Guerilla gardeners in LA and through history


Some volunteer-maintained gardens in Buffalo (photos by Don Zinteck)

Check out the latest guerilla gardening report in the L.A. Times. It tells of Scott X, who has created a popular succulent-filled oasis on a traffic median in Log Beach, as well as the pirate farmers of Homegrown Evolution who describe themselves as “some ordinary middle-aged to elderly residents of Echo Park passionately talking about vegetables.”

The story also reminded me of a guerilla gardening movement (though it hardly would have been called that) I read about when researching gardening clubs in Buffalo. At least as early as 1910 (and probably earlier), the People’s Gardening Association of Buffalo was advocating using the city’s vacant lots to grow food crops. I’m in Memphis, so I don’t have the material here, but the society, one of many Vacant Lot Cultivation groups throughout the U.S., had very high-minded ideas about encouraging families to work their own plots and become self-sufficient. They also felt that urban farming would be a great occupation for the “bums” of their time.

Too bad that all died out. There are still plenty of vacant lots available. The three threats to viability remain though: water availability, maintenance, and illegality. The LA pirate farmers always try to ascertain if there is a nearby water source, while Scott X looks for drought tolerant plants. Maintenance is just that; personally, I would never plant anything unless I knew how I or someone else was going to take care of it, and the urban farmers in this article seems to agree. Illegality is the stickiest of the three. The fact is, the actual owner of the property can erase all your hard work in an hour.

This actually happened to my neighborhood beautification group. We were working a corner lot owned by a local business. It had been a dry summer and the two large raised beds of perennials weren’t looking as good as they might. Also, the owners didn’t really understand lankier plants like Russian sage or even daylilies (plants chosen for their durability) when not in bloom—he was a petunia/canna-in-containers guy. Anyway, one morning he bulldozed the whole thing. It was demoralizing, though we’ve since reinstated a more permanent tiled concrete perennials bed that seems acceptable.

I also worry about the fate of the street containers we planted two days ago. It may be up to three fifty-plusers with aching backs to water all of them. Where are those young, energetic guerilla gardeners when you need them?! Though our plantings are more conventional, they’re equally precarious.

Regardless of the movement you subscribe to, it seems public gardening is always way riskier—even more potentially heartbreaking—than it should be. Well, maybe I should say that about all gardening!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Interesting!
    I’ve done some neighborhood gardening myself and can’t imagine doing any of that work without getting permission first. Not because of any goody-two-shoes tendencies AT ALL but because of the very real possibility of it being ripped out, or dying because I couldn’t keep going back to maintain it. What’s the point?

    Also interesting is the whole “guerilla” term, with its implication of illegality. But if we’re talking about good old neighborhood improvement – and that’s my thing, too – there must be a better term.

  2. Guerilla Gardening sounds exciting, but I’m afraid the closest I’m going to get would be spreading some hopeful seeds and harvesting squash from my front yard in defiance of my homeowner’s association.

  3. The Master Gardener’s group in the town I live in (Roseburg, OR) is working in conjunction with the organization that oversees the low cost and senior housing in town. We’re helping them plant raised beds of mostly veges and some flowers so they can have fresh, healthy food to eat. The Master Food Preserver’s group will be giving some classes on how to freeze, dry or can some of the produce. Similar to the urban gardens that some cities are starting and maintaining. There’s hope.

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