Those Useless Trees — Guerilla Gardening with Agave

If you’ve ever walked anywhere in Los Angeles other than to and from a car, you’ve no doubt noticed that there are dirt squares along many sidewalks into which the city occasionally plants trees. I don’t know what the technical name of these squares is or even if they have one. I think that I’ve heard them referred to as “tree wells” in the past. A tree well, though, refers to a type of snow hazard familiar to and avoided by hikers, snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and other mountaineers and so I usually just refer to them as “tree squares.” On the two blocks of sidewalk flanking my apartment, there are 32. 19 of them are home to relatively healthy (non-native) street trees planted by the city — mostly bottlebrushes from Australia, goldenrain trees from East Asia, and jacarandas from South America. The others are just dirt… or have been planted with something by individuals like myself or other guerrilla gardeners.

It’s technically illegal to plant in these tree squares without a permit although it’s rare that anyone is hassled for doing so. I’ve had cops roll up on me a couple of times, though, and I always put down my trowel just to be safe. Planting in a road verge — the plantable strip between the sidewalk and the street — on the other hand, does sometimes result in complaints from killjoys and wet blankets — especially if one plants fruits or vegetables. Planting in road verges was, however, approved by Los Angeles City Council in 2015. In 2019, Mayor Garcetti pledged to plant and maintain 90,000 trees by 2021 and follow at a rate of 20,000 per year. The mayor also appointed a City Forest Officer — certified arborist Rachel Malarich. I have attempted to locate evidence that the city achieved that goal but have found nothing. I’d love to see a map of where they were planted, how many, and what sort. I get around the area a lot and have noticed a few on Sunset Boulevard but not really anywhere else.

The city has an approved tree list. It includes a few natives: California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), Catalina Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii), Channel Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), Desert Museum palo verde (Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’), desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana), valley oak (Quercus lobata), western redbud (Cercis occdentalis), and western sycamore (Platanus racemosa). There are many more non-natives which, having evolved in areas with similar climates may be suited for our sunny semi-arid conditions — but having evolved in different ecosystems — are often less compatible or incompatible with Southern California‘s native fauna, flora, and fungi. If you wait for the city to plant them, though, you’ll more than likely be waiting a very long time.

Years ago, the city did plant some plants along Rowena Avenue, though. When the city switched over to liftable, plastic waste bins and trash trucks with lifting arms, it meant that the old concrete ones, decorated with mosaics, were no longer going to be emptied. Therefore, the old bins were filled with soil and planted. Unfortunately, once the potting soil settled, the plants were situated far down in the concrete containers. Furthermore, the city planted incredibly flimsy plants. Almost immediately, they were buried by discarded coffee cups and poop bags. All but one on the street died. So I started planting agaves in them, all of which seem to be doing pretty well even though plenty of people continue to toss trash into them even though, in all cases, there’s an actual wastebin just a few meters away.

I planted an agave here years ago. After it was destroyed, I planted another.

That’s where guerrilla gardening comes in. Guerilla gardening is a form of tactical urbanism and environmentalism. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1973 when Liz Christy formed the Green Guerrillas in New York City. I think that I first heard about it on the radio in 2009. That led me to Los Angeles Guerrilla Gardening (LAGG). It was founded by two people known by the monikers Roly Poly and Mr. Stamen. We were told to use pseudonyms so I chose Mr. Green Genes — a reference to Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo.

One particularly fun operation was the Rock ‘n Crawl which involved planting near every line of Metro‘s B Line (then known as the Red Line) while bands performed at each station and the whole thing ended at Bar 107 (formerly a long-lived gay bar called The Score). I met friends my now old friends Soodtida and Adrienne that day on a subway car. I was also inspired by the group to guerrilla garden on my own and with friends, applying lessons learned with LAGG — in particular what plants are most likely to survive and flourish.

A small agave, planted in the rotten core of a dead bottlebrush

When I began guerilla gardening, I’d usually plant succulents — mostly ones like aloe, jade, and euphorbia — all of which are native to Southern Africa. Nowadays I mostly plant agave. All agave are indigenous to the Americas and several to Southern California. Southern California natives include Desert agave (Agave deserti var. deserti and simplex), Coastal agave (Agave shawii vari. shawii), Clark Mountain agave (Agave utahensis), and Utah agave (Agave utahensis var. eborispina). All are beautiful but all are also spiny and thus, probably better suited for wilderness, yards, and green roofs than road verges and tree squares. The foxtail agave — or lion’s tail agave — is native to Central Mexico. I may be wrong, but I assume that that means it’s more compatible with our wood wide web than a succulent from another continent. Foxtail agave, on the other hand, don’t have sharp spines and so humans and dogs are less likely to be scratched by them.

A small agave, holding on, despite being trampled and having dead Christmas trees dumped on it.

The bigger the plant, the better its chances of surviving. It’s very difficult for a small plant to survive in a heavily trafficked area. Tree squares along jogging paths or in front of bars are incredibly difficult to get established. It’s important not to get too frustrated when they vanish. Murals get painted over, sandcastles wash away, and urban plants often die. Sometimes people deliberately obliterate them for reasons known only to them and the demonic voices in their heads that compel them to destroy.

One agave that I planted in front of Pulse Recording Studio was dug out and its tree square was vindictively filled in with concrete to ensure that nothing ever be allowed to live there again. I find that it helps to remind myself that psychopaths are people too.

One of my agaves that someone else planted a now fairly large shrub next to.
An agave that I planted (with lots of basal shoots) that someone else added an aloe plant next to.

But some people are empaths and motivated to do good, too. One of the most rewarding things is when someone tends to or adds plants to a guerrilla garden. I’ve also seen people harvest from them and spread them to new tree squares. Foxtail agaves are amongst the easiest agaves to propagate. Most agaves produce propagate by producing either basal shoots or bulbils that grow on the blooming stalks. They can be harvested and planted but have a much better chance of surviving in an urban area if first allowed to grow roots in a pot and then be transplanted.

The original Rowena agave today with mature offspring

Foxtail agave, on the other hand, has a short stem that can be used to anchor it into a shallow trowel-dug hole. After about a year, the roots get established and it starts to grow and produce its own offspring. Most die after flowering once but the basal shoots will continue to multiply. For whatever reason, many people with them in their yards, remove those offspring and throw them into the green bin. I once even encountered a man digging them out of his yard. When I asked why he said because they’d never bloomed. In other words, he killed them for not offing themselves first. It was from a curbside green bin that I got the agave that I planted on Rowena from which all the others on Rowena are descended.

An agave plant that, just by being there, has helped other vegetation flourish

Agave may not be as useful as trees. They don’t provide a lot of shade — although neither do palms. They do provide ground cover, though, and encourage the growth of other small plants. They improve air and soil quality and add beauty to their surroundings. Many have culinary uses, too. Tequila is made from blue agave. A variety of agave species are used to make pulque and mezcal. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest traditionally ate Murphy’s agave and the Hohokam cultivated them extensively. Planting them, too, improves your mood. Invite a friend. Give planting a guerrilla garden a shot and let me know how it goes.

The same guerrilla garden after someone added agave and jade, in 2022

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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