LOS ANGELES — Ron Finley — the self-proclaimed Gangsta Gardener — carries his persona like a shield. He’s this tall dude with hemp Patagonia pants and a slightly silver goatee who seems pretty laid-back until you’re close enough to read the keep-your-distance tension in his eyes.
Finley is a doer, a constantly moving, make-things-happen kind of guy, but this spring and summer he’s spent a lot of time answering questions from journalists and fans. He’s been famous for years, but his new online MasterClass in gardening hit the streets in April, when a national craze for gardening and then outrage over police violence and systemic racism brought a whole new audience to the pulpit where Finley has been preaching for a decade. His message? Empowerment through growing our own food.
Like everyone else, I wanted to get his take about current events and, of course, gardening. But right now, Finley is standing under a small cluster of banana trees outside his West Adams home with a steak knife in his hand — one of his favorite garden tools — and he’s talking in passionate scattershot, changing topics every minute or so while he trims some papyrus stalks overgrowing in the parkway outside his house.
Wait ... papyrus?
Yes, papyrus, he says, as in the stuff the ancients used to make scrolls. He wants to try that himself when he has the time, but right now he just admires the beauty of these plants, and the way they grow so tall and in such profusion amid a towering pomegranate tree, artichokes, rosemary and corn.
“Beauty in, beauty out,” he says.
Then he’s casually pointing out the huge bunch of green bananas dangling just above the sidewalk in this thicket of green and saying, “Did you know that a banana tree only produces one bunch of bananas in its lifetime?” which is why his assistant, Sam Robertson, is busy pulling out several older trees so the young ones can have their chance to fruit.
And in the next breath Finley is reaching down and digging into the loose, loamy soil of the parkway — yeah, that usually weedy, hard-pan strip between the street and the sidewalk — to show how it’s teeming with earthworms and all the composted amendments that make plants thrive. He’s running his fingers through this super soil the way pirates fondle their treasure, and he’s talking about growing a “food forest” in the city and how he wants to make all this “sexy” and “gangsta” — growing food, creating urban forests, building beautiful soil ...
“Yeah, soil. Soil is gangsta, but you can’t get more gangsta than air,” Finley says. “People take the whole gangsta mentality as something negative, but it’s not. Nobody thinks about air, but just try to do without it. It’s something you can’t do without, and you can’t even see it. It’s gangsta, it’s ninja. Air is gangsta as f — .”
That last sentence is right out of the introduction to his new MasterClass in gardening, which is peppered with such salty wisdom. (It’s also the way Finley talks, nonstop, which makes him challenging to quote in a family newspaper.)
In fact, says David Schriber, chief marketing officer for MasterClass, the “air is gangsta” quote is still famous around the offices of the pay-to-learn online classes that feature top names in multiple fields, such as drag icon RuPaul, Disney chief Bob Iger, and powerhouse producer-writers Shonda Rimes and Aaron Sorkin.
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The classes were filmed in Finley’s backyard last fall but didn’t go live until Earth Day, April 22, so that people in climates cooler than California’s could actually get outside and do some planting, Schriber said. At least that was the original thinking, but the timing was also serendipitous, when people were sheltering at home during the pandemic and interest in growing food spiked. Schriber said he can’t reveal numbers, but Finley’s classes have been “one of the most popular.”
Of course, no one at MasterClass knew about coronavirus last fall or the eruption of anger after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Schriber said. They just knew their target audience of 30-somethings had a growing interest in healthful eating and the origins of their food. Schriber said they asked another one of their instructors, famed chef Alice Waters, for suggestions for someone to teach a class about growing food, “and Alice immediately said, ‘You need to talk to Ron.’”
Making gardening “gangsta” has been Finley’s mission since 2010, when he began planting food on the weedy parkway outside his home and got into trouble for violating Los Angeles city code. He fought the city and won permission to keep his garden and build more like it in the “food deserts” around South L.A., where, he says, it’s far easier to find liquor stores, fast food and diabetes treatment centers than organic fruit and vegetables.
Then there was his famous TED talk in 2013 that’s had nearly 4 million views and been translated into 34 languages, and a documentary, “Can You Dig This?,” highlighting his goals in 2015, and then the fight to save his rented West Adams home and garden after it was bought at auction by a development company who tried to evict him. He won that battle too, thanks to donations from more than 60,000 people, including many prominent organic food companies, and the Ron Finley Project was able to purchase the property and continue spreading the gospel that “you can have independence and a better life by growing your own food.”
Except Finley, who’s traveled the world to talk about gangsta gardening, isn’t your average speaker. His language is unapologetically profane, and he hasn’t toned it down much for his MasterClasses. After the first shock, his approach feels strangely refreshing, a no-BS approach to learning that mixes gardening tips with life lessons, and MasterClass took full advantage. They got a huge billboard in West Hollywood, visible from both directions on Sunset Boulevard, to promote their newest instructor. And there, looming above traffic, was Finley holding a shovel and a green leafy plant, staring out at the world with the following invitation: “Y’all want to plant some motherf — kale?”
“Ron teaches us to appreciate all sorts of things in life,” Schriber said. “He immediately gets you to rethink everything from soil to air to how to create a garden in an old dresser drawer ... and if he swears a few times along the way, we’re grownups. We can handle it.”
Finley appreciates that his message is being heard, but he’s impatient too because there’s so much to do. See, Finley isn’t just about gardening; he’s about changing the world and the way we see ourselves. He wants us to stop taking nature for granted, and stop throwing things away that can be reused someplace else. He wants to transform schools so that they teach students how to plant food, and eliminate people’s dependence on corporations for food. And he wants to flip “the gangster mentality, the violence, the misogynistic behavior, the ‘be high, be drunk’ ... because if you’re intoxicated, if you’re high, that means you’re not woke, you’re not current, you’re not clear,” he says in his MasterClass introduction.
“I think everybody should have knowledge of how to feed themselves and what food they’re eating. I want people to know, you do have power, you do have a say so, and your life does matter, but first of all it’s got to to matter to you. That’s what this is about; this is to show people that there’s a big part of your life you can design yourself and not live the life that’s been designed for you.”
Finley himself took a gardening class through the UC Cooperative Extension, but says most of what he’s learned has been self-taught, through trial and error.
“I’m more of a write-the-book than read-the-book type person,” he said. Like when he first tried to make compost in a bucket with a lid and the contents rotted into a putrid slop “because you need air to decompose,” he said. “It was horrible, but to me, there are no failures; only lessons.”
And hard work. Finley has high expectations for himself, and is impatient with people “who aren’t willing to put in the work. If you’re going to do it, put your ass on it and make it shine ... . My work should inspire you to go above what I just did, not copy. We’re all here to inspire each other.”
Hearing this, it’s hard not to look at Robertson, Finley’s assistant, and wonder what it’s like to work for this man. “It’s good,” said Robertson, a young, soft-spoken filmmaker who started gardening for Finley this spring when film work dried up during the pandemic and he needed to pay his student loans.
Robertson’s a newbie to plants, but he says Finley’s lessons are as much about life as they are about gardening: When Robertson mistakenly pulled out some vegetable seedlings because he thought they were weeds, his boss didn’t get mad, Robertson said. Finley just replanted the seedlings and told him not to judge things when they’re new or young. “He said, ‘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,’ and I realized that works for people too. He helped me see I shouldn’t quit on things, or people. I should stay aware and give them time.”
So in addition to gardening, Finley is really part motivational speaker, and part revolutionary, or what he calls an “ecolutionary — someone who gives a f — about this planet and is fighting for it.” He preaches about a world where neighbors grow food to share with each other, and vacant lots are lush with edible plants for the community to share.
But he also wants to undo the taint of slavery and grueling farm work that he believes has soured Black people and Latinos from working in the soil because they equate it with oppression and degradation.
“We’ve got to change that image,” he said. “With the pandemic, our values have shifted immensely. You can’t eat ... diamonds. I tell kids, ‘Nothing you buy gives you value. You have an intrinsic value just by being here. There’s nothing more special than you are.’ That’s why we’ve got to make (gardening) sexy, as sexy as cigarettes, weed, alcohol and McDonald’s. If kids plant kale, they’re going to eat it, because they’ve got skin in the game. And if you plant a peach tree, you’ll get peaches every single season. We’ve got to realize the soil is where the gold is. We have to change man’s greed to seed.”
And in the next breath, Finley corrects any notion that his mission — what he calls the Ron Finley Project — is focused on the poor. He’s had some disagreements about this in the past, when a group he worked with wanted to focus its attention on volunteerism and building gardens for the poor.
Finley’s core message is that people everywhere should grow their own food, even in Beverly Hills. “This is for humanity,” he said. “I’m not going around handing out free garden kits. Free is not sustainable. You don’t see Disney giving its content for free, and it doesn’t work that way for me either. I’m not Mother Teresa.”
Of course, he says gruffly, if someone is hungry and in need, he’ll assist them in creating a garden, “but don’t expect me to do it for you. I’ll help you, but I’m not ‘the help.’”
Although Finley can be passionate and intense talking about his message, he also has a playful side. At one point, he begins singing all the lyrics to the “Super Chicken” cartoon as he drags a hose for a photo, and as he wanders through his garden, he offers his guests gifts of nectarines and little sprouts of plants.
Deep down, he says, he’s really a shy person, and all this recent attention — on the billboard, the Guardian newspaper, People magazine and helping Al Roker of the “Today” show build a raised bed garden (remotely) — is hard to handle. “It ain’t for the faint of heart, trust me.”
He’s more careful these days, he said, because his ideas and identity have been stolen and strangers will suddenly appear at his door, at all hours of the day or night.
But before his questioner can react, his shields are up again: “Am I shy? Yes, but (I) have to bury it ... You don’t let shyness keep you from doing what you want to do.”
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