The Profile Dossier: Ron Finley, the Gangster Gardener
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
The way I first found out about Ron Finley was when my mom texted me with excitement about the new MasterClass she was taking. It was with Ron Finley, a man whose nickname is “the gangster gardener.”
In a text message, she wrote: “I am in love with this gardening gangster! OMG! Highly recommended, but not suitable for children...He says, ‘In the forest when Bambi dies and shit, nobody buries it. It just decomposes and goes in the soil.’”
So that was my context, but I was intrigued.
Finley has been described as “a rebel with a green thumb.” He believes gardening is an act of defiance — especially in the inner city. “Just like 26.5 million Americans, I live in a food desert,” Finley says about his neighborhood in South Los Angeles.
His community is dominated by a plethora of liquor stores, fast food, and vacant lots. He didn’t like how it looked, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
In 2010, Finley got in trouble with the law for ... gardening. He had planted fruit and vegetables on the tiny strip of land between his house and the street in South Central Los Angeles. Someone complained that he was violating L.A. code, and the city gave him a citation with an ultimatum: Remove your garden or the citation would turn into a warrant.
So Finley decided to fight it. Not only did he earn permission to continue gardening, but the city changed the law and encouraged him to build more gardens in low-income “food deserts” in neighboring communities.
Finley has been challenging the status quo for decades. When he was in middle school, he asked the school’s guidance counselor if he could enroll in the home economics class. The counselor said boys couldn’t enroll in home ec. To which Finley responded with, “Well, all the chefs are men. How do they learn? “All because I wanted to get myself some chocolate chip cookies,” Finley says.
As an adult, Finley turned his attention to gardening — seeing it both as an art form and a form of peaceful protest.
“I'm an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. I grow my art,” he says. “I use the garden soil like it's a piece of cloth, and the plants and the trees, that's my embellishment for that cloth. You'd be surprised what the soil can do if you let it be your canvas.”
The soil, he adds, can make you a rebel against the oppressive system you might’ve been born into. “Growing your own food gives you power,” Finley says. “Once you have it, it’s something that never can be taken from you.”
Here’s what we can learn from the “gangster gardener” about the power of gardening, sustainability, and food independence.
On gardening as a revolution: Finley believes that gardening is a powerful form of protest. Just because the system tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to comply. In this profile, we learn about Finley’s upbringing and just how he decided that soil was “sexy” and “gangsta.”
On urban design: In this podcast, Finley shares his thoughtful take on how urban design shapes all of us and why we could actually do more to shape it. He shares some practical steps you can take to make a change in your community and thoughts on how to get started on building a garden wherever you live.
On the true meaning of wealth: Finley tells a story of a time when he was speaking at a high school in LA when a student asked him if he was rich. Finley responded with, “Yes I am, but so are you.” He then asks him a series of questions to teach him a lesson: “Nothing you can buy gives you value. Nothing you can buy is more special than you. You have an intrinsic value just being here on this planet. Money is not the thing that makes you rich.”
On turning your city into a food forest: In this episode, Finley discusses the true origins of change, what it really means to be gangster, and how you can turn community into a powerful tool for positive change.
On gardening for good: Finley saw firsthand how his little garden began to transform his community. He planted for himself and his neighbors. “I have witnessed my garden become a tool for the education — a tool for the transformation of my neighborhood,” he says.
On how food can save your life: In today’s day and age, humans have gotten so far away from their food source that it’s affecting their health. Going to the grocery store, going through a drive-thru, and ordering food on your phone isn’t natural. “Change your food, change your life,” he says, showing examples of how conventionally grown food differs from garden-grown food. Food is the problem and the solution, he says.
On how to keep your plants alive: In this conversation, Finley examines photos of various struggling plants and makes recommendations on how to revive them. “That’s the thing about a garden — it’s a constant fight. It’s a constant battle between you and the raccoons and the deer.”
Put skin in the game: Want to start eating healthier? Put some skin in the game. Finley says that if kids plant kale, then they’ll want to eat it because they’ve invested time and energy into the act of growing their food. “And if you plant a peach tree, you’ll get peaches every single season,” he says. “We’ve got to realize the soil is where the gold is.” My mom has a great tip: Try planting all the major ingredients for a salad (kale, tomatoes, and cucumbers), and then you’ll have an entire meal that you grew yourself. In other words, plant what you like to eat.
Practice ‘container gardening’: The biggest lesson we can learn from Finley is that you don’t need a big backyard to garden — hell, you don’t even need any backyard. You can garden in a tiny studio apartment if you want. That’s because Finley says you can get creative with the planters you use. Items that can double as flower pots include an old suitcase, sneakers, dresser drawers, and shopping carts. Greens and herbs require only six inches of container depth, while most other vegetables prefer 12 inches. ‘Container gardening’ requires only three things: a container, soil, and seeds. “You can buy the soil that you want, and you know exactly what’s in there,” Finley says. “It saves time, and your back doesn’t hurt.”
Give plants (and people) a second chance: Many of Finley’s lessons about gardening can be applied to life. For instance, if you’re new to planting, you may mistakenly pull some seedlings out because you thought they were weeds or think you killed a plant that’s just going through a normal transformation. Finley suggests the following: “Don’t be so quick to cut out something when you don’t have all the facts yet. Be patient and wait for it to grow.” The same can be said about relationships — gather all the facts first before making a decision.
Success is subjective: Finley wants you to know one thing: You decide whether you’re successful. He recommends asking yourself this question: “When are you going to be successful? A corner office, a Birkin bag? “You will never be f****ing successful ever, unless you say ‘I am successful.’” There is no objective measure of success — you decide what makes you so. “You will be on a hamster wheel for the rest of your life if you’re measuring your success against somebody else,” he says. “All it takes for you to have value is for you to say it.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is — if you ain't a gardener, you ain't gangsta.”
“With my garden, I’m taking some of my power back. A garden represents freedom to me.”
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city.”
“There are no mistakes. There are only lessons.”
“Beauty in, beauty out.”