Guerrilla gardening in L.A.

The term “guerrilla gardening” evokes a gritty, iconic Banksy image come to life -- fighters in balaclavas, moving in shadows, poised to pitch their grenades. Except these bombs are filled with seeds, not shrapnel.

The guerrilla gardening strategy is this: Find an unused plot of city landscape, a strip of public dirt next to a major intersection, a parcel of weeds next to an on-ramp. Drop some seed bombs. Make it into an unofficial city garden.

The concept is so simple yet revolutionary that the idea has taken off across the globe, with renegade gardeners digging and planting in the urban jungles of London, Berlin, New York and now Los Angeles.

Two new guerrilla gardening troupes sprang up in 2008, Los Angeles Guerrilla Gardening and South Central Resistance, two groups with the same goal of urban (if not exactly legal) regeneration.

Starting last summer, LAGG has successfully cultivated gardens in Hollywood and Silver Lake, turning dry dirt beds into lush oases full of flowers, shrubs and bushes. The number of gardeners working with them has swelled to around 100, each with aliases as colorful as the plants they plot, sobriquets like Daisy La Plante, Roly Poly, Warthog and Manure.

For the most part, LAGG efforts have been met with enthusiasm from local residents, some of whom have made generous donations. The group even has the support of City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who visited them during an August “dig” and bought ice cream for everyone.

Legally, however, these gardeners tread on undefined territory.

“Each guerrilla gardening scenario would have to be evaluated individually,” says General Services Police Chief Gary Newton. “It really depends on which jurisdiction the plot of land in question is in.” He says some municipal codes about defacing parkland and other city properties, as well as state trespassing laws, might apply. “Generally, though, it’s not something we get involved with.”

City attorney’s office spokesman Frank Mateljan agreed, saying, “It’s definitely a gray area, and there are no hard-and-fast rules that would pertain to it.”

In downtown L.A., students at the Animo Film and Theater Arts Charter High School found out just how gray. Junior Blanca Perez, 16, and her advisor, Jessica Davis, gathered 30 of Perez’s classmates and set out, shovels in hand, to garden the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Figueroa Street. They soon found themselves up against a wall -- literally -- when LAPD officers arrived and told them to line up, hands behind their backs.

“The officers didn’t believe us when we told them we were gardening,” says Davis. “They thought it was a cover-up for something else, like we were burying drugs or something.”

According to Davis, the officers called for backup and held the group for close to an hour. The students and their advisor were eventually let go with a warning.

Davis says she and other Animo staff followed up by filing a complaint with the LAPD. In the process, Perez and her crew had to abandon tools, supplies and plants, but they gained resolve.

“South Central Resistance was basically formed out of that experience.” says Blanca. SCR penned its manifesto soon after, with tenets including “Love and take care of the earth” and “Protect the plants at all costs.”

In the last few months, SCR and LAGG have joined forces. In November, LAGG led a seed-bombing workshop with the students at Animo High, sharing tips, tricks and stories with the young group.

Blanca Perez has big plans for 2009. “Our focus is in the South-Central areas of L.A.,” she said, “because there isn’t much going on there -- yet.”