[Summer Guide] Guerrilla Gardeners Strike an Earthy Tone as They Beautify Medians and Empty Lots

There They Grow Again
Guerrilla gardeners strike an earthy tone as they beautify medians and empty lots in Long Beach and beyond

They go where they deem fit—abandoned plots, forgotten medians, even empty planters—fighting neglect and, usually, a lack of city funding.

Scott Bunnell of Norwalk is a guerrilla gardener, a term that’s said to date back to 1973 in New York City’s Bowery Houston area.

Scott Bunnell digs your neighborhood
Jennie Warren
Scott Bunnell digs your neighborhood
Bunnell gives a fallen sparrow a proper burial
Jennie Warren
Bunnell gives a fallen sparrow a proper burial

“It kind of just seems to fit,” Bunnell says, smiling. “Guerrilla warfare is covert, just like what we’re doing. I used to go gardening in Long Beach in the early-morning fog, and [my friend and I] joked about guerrilla gardening in the mist.”

Bunnell is just one small part of a global movement, in which many have chosen to sidestep bureaucracy and the requisite waiting time in order to beautify the environment around them, planting entire gardens in neglected or overgrown spaces without first acquiring permission from cities.

“It’s our land!” Bunnell says. “This is public land. If they don’t use it, I’m going to.”

The 49-year-old guides a large wagon carrying eight water-filled, 5-gallon-sized plastic buckets down a metal ramp propped against the back of his covered pickup. As the wagon comes to a stop, water splashes onto the hot black asphalt in front of the historic (but very much empty; in January, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed it as one of the 48 California state parks for closure as a part of his deficit-reduction program) Pio Pico House in Whittier.

Bunnell is dressed in nothing but earth tones:tan T-shirt with a graphic of a couple of succulent and cactus plants on the front (Euphoria Francosi V. Crassicaule; something about an annual show and sale at the LA County Arboretum), olive cargo shorts, hardy tan boots, and nondescript black Ray-Bans. Sensible.

He leads the wagon down busy Whittier Boulevard before turning into a walkway adjacent to the San Gabriel River—but not before coming across a dead sparrow (and later, a squirrel) on the sidewalk and promptly burying it. He also picks up a few pieces of litter and throws them in his wagon.

The large garden in Whittier was started 15 years ago as a result of Bunnell’s frequent bike rides along the river.

“I’d turn my bike around and go home from here,” Bunnell says, gesturing around him. “And I just got tired of sitting out in the sun. When I came up in the morning, there’d be shade, and I’d rest there and drink water.”

He uses the garden as a prime example as to why he chooses to guerrilla garden—a whole multitude of reasons, he says, ranging from self-fulfillment to aesthetic to practical use.

The Whittier garden mostly comprises clusters of tall, bristly agave plants, thanks in part to the lack of water in the area and the general lack of rainfall in California. They’re beautiful plants with flower spikes that will also propagate easily, helping future guerrilla gardens.

Bunnell pulls out a few plantlets bursting from a large, spiky plant and spreads them out in his outstretched palm.

“This will probably put out 500 little plantlets right here. So from one plant, I get 500,” he explains. Bunnell says he has thousands more plants growing at home in pots. “These plants are ready to go in a little gallon pot, and in a year from now, they’ll be ready to go back into the ground in a garden somewhere.”

Bunnell has tended to well more than a dozen clandestine gardens in his 20 years of guerrilla gardening all over Southern California: Long Beach, Seal Beach, Artesia, Norwalk, Whittier, Los Angeles, Hollywood.

Most are still around, he says, though a handful have been dug up by cities. Bunnell recalls a formation of agave plants he planted in the shape of a peace sign in Seal Beach that was pulled out within three days: “I guess they don’t want peace in Seal Beach,” he says with a smile.

One particular garden located along Loynes Drive and Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach was planted more than 15 years ago. With each trip, Bunnell would put in 20 to 40 plants. A bare dirt median with nothing but a few low palms soon flourished into a succulent garden of flowering agave and large congregations of rounded echeveria rosettes.

Though Bunnell has been guerrilla gardening for 20 years, it wasn’t until recently that he noticed the trend take off, after coming across, a blog run by U.K. gardener Richard Reynolds (“Let’s fight the filth with forks and flowers,” Reynolds scrawls in a hand-written note greeting website visitors). With efforts in Dublin, London, Denmark, Rome, Australia, South Africa and all across North America, it’s hard to deny the phenomenon that’s reaching across oceans and generational lines.

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Adriana Martinez, 32, of Long Beach runs a blog called Anarchy In the Garden (, detailing her vegetable-gardening endeavors as a way to monitor what she puts in her (vegan) body.

“I eat from my back yard. I probably will eat squash today because that’s what I have a lot of,” she says with a laugh. “I call it ‘Keepin’ it punk by growin’ your own.’”

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