The Gangsta Gardener
“Y’all want to plant some mother f**king kale?”
That is what a billboard reads over Sunset Boulevard next to the face of Ron Finley — with a shovel in one hand and a bunch of fresh greens in the other. In the time of the pandemic, both digital learning and gardening have taken off – and with it Finley’s groundbreaking MasterClass – but he is too busy in his own Gangsta Garden, too busy harvesting free food, too busy building a new reality to be caught up in the whirlwind.
In 2010, Finley dug up a strip of land between his house and the street to plant a food forest, so he would have access to real organic food outside his door in South Central Los Angeles. The fact that it was illegal didn’t stop him, and when the citation later became a warrant, he got the law changed. Known to millions for his 2013 TED Talk “A guerrilla gardener in South Central LA,” Finley has spent the past decade planting edible-rich community gardens in curbs, vacant lots, unused spaces, parkways, homeless shelters, and more — starting in LA and replicated worldwide.
He is the self-proclaimed “Gangsta Gardener,” an idea with new meaning. In his mind, growing gardens and building community are gangsta. Soil, air and knowledge are gangsta. Shovels are his weapon. He swaps greed for seed. A firm believer that this knowledge means freedom, Finley is a proud renegade changing attitudes, perspectives and vernacular. A lifelong creative, fashion designer and father of painters, he now grows his art atop the canvas of soil.
With the veritable food forest he has created in his own backyard, Finley has barely left during quarantine – at one point he was on property for over a month straight. He’s able to eat almost entirely off the plot of land he has designed and cultivated with sweat and intention for years, which he tends daily.
That is not the reality in his surroundings, however. Despite a climate that can grow most anything, South Central LA is a liquor store and fast food-ridden food desert. Its residents face not only food scarcity, but also deadly yet curable diseases that arise from lack of access to nutrition. As such, Finley invites his neighbors and passersby in, encouraging people to eat from the vine, unable to ‘steal’ when he grew it for them to take and therein take back their health.
In non-pandemic times, visitors frequent the Gangsta Garden to learn, nibble, be inspired and get their hands dirty. Whether a drawer or cooler, bucket or shoe, sidewalk or rooftop, Finley not only will turn it into a garden, but empower visitors and enthusiasts from afar to do just that on their own, widely sharing the learnings he has taught himself. He fields questions from around the globe daily — from some who have never even touched soil — and answers in his unfiltered, unapologetic, unmistakably Ron Finley manner that people have grown to know and respect.
“I want people to be the architects of their existence,” he says. “Design the life you want to live!”
He talks about the abundance of opportunity provided by Mother Nature, which people don’t even realize, and the ease of growing your own food. Finley is literally reaping the fruits of his labor year-round in the form of pomegranates, apricots, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, garlic, blueberries, tomatoes, beans, onions, celery, corn, chard, spinach, arugula, kale, collards, and every plant you can imagine that make up his nutrient-rich diet — all from the safety of his own property.
“With Covid and people being home for so long, I think a lot of values are gonna shift,” Finley says, even while he maintains no false hope. “I hope and pray it lasts.”
For Finley, gardening is not a hobby. It is both a defiant act and a necessity for survival, as the public and government alike are coming to realize as they are unable to move freely or shop at stores amid the pandemic. While he fully supports protest in the streets and is outspoken about his experience as a black man in America and critical struggle for racial and social justice ("If this offends you please unfollow me ASAP,” he recently posted on his @RonFinleyHQ social media channels), Finley sees his garden as a form of protest against the system. “Growing your own food is like printing your own money” – it’s a phrase he has long used, tying gardening to liberation.
“Food is both the problem and the solution – all that bad shit is by design,” Finley says. “Food was organic until they started putting in bullshit to preserve it. It’s the problem because it’s making us sick. And it’s the solution because we can change it.”
Plus, he adds, we all need to eat.
He underscores food’s pivotal role in racial, economic, health and environmental justice. Not only can everyone #PlantSomeShit, Finley’s favorite hashtag and call to action, but when gardens are classrooms and kids are taught how food affects their bodies, minds and wellbeing, they become engaged in taking control over their own destiny and that of their communities. His Gangsta Gardener revolution started years ago and continues onwards for the long-haul, toward a world where everyone plants, nurtures, eats and learns to love and appreciate herbs, greens, fruits and vegetables.
Including motherf**cking kale.