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Guerrilla gardeners dig in

The mission: to beautify unsightly, unloved spaces by planting on land that doesn't belong to them.

May 29, 2008|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

Brimming with lime-hued succulents and a lush collection of agaves, one shooting spiky leaves 10 feet into the air, it's a head-turning garden smack in the middle of Long Beach's asphalt jungle. But the gardener who designed it doesn't want you to know his last name, since his handiwork isn't exactly legit. It's on a traffic island he commandeered.

"The city wasn't doing anything with it, and I had a bunch of extra plants," says Scott, as we tour the garden, cars whooshing by on both sides of Loynes Drive.

Scott is a guerrilla gardener, a member of a burgeoning movement of green enthusiasts who plant without approval on land that's not theirs. In London, Berlin, Miami, San Francisco and Southern California, these free-range tillers are sowing a new kind of flower power. In nighttime planting parties or solo "seed bombing" runs, they aim to turn neglected public space and vacant lots into floral or food outposts.

Part beautification, part eco-activism, part social outlet, the activity has been fueled by Internet gardening blogs and sites such as GuerrillaGardening.org, where before-and-after photos of the latest "troop digs" inspire 45,000 visitors a month to make derelict soil bloom.

"We can make much more out of the land than how it's being used, whether it's about creating food or beautifying it," says the movement's ringleader and GuerrillaGardening.org founder, Richard Reynolds, by phone from his London home. His tribe includes freelance landscapers like Scott, urban farmers, floral fans and artists.

"I want to encourage more people to think about land in this way and just get out there and do it," says Reynolds, whose new handbook for insurgent planters, "On Guerrilla Gardening," is out this week.

The activists see themselves as 21st century Johnny Appleseeds, harvesting a natural bounty of daffodils or organic green beans from forgotten dirt. It's a step into more self-reliant living in the city," says Erik Knutzen, coauthor with his wife, Kelly Coyne, of "The Urban Homestead" to be released in June. The Echo Park couple have chronicled "pirate farming" on their blog, Homegrown Evolution. Guerrilla gardening, Knutzen says, is a reaction to the wasteful use of land, such as vacant lots and sidewalk parkways. He's turned the parkway in front of his home into a vegetable garden.

One of a slew of DIY gardening currents, such as permaculture (design of highly sustainable ecosystems), urban homesteading, composting and free fruit movement, guerrilla gardening is a response to dwindling green space, limited land and suspicions about food sources, say experts. It's also part of a time-honored American tradition of gardening public spaces.

"It reminds me of the Vacant Lot Cultivation societies," says Rose Hayden-Smith, a Food and Society Policy Fellow with UC Cooperative Extension. In the wake of the economic meltdown of the 1890s, many American cities, from Detroit to Philadelphia and Boston, formed Vacant Lot Cultivation associations to encourage residents to grow food on public land. The Liberty and Victory garden campaigns of World Wars I and II, respectively, also exhorted Americans to raise food on untended public land.

"If the federal government was paying attention, they'd be encouraging this right now," with the price of food and fuel," adds Hayden-Smith.

"Guerrilla gardens can serve the same purpose as the Victory gardens," says Taylor Arneson, editor of the Los Angeles Permaculture Guild newsletter and a proponent of sustainable food production. He and a friend raised a farmers market worth of crops -- corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, watermelon, cucumber and more -- in a guerrilla dig at a large planter bed in front of an office building on Bundy Drive in West Los Angeles. Farming in broad daylight, they got support from office workers and kids excited to see real cornstalks.

Arneson's approach is to plant first and make arrangements with sympathetic locals to hook up to water taps later. Keeping a guerrilla garden irrigated is one of the trickiest parts of the game. Arneson, a graduate student in village-scale permaculture design, says he rules out 99% of the vacant lots he scouts because they don't have a reliable water source. He looks for some elevation or berm that will let the plants catch water.

After more than a year of growing crops at the Bundy site, he and his friend planned to live on the produce grown there last winter. They planted garlic, potatoes, radishes, carrots, lettuce, onions and more, but in January the owner of the property, after first leaving a cease and desist letter, rototilled the whole plot.

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