Los Angeles Guerrilla GardeningLA Guerrilla Gardeners removed trash, weeds and dead plants from this median strip and installed new plants. Their signature “Please Water Me!” sign asks passersby to help with upkeep.
After LA Guerrilla Gardeners planted the “Spaceland” garden, below, the city installed a wheelchair ramp to make the sidewalk more accessible.

Armed with shovels, seeds, plants, watering cans and compost, guerrilla gardeners are transforming ugly, underutilized or abandoned public land overnight — without permission. City-dwellers have seen flowers, herbs and shrubs spring up on neglected medians, in abandoned lots and beside previously trash-strewn sidewalks.

LA Guerrilla Gardeners volunteers are as young as 2 and as old as 85.

Defined as “the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land” by Richard Reynolds, the modern-day spokesman for the worldwide movement, guerrilla gardening is happening in cities everywhere. Reynolds, who lives in the U.K., began planting and tending flowerbeds, borders and entire gardens in 2004 in what he describes as London’s orphaned land. “I’ve either done or helped organize about 70 different guerrilla gardens, from a little tree pit or patch of bulbs, to a roundabout,” says Reynolds.

The London lavender field is the one I’m most proud of,” says Reynolds, “because it’s big, beautiful, long-lived, looks good all year around, produces a crop of fund-raising lavender, is nature-friendly, and looks quite unlike other London traffic islands.” Each August, Reynolds and volunteers harvest dried lavender from the field and use it to create fragrant, handmade pillows, which are sold on his guerrillagardening.org blog. All the proceeds help fund new and existing guerrilla gardening projects in London.

In the U.S., guerrilla gardening has been active since the 1970s, when New York City’s “Green Guerillas” began to cultivate fenced-off land by tossing in tomato seeds contained within rudimentary “seed bombs.” The group remains active today as a nonprofit resource center for community gardeners.

A troop of LA Guerrilla Gardeners takes a break during a nighttime dig.

Los Angeles Guerrilla Gardening (LAGG) started in Hollywood, CA., on a summer night in 2008. Today its troop of volunteers, who organize online and use aliases for fun, maintains more than 20 gardens they have installed during “digs” all over metro Los Angeles.

The city has taken notice of their stealth plantings — particularly in areas with high pedestrian traffic, say LAGG’s co-leaders, known as Mr. Stamen and Roly Poly. “The best example is our Wilton and Sunset garden in Hollywood,” says Roly Poly. “After we put in a garden and cut back some low-hanging trees, not only did people start walking more through the area, the city actually started taking responsibility and doing a much better job of keeping the trees cut back.” Mr. Stamen adds, “Even more recently, at Valencia and 8th, there was a garden that we started. Now the city is in the middle of putting a pocket park there.”

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Every guerrilla garden, no matter its size or location, makes a positive impression. Reynolds says the most powerful projects are “ones to which a gardener obsessively commits, and returns and improves. The gardener grows in confidence so the garden grows in impact.” He adds, “As the gardener is out there more often, word gets round and it is appreciated and potentially inspires others.”

Reynolds also believes guerrilla gardening can stretch beyond city lines to small towns and rural areas. “There’s always a patch of ground where a gardener can see more potential than whoever looks after it, and has the inclination to do it,” he says.

Though guerrilla gardening can be considered trespassing and/or vandalism, those who do it feel the positive environmental and social effects are well worth the risk. “Each garden we plant hopefully inspires someone to start their own garden or even to just plant a seed somewhere,” says Mr. Stamen. “Every little bit helps.”

Aimee Diehl
Aimee Diehl writes from her home in rural Cornwall, VT, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a dog.