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How to be a Guerrilla Gardener

In a concrete jungle like Los Angeles, guerrilla gardening is a way of adapting. Activists like Ron Finley believe that green spaces and healthy produce should be accessible to all Angelenos, and that’s what guerrilla gardening is all about. It’s using unconventional tactics and classic gardening practices to turn little pockets of land and unused or under-utilized space into oases for city dwellers. Even if you’re lacking in space and resources, you can still join the movement. Here’s how.

Find Space

Look around you. Do you have space for a garden? If your immediate answer is no, look harder. Gardens can inhabit a surprising number of spaces.

Yards and extra green space are great for gardening but rare in cities like L.A. “Something we’ve really loved is sidewalk gardening. You can grow a lot of food in that tiny square footage,” explains Emily Gleicher of Farm LA. A sidewalk garden occupies the green space between a property and the street curb in front. It’s technically owned by the city and therefore public property, but it’s also the home or business owner’s responsibility. You’ll have to follow a few rules to make sure you’re not obstructing walkways or parking spaces, but little gardens in public spaces like these are guerrilla gardening staple. Ron Finley is the pioneer of parkway gardens and led the movement to make growing food in these spaces legal. If you own the property connected to the parkway, then you’re good to go. Renters and employees will need to get permission from their property managers before planting.

Ron Finley tending his garden at the parkway. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access
Ron Finley tending his garden at the parkway. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access

Raised beds can be built on top of concrete if there’s enough space, and container gardens using pots can live on concrete patios, fire escapes or balconies. You can even put containers on a small corner of a flat roof (with permission from the property manager, of course).

Find Water

It goes without saying that plants need water. Hand watering is adequate for container gardens and can also work for sidewalk gardens as well. When Farm LA is setting up a long-term garden curbside, “sometimes we’ll hook up to the main water source from the house or business and trench along the side of the property, go under the sidewalk, and set up a drip system.” says Gleicher. “You don’t have to go that elaborate obviously. You can hand water!” Farm LA also recommends looking into ollas, an old-school watering system that use buried pots to slow water drain.

Just keep in mind where the water is coming from. If you’re not the home or business owner, you’ll want to make sure that everything is on the level and you’re not adding on to anyone’s water bill without their permission. Either way, the SoCal sun can be brutal, so make sure your garden is getting enough water.

Olympia Auset preparing vegetables. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access
Olympia Auset preparing vegetables. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access

Do Your Research

Arm yourself with knowledge before diving into the world of gardening. Reference gardening books, online resources including YouTube, and even consider taking a gardening class or two. “That’s how we got started, taking beginning and intermediate classes with UC,” adds Gleicher. The UC Master Gardener program also have an extensive online database with lots of gardening info, and it’s all available for free.

Before choosing your plants, consider lead levels. All L.A .soil has some lead, but some areas have higher levels than others. If you’re planning long term, invest in getting your soil tested. For areas with more lead (or if you don’t want to test your soil), avoid plants like tomatoes and lettuces, since the absorb more lead than plants like squashes or beans.

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Choose Wisely

Now for the fun part. When choosing what to plant in your guerrilla garden, think about what will thrive in that space. Consider size restrictions — a small sidewalk garden can’t support an almond tree, for instance — as well as sources of sunlight. Herbs thrive in containers, raised beds and sidewalk gardens. Farm LA likes to practice a three sisters planting techniques for their sidewalk gardens: a corn or barley is planted in the center with a bean growing around it and a squash of some kind surrounding the perimeter. The beans help hold up the center plant, and the squash helps shade the ground and retain moisture.

Be Flexible

Part of gardening is unpredictability. You can’t control the weather, wind or how your plants will react. With guerrilla gardening, sometimes your space may become unavailable and you’ll have to up and move. Gleicher advises a chill outlook for gardening. “Don’t beat yourself up too much if things don’t go perfect right away. Even if you follow the rules exactly, things may not work out.”

Sidewalk gardens are in public spaces, so people sometimes treat them as such. This can mean trash, dog poop and more can end up in your garden. It also means passersby may pick what you grow. But that’s all part of the guerrilla gardening experience. Sharing is caring, right?

If you don’t have a space of your own but want to get your hands dirty, contact a nearby community garden or organization like Farm LA to get involved.

Ron Finley's signage at his garden. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access
Ron Finley's signage at his garden. | Still from "Broken Bread" Access

Top Image: Fruit trees | Still from "Broken Bread" Access

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