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
Jennie Warren
Jennie Warren
Adriana Martinez, patron saint of organic vegetables
Jennie Warren
Adriana Martinez, patron saint of organic vegetables
Martinez waters a succulent plant amid heavy Long Beach traffic
Jennie Warren
Martinez waters a succulent plant amid heavy Long Beach traffic

“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 GuerrillaGardening.org, 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.

*     *     *

Adriana Martinez, 32, of Long Beach runs a blog called Anarchy In the Garden (www.anarchyinthegarden.com), 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.’”

Like Bunnell, Martinez says her knowledge of plants and gardening is self-taught.

“I think it comes from a place of going against the norm,” she says. “It’s tied in with guerrilla gardening in that it’s very empowering to do it yourself. It’s the same with growing your own food. I do not rely on corporate agribusiness to feed me. I feed myself. I feed the soil, and the soil feeds me. It’s the same result with guerrilla gardening. I’m not waiting for the city of Long Beach to make my hood look better; I’m going to do it.”

A self-described punk, Martinez first learned of Bunnell’s gardening efforts after coming across his blog, SoCalGuerrillaGardening.com, during a Google search on Long Beach gardens. Martinez, a recently laid-off accountant for “a large engineering firm in Orange County,” was interested in installing a couple of gardens in her Wrigley neighborhood. Though Martinez has been an avid gardener since childhood, she had no idea where to start: tools, plants, supplies, location. So she contacted Bunnell for help.

“I knew he was doing something in Long Beach, so I was trying to get him to my little part of the neighborhood,” Martinez explains. “My area is in need—dire need—of gardening. And what he’s doing.”

After a few months of MySpace messaging and commenting, Martinez finally persuaded Bunnell to work her neighborhood into his schedule. “Because he’s the man with the plan.” She pauses a beat. “A man with the plan and the tools.”

Two gardens of drought-tolerant succulent plants were soon installed in vacant medians at the intersections of Willow Street and Daisy and Eucalyptus avenues. With tons of help from Bunnell and volunteers, Martinez and crew knocked out both neighborhood plots in a single morning.

“All the plants were provided by Scott. We didn’t have to do anything, which was amazing,” Martinez raves.

She says the work went fast—thanks to the sheer number of plants provided and amount of volunteers from an e-mail blast sent out by Bunnell in preparation for the gardens.

“We had two teens come out from a group called South Central Resistance, a few neighbors, a gal from San Pedro and another guy from downtown Long Beach,” she ticks off. “I was surprised by the turnout we had of people who weren’t residents of the immediate neighborhood.”

She says she would love to do future guerrilla gardens on her own, but it’s a matter of timing and mostly a lack of funding and plants. Much like Bunnell did, Martinez says she definitely plans on using the Internet to help spread the word.

“I have my Twitter linked to my Facebook linked to my MySpace linked to my blog, so when I Tweet, it goes to all those social networks,” she says. “Especially with Twitter, it’s effective because of re-Tweeting. People may not necessarily want to join us, but it does raise awareness.”

In addition to safety precautions and having all the necessary tools and manpower, she says, she thinks the largest obstacle is just getting enough plants to fill a space. Fund-raising and getting plants affordably? Not so easy, she says.

“I know I have one cactus that I want to separate, and I want to stick it somewhere,” Martinez explains. “But it’s one cactus at a time.”

*     *     *

Of course, there is also that whole pesky (slightly) illegal aspect of guerrilla gardening.

While prosecution is rare, one could easily risk the removal of an entire garden—as well as oneself.

“If it’s Caltrans property, that’s our right of way, or on the side of freeways or highways, anybody who wants to access that area would need to apply for and get an encroachment permit,” explains Tracy Lavelle, Caltrans office chief of public information. “If anybody does get into our right of way without a permit, it is considered illegal encroachment, and they would be told to vacate the area.”

Lavelle goes on to explain their Adopt a Highway state program, an opportunity to sponsor specific sections of highways. “It’s where community groups and individuals and constituents are permitted to have access to our highway right of way in order to maintain or clean it. We do highly discourage anybody going out there to plant trees or flowers, mainly because of safety,” she says. “But if anybody wishes to beautify an area for us, we’re willing to work with them. We do accept donations: If someone wants to provide the flora to us, we’ll go out and plant it—they would just need to identify their location so it’s mutually beneficial. We’re willing to work with someone who wants to beautify highways.”

With private property, however, charges such as trespassing are among the risks.

So while guerilla gardening is slightly illegal, most gardeners like Bunnell and Martinez aren’t too worried about that.

“The thing with guerrilla gardening is that you’re gardening in a public space without permission. You kind of have to come from a place where you can take it in your own hands—which is what my permission is,” Martinez says. “I’m very active in my community and in my association. City projects take forever to get off the ground. I cannot wait for government, and I cannot wait for someone else to take care of something like this or landscape projects. By the time they approve a stupid tree to plant for me, I was going to take it in my own hands, and I’m going to do it.”

*     *     *

Bunnell often receives inquiries from people across the country about starting their own guerrilla-gardening efforts. He shares that there are a few major tips to keep in mind: Avoid private, corporate-owned property—“There’s enough public land that needs help.” Second, choose non-invasive, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants that are appropriate for your chosen location. And the last, most important tip: Garden at the right time of the year, and be prepared to follow up. Southern California summers make it difficult to get a fledgling garden going—remember, it’s not just getting the garden in the ground; you’ll also have to return to locations to water plants, clean up litter and even pull weeds.

“Some gardens I do have to return to maintain,” Bunnell says. “[The Whittier garden] not so much because a lot of the plants are so well-established [that] there’s not a lot of weeding to do. Weeding is always a big hassle; it’s a big problem that takes a long time to take care of.”

He shares that he comes by the Whittier garden to water the sapling trees and a handful of young plants too small to make it on their own, but that particular spot is mostly rainwater-only.

Bunnell also touts Reynolds’ GuerrillaGardening.org message boards as a great spot to troubleshoot and gather tips from other area gardeners.

Thanks to his fantastic propagation skills and knowledge of plants, Bunnell says, some years, he spends no money at all establishing new gardens, while other years, he can spend thousands.

Either way, there is definitely no shortage of seemingly forgotten locations needing a little bit of guerrilla gardening—and Bunnell has no plans to stop any time soon.

“Lots of people ask me all the time, ‘How do you find spots?’ It’s like, how do you miss them? They’re just everywhere. Between here and the beach, there are probably 50 spots just like this,” Bunnell says, pointing down the long concrete path running alongside the San Gabriel River. “They’re everywhere. Come back in 20 years, and I’ll have the whole riverbed done.”

vchang@ocweekly.com

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