Driving up to a home on a Fairmount Park cul-de-sac, I'm not sure what to expect. Low-riders line the street, and their owners are engaging in a pre-weekend kickback.
Nervously, I knock on Ava's door. She was referred to me by Richard Reynolds, webmaster for the U.K.-based guerrilla gardening.org.
“Come right in,” a soft voice says. A far cry from the militant punk-rock chick I expected, Ava, 58, is a white-haired flower child who's asked me to withhold her last name and refer to her as Ava949—her screen name. She introduces me to her partner in crime, Dianne, a 62-year-old friend she met at a pottering class a few years back who goes by “The Commandant.”
“We're probably breaking some laws today,” Ava states in a matter-of-fact way. “Which ones exactly, I don't know. Then again, I don't care.”
The Commandant chuckles and instructs me to hop in her burgundy BMW for a “drive-by.”
“These are the bombs we'll be throwing out,” she says, pulling from the back seat some egg cartons containing brownish oval-shaped mounds. They're “seed bombs,” consisting of rolled-up balls of clay containing soil and various seeds, which the pair—helming what can best be described as an unofficial neighborhood beautification committee—throw out from time to time in neglected areas around City Heights.
“See that spike right there?” Ava asks, pointing out the bulbils from an Octopus Agave that dominates her front yard, “those are for a future mission.” A loud screech interrupts her. “Oh no, the creature hasn't been fed yet,” she says, spotting a nearby feral cat she tends to.
Once inside the car, after the creature's needs have been met, I asked the ladies how such seemingly normal individuals got into this. Needlepoint sure, but this?
“Here's the deal,” Ava says. “We're both women of a certain age, we both were very politically active in the 1960s and we remain politically and socially active still. This is an extension of that. There are two kinds of hippies: the political hippies and the stoned hippies. I'm the former.” Dianne, a state employee, tells the story of how she was a militant opponent to the Vietnam War after her husband came back suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and missing a limb, but she's quickly shushed by her comrade who claims she's revealed “too much.”
“See all that stuff ?” Dianne continues, pointing to alternately lush and barren front yards as we head down Crenshaw Street toward Home Avenue. “All that stuff isn't from here.”
“It's all about reintroducing native plants,” Ava says.
“Clearing invasive botanicals like running bamboo and oleander costs taxpayers thousands precisely because of their obtuse nature.”
An environmentalist Thelma and Louise, the pair's love for covert grounds-keeping started by accident when Ava purchased a permaculture book online. The site's “You might also like” feature suggested a guerrilla-gardening book by Reynolds. “I just couldn't resist something with ‘guerrilla' in the title,” she recalls.
The duo's first venture was outfitting an empty tree well near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Palm Street in Bankers Hill with succulents. Three years later, the landscaping is still there.
“The marvel of the movement is a mix of eco-responsibility and non-hierarchical actions,” Ava says. “Anybody can take a handful of seeds, a bunch of mud, smoosh it together and toss it somewhere. They don't need instructions much, direction, pay dues or be part of an organization.”
Reaching the 5400 block of Imperial Avenue, we stop.
We're next to a dried-up triangle-shaped patch of overgrown wild grass. “This is a perfect whose-land-is-that-anyway? space,” Ava says.
Giddy, her sidekick pulls out the buckwheat, poppy and coastal-sunflower bombs, explaining that the potter's clay makes them naturally vermin-proof, and hurls some from the car.
Hazard lights and all, the women aren't afraid of drawing the attention of a nearby cop. “Call it white privilege if you will,” Ava says, “but people don't really care.”
“It's part of the beauty of growing old. You're sort of invisible,” Dianne chimes in.
Further down the road, we reach another spot in dire need of some TLC. “These right here are California Four O'Clocks,” Dianne boasts. “Their scientific name is Mirabilis Californica. Sounds kinda dirty, huh?” My window is rolled down, and I'm handed over a few stony bombs to throw, which land about four feet from the sidewalk.
“Hold on, let me get out,” Ava says. She puts me to shame, lunging a half-dozen seedpods up the hill with the dexterity of a regular Goose Gossage.
“Sure, you hear a lot about saving the planet, and it can be daunting” Dianne says, popping a Santana CD into her car stereo. “But the thing is that you shouldn't expect someone else to do something; just go out there and do it yourself.”
Caught up in the moment, The Commandant accidentally takes the freeway and we ended up in Lemon Grove.
Later, back at Ava's house, sitting on her Navajo-blanket-topped sofa, she expresses her hope that their crusade—like the bombs—will flourish.
“There's a ton of people who think that it's hard to garden and don't have the time or the resources to keep a lawn going— and they shouldn't because lawns are hugely wasteful of water,” says Ava, who spends her free time volunteering for the Friends Center Peace Garden in Fairmount Park, which contains 125 fruit trees destined to feed the homeless. “But what people don't realize is that with a couple of hours a week, they could actually be growing their own food,” she adds.
“You know? It's funny,” Ava muses. “We used to give the establishment the finger—now we flash them our green thumb.”