On the Record With...Ron Finley

What began as a desire to plant vegetables on his South Los Angeles front yard has blossomed into one “gangster gardener’s” quest to change how and what we eat.

Posted: 02/18/2014 12:00 AM EST

As Africans, we have a history of working with and respecting Mother Earth. We have a legacy of slavery and for a great part of enslavement we were in the fields, working with the soil, so a lot of people have a negative view of this and want to move away from that part of history. I’m trying to go back to that by being a gardener. My biggest catalyst has been the fact that I had to literally go out of my community of South Central Los Angeles to get any kind of healthy food. From Chicago to Philadelphia to New Orleans and back, there are “food prisons.” I don’t just call them “food deserts,” they are prisons because you have to escape to find anything healthy.

Therefore, gardening has been my tool to change the world. It’s been my meditation. It’s been my salvation. It’s been my solace. Gardening is a metaphor for life. Gardening is the gateway. This garden has literally taken me around the world speaking to thousands just by me putting a seed in the soil. What we need to realize is that life is in the soil. Our health is in that soil so we've got to change our perspective; this is where the gold is. Growing your own food is like printing your own money!

I planted my garden on the street to show people you can grow your own food. You can do it right here. You have this space. Plant on your parkways. I have Valencia oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, banana trees. Yes, I literally have banana trees on my parkway.

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People literally walk by this street just to see my garden. You’re not going to walk down most streets in South LA and see butterflies or hummingbirds, but you see them every day at my house. That goes to show, I’m not simply growing food. I’m growing an ecosystem. I’m growing nature for other parts of nature to survive and to thrive on. I love it when I'm walking down my street and see a dragonfly. To me that's art. When people walk by, they are amazed. People don’t know where their food comes from. They think watermelons grow on trees. If they see carrot tops, they don’t know that it's a carrot. They don’t know that potatoes grow underground. We’re so far removed from our food that it's to the detriment of us and our communities are suffering more than a lot of other communities. I just want to be the catalyst that changes our future.

Most people only eat from a very small food group of vegetables. What I try to do is to show people that there are other things that you should add to your palate. With my gardens I want color pops, I want different heights and I want different textures. First and foremost, I want smells. I want lavenders, jasmine and Mexican marigolds and ginger. As my neighbors walk from Crenshaw Boulevard past my house, I want these scents to wow and to hit people so that all of their senses are engaged.

With The Ron Finley Project, I am working to create an urban garden oasis, which I call “HQ.” It will house a sprawling community space including a garden, market and café, accessible to all. My intention is for it to become a hub in South LA for empowering the community to take back their health and to nourish and uplift this food dessert.

Now that my message has gained media attention and with powerful supporters like The Goldhirsh Foundation beneath my wings, I’m continuing to spark continuous movement in my community for garden projects and programs to educate future generations of renegade gardeners. One of the things I’m most excited about is that I was recently approached by the Los Angeles United School District to help launch a new direction for the school lunch program. I grew up attending these schools, and I know what we’re serving our children is junk. Gardening and growing our own food is critical and it’s the only way for us to take our health back.

Nicknamed the “gangster gardener” and the “guerilla gardener,” Ron Finley planted organic vegetables inches away from his South Los Angeles curb and a revolution was started. His belief that “gardens build community” led him to give a TED Talk in 2013 garnering over 300,000 views on YouTube. When he is not away speaking to audiences from Qatar to Watts, you will find Ron Finley with his shovel in the garden. Follow his movement on RonFinley.com.

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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)

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