The Guerrilla Gardener Ron Finley is an "Eco-lutionary"
South Central's most famous gardener doesn't mind eating his words.
Ron Finley has been called a renegade gardener, a gangster gardener and an eco-lutionary. His TED talk about turning South Central L.A,'s vacant lots into "food forests" has been viewed almost one million times since March. And he's been profiled in everything from The New York Times to treehugger.com. But if you ask the bugs and bees in his garden, Ron Finley is just the guy who runs out the door every morning to look at his plants.
"I get out there and get lost," Finley says of the greenspace around his house in South Central, which feeds him and whoever else wanders by. "I run out there first thing in my underwear just to see how the seeds are doing. Four hours later, I haven't eaten or washed my face."
HGTV spent one truly fantastic afternoon soaking up every word of Ron's garden gospel. Here's what he has to say about corn, compost and why seeds are becoming the new contraband.
Your career is in fashion design. Did gardening start as a hobby?
I've always kept something in a pot or terrace garden, but when I was designing clothes it wasn't like, oh I've got to go home and graft this tree. When I had more time on my hands, the garden came to be. It's meditative and needed in a sense because it provides healthy food I can't find in my own neighborhood.
Gardening is another form of art and I plant for beauty. I want all kinds of different heights and color pops. Vegetable gardens to me are boring as hell; I plant like a mosaic.
What's growing in your garden right now?
Purple Chinese mustard greens, three kinds of kale and tons of arugula. I've got New Zealand spinach, mint, red onions, pineapple sage, rosemary, red dandelion greens, mizuna, corn, carrots, eggplants and hot peppers. There's also almond, tangerine, Valencia orange, fig, apple, apricot and banana trees. Plus tons of sunflowers.
And you share all of this with your neighbors?
It's all on the street. I do hate it when people cut my sunflowers, though. That's not what they're there for. People rip the plant out of the ground so they can have it for the day, but it won't get to do what it's supposed to do, which is produce seeds. But it's on the street so I've got to deal with that.
What's the No. 1 thing people ask you about gardening?
They ask, "How do I start?" And I say, "At the beginning." And they say, "Where's that?" And I say, "Wherever you start."
Start some organic seeds in a tray in the house. I start stuff in a petrie dish with water so I can watch the seeds germinate. It's like elementary school. I start sweet potatoes in a jar with toothpicks on the side, too.
Then figure out a way to test your soil and see what's growing. If nothing's growing, you've got dirt and you need to put some above-ground boxes on it and get new soil. If you put the soil in there, you know where it came from. Start composting because it's the nutrients for your garden. Compost to me is a total metaphor for life.
Compost makes me think of anything that has ever died, even human beings. Carbon is brown and the nitrogen is green and you get this heat. The energy is in there. Humans are a life form that takes in oxygen, too. Do we die or is it just another energy transfer?
Are a self-taught gardener?
I'm not one of those guys who reads books about gardening. I figure in the time it's going to take me to read about it, I can put something in the ground and see what happens.
When you look at a patch of grass, what's your plan?
I do intensive planting. I plant closer than you're supposed to, but seeds are going to blow where they're going to go. Plants aren't like gangs, staying on this side or that side—they just put roots down wherever and grow. They want to live and will do whatever they can to accomplish that. That's why plants grow in teeny cracks and up walls: They want to survive. Just like humans.
And what do you do with all the great stuff you grow?
I juice a lot and make plenty of salads. I either steam or roast beets with some smashed garlic and rosemary. I sauté spinach in olive oil, butter and garlic. And corn? I eat it straight off the stalk—sometimes it doesn't make it beyond the gate.
How has your newfound fame boosted L.A. Green Grounds, the volunteer group you co-founded that creates gardens in low-income areas?
A lot of people come to our Dig-Ins to see me and I'm just glad something that simple can get people motivated. We have over 300-plus volunteers after my TED appearance when we used to get 25.
Can the war on food in your neighborhood be won one carrot at a time?
This problem is bigger than South Central—it's universal. From Nairobi and Norway to Ireland to all parts of Canada and Chicago, companies are producing food and drinks that are killing us and that needs to be addressed. In South Central there are four churches on one block but you have to go miles for an organic apple. How does this serve the community?
So the system makes you a gangster gardener?
It's not about being a cog in the system. Sometimes you've got to break some of the cogs so the gears don't go on. That's the only way we're going to change this. Your food shouldn't kill you. The little old ladies who are growing food and giving it to shelters? That's gangster to me.
Seeds are about to be the new contraband. You're going to have little old ladies on the corner stringing organic seeds. Yo, I got organic open pollinated seeds. That's what it's about to come to. It's going to be criminal if they find out you have organic seeds. They're getting gangster with our food and we have to take our system back.
Now that the world knows who you are and what you're about, what's next?
World domination. Nature always wins. Always. Ask the dinosaurs if you don't believe me.