The Gangsta Gardener on going green

The Joy of Plants with Ron Finley | Soho House

How the urban horticulturist, Ron Finley, is reframing our value system

Thursday 10 March 2022    By Abigail Hirsch    Video by Jared Bedrejo and Paulo Berberan 

In 2010, Ron Finley started a horticultural revolution by planting a few seeds in the neglected patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street in his South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood. Now, Finley’s gardening activism has taken on new life, fighting against food deserts and teaching global communities about what truly holds value: the earth. Here, we chat to the Gangsta Gardener about his mission, and how planting a few seeds is really about fundamentally changing how we all think.

Why are you the Gangsta Gardener?
‘Because gardening is gangster; you’re feeding people. Gardens equal freedom. It’s not even about the food, it’s about the process. This needs to be taught in all schools from kindergarten all the way up to college, it’s a life skill.’

You create natural growth from the manmade, say concrete sidewalks or a pool. Tell us about your philosophy of empowering people to build upon anything they have.
‘We must change the way we think. If we change how we think, we can change the way we live. 
We’re in my pool right now, but does this have to be a pool? Can it be repurposed as something else? What are cities designed for? I’m trying to have people change what they value. 

‘We pledge allegiance, but not to ourselves, not to the soil, not to this planet, not to this beautiful air that we breathe every day. No one tells you air is the most important thing to your life – that’s what I’m trying to change with this garden.’ 

Tell us a bit about that vision. What are the structural, sociological or political setbacks that are preventing people from realising they can create their own food systems? 
‘The biggest thing is the miseducation system; it’s indoctrination to show you how to continue to be a slave to the system. We must tell kids at an early age that they have value, that just because they’re here on this planet they have an intrinsic value, that we’re breathing the same air that they’re breathing in Czechoslovakia or in Africa.’ 

So how do you implement that change through your work here? 
‘I’m not trying to do it, it’s happening. I didn’t plan to be the Gangsta Gardener, but people want to be more aware. Where did my food come from? What am I really eating? Scientists tell me I’m an urban anthropologist now because of the garden I put on the street, which is true. I get to see how people interact with beauty. First and foremost, I want to educate them about self – you’re going to look at yourself as part of the planet. We’re nature.’

Tell us about your vision for people to create sustainable food systems in their lives. How can this mentality extend beyond food? 
‘Three words: compost, compost, compost. The word sustainability is bulls**t to me. What does sustain mean? There’s no growth in sustainability. What we need to do is what this planet does every 24 hours: it regenerates itself. We need to regenerate just like these plants, just like a seed. 

‘A leaf falls for a reason in a particular season. It’s by design. What do we do? We sweep it up and put it in the trash. That leaf is money, that leaf is a resource just like everything Mother Nature produces, but we haven’t been trained to look at it like that.’

How can someone start doing that? What are some tips and tricks?
‘You have 16 questions in one, you realise that, right?’

OK, first off, for the beginner gardener, how do you recommend getting started, what are the easiest seeds to grow? 
‘This isn’t about gardening. This is about being humane. It’s already in us, we’re soil, we’re carbon, we decompose just like a leaf. 

‘The simplest way to start is to plant something that you want to see or eat. I’m not telling you the easiest. F**k the easiest way – challenge yourself, that’s the discovery. But the fastest things to see that you can eat is probably a radish or lettuce.’ 

So then how can we think about what’s next from here? 
‘Go plant some stuff, and teach your kids so it’s in their DNA. The planet doesn’t need us, it’s going to regenerate without us. You heal your mother, you heal yourself. 

‘Just imagine if we felt connected to this planet. Our value systems would change. But the first thing is to get that seed and put it in the ground, and then put another one in the ground. That’s where you start.’

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