Guerilla Gardening & the ice plant invasion: how to help native plants at CSUMB and beyond

Submitted by Parker Jones / Community Journalism 

Have you ever seen a gaggle of wild turkeys strut across campus? Or listened to the coyotes howl when the fire alarms go off at Strawberry Apartments? Maybe you’ve heard the calls of the red-tailed hawks on your way to class, or watched a fox race across a path into the shadowy protection of the wild coastal oaks. All of these creatures rely on Monterey’s diverse collection of native plants: but this vegetation is being overrun.

You’ve probably noticed the seemingly endless swaths of iceplant — an invasive, coastal succulent that suffocates the ground beneath it, taking the nutrients away from native species. Other invasive species, such as pampas grass (the tall plants with plumes on the end) or Italian thistle (a spiky plant with purple flowers) are sprinkled across the California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) campus, as well as around the entire Monterey Peninsula.

The rampant growth of these invasive plants is overwhelming, but some groups and individuals on our campus are making a difference through education, or by getting their hands dirty themselves.

Bibiana Carrazco and Laura Lee Lienk work for Return of the Natives (RON), an organization dedicated to involving and informing the Monterey County community on our unique environment and its needs. They are no strangers to the importance of educating all age groups and are extremely knowledgeable on the best ways to support our native plant life.

Lienk, an adjunct faculty director for RON, provides advice for those who might try to make a change separate from other established organizations like RON. “Ask the experts, ie., Fred Watson or Suzy Worcester from the science department, or ask RON – Christina McKnew or [myself].” She described how attempts to improve the campus by planting without consulting experts can sometimes do more harm than good, even resulting in the arrival of more invasive species if the planters haven’t done their research.

Rogue planting like this is called guerilla gardening, a movement with the goal of beautifying and utilizing land by spreading seeds or planting. CSUMB has empty space galore; a quick look behind the library and you’ll see relatively open space. Add in the acres covered by ice plant or our semi-manicured lawns, and you have the perfect target for guerilla gardening. It’s a movement with good intentions, and sometimes good results.

CSUMB student Trent Itow is trying to make a difference on his own. Before and after classes, Itow dedicates his time to pulling ice plants from the dunes close to campus, searching for native (often rare) species that have been covered. These native plants are usually shrived and small, blocked from the sun and in soil that has been drained of nutrients. “I purposely went there to look for those native plants hidden in the iceplant and I thought, ‘Oh [shoot], they’re getting suffocated.’”

Itow has done extensive research on native plants in order to avoid contributing to the problem, something Lienk also recommends when planting. The easiest (and cheapest) way to start becoming active in environmental issues is through education, one of RON’s main effects on the Monterey community. “Our mission is to bring nature closer to people,” describes Carrazco, a community outreach and volunteer coordinator for RON. “And people closer to nature through hands-on experiences in community based habitat restoration and environmental education.”

Itow also understands the importance of education and not just for the safety of the environment. “I’ve had someone ask me, ‘How come you’re pulling this out’ and I showed them, ‘This is the native plant.’ It’s valid, like, why are you pulling out this plant, but it’s for a good reason.”

This isn’t the first time Itow has been approached and risk is a part of unsanctioned environmental work. Guerilla gardening is above all an act of resistance. In most cases, it isn’t legal to plant without permission and it can be difficult to receive that permission. What if the land belongs to the city, or the state? Or what if someone says no? These are the risks and hurdles faced by environmental leaders. And yet, they don’t give up. With news of hurricanes, fires, melting ice caps and other climate-change related disasters flooding our Instagram feeds, it can seem like the average college student can do nothing to stop the destruction of our environment. Organizations like RON and individuals like Itow are making a difference, proving that even small changes can turn into something greener.

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