be awash with pink blossoms this time each year. And it was again this year – until the council had the cherry trees cut down last week.
The trees were hazardous for older people and their roots were lifting the footpath in several places, which meant some might trip, said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council, by email.
So “it was decided” in the upgrade of the east side of Crumlin Village “to replace the existing trees. It should be noted the number of new trees will exceed the number of trees removed,” said the spokesperson.
“They were mature cherry trees,” says O’Byrne. “I presume they’re going to put in saplings, […] we’re going to have to wait another five years and then we’ll have small cherry blossoms. It’s a shocking waste.”
The trees there could have been around 15 years old, he says.
“If we keep planting young trees, all we’re ever going to see is young trees,” he says. “[…] Kind of like, anywhere the queen of England goes she thinks everywhere smells of fresh paint.”
“Everywhere there’s roadworks or building houses, there’s all young trees,” he says. “But no mature trees like Ailesbury Road or Shrewsbury Road – these old established neighbourhoods.”
O’Byrne describes himself as middle aged. So he doesn’t want to plant trees anymore, because he won’t see them reach maturity.
These days, he spends his time freeing adolescent trees from their supports, ones that are past the age of saplings. That way, he says, he hopes he’ll see them grow older along with him.