He fought the city, and risked arrest, to grow vegetables in front of his South Central L.A. home. Now, he's teaching others how to create healthy change in a digital MasterClass

ron finley the gangster gardener
Credit: Master Class

Ron Finley is known to many in his South Los Angeles community as “the gangster gardener,” but the nickname has nothing to do with gangs or violence.

“Growing up we’d say, ‘Oh, that’s gangster,’ and that meant that it was ‘fly as hell.' It was 'dope.'” he says. In his view, gardening fits that description perfectly. “I want young people to see that gardening is sexy, and even more appealing than the negative stuff around us.”

And while digging and watering and pruning may not seem instantly cool, the returns are inarguable. “Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” Finley is fond of saying. Seeds are cheap, the labor is your own, and you end up with a bounty of nutritious fruits and vegetables. And, he notes, “If kids grow kale, they’ll eat it, because now they have skin in the game."

ron finley the gangster gardener

In his neighborhood, once known as South Central, gardening and accessing fresh produce was—and still is—a struggle. He describes the urban area as a “food desert,” where cheap convenience and fast food is plentiful but organic, healthy options are hard to come by. Finley wanted to build “a food forest.”

So in 2010, he set out to create something the area desperately needed (a free edible garden) using something it had in abundance: empty lots and scruffy medians.

“I was looking at the parkway, where people would dump their dressers and their toilets, and I wanted to see something beautiful instead,” he says. “Health is not just what you eat. It’s what you see, what you smell, what you feel.”

Armed with a few tools, packets of seeds and skills he learned as a kid gardening with his mother, Finley dug up a 150-by-10-ft. stretch by the road and planted it with lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, baby banana trees and much more. As he worked on the small plot and things began to grow, it attracted the attention of his neighbors, whom he allowed to pick and eat from the garden.

“I was like, ‘Okay, other people need this.’ That was the start,” he says. He began adding other gardens in any usable space he could find, including the empty Olympic-size pool behind his home, a former swimming school, and the yards of any neighbor who wanted one.

ron finley the gangster gardener

As his mission started taking off, his original plot on the parkway also caught the attention of city officials, who told him he lacked a necessary permit and had to remove the plantings. When he refused, the citation turned into a warrant for his arrest.

“I said, ‘Do what you’re going to do, because I’m not taking this garden out.'  To me, it was ridiculous,” he recalls. “That's when the fight started.”

Thanks to the positive attention his parkway garden had received, including in a handful of national news outlets, a city councilman backed his case, and after five years, they got the law changed. Los Angeles residents can now legally plant street-side edible gardens on the city-owned medians. “This is not just about food, this is about freedom,” says Finley.

During that battle and after, he kept planting and helping to educate others. He met experts to learn about issues of food access. In 2013, he gave a TED talk about “guerrilla gardening” that went viral and garnered him a slew of famous fans, from Carson Daley and Rashida Jones to superstar chefs like Alice Waters.

ron finley the gangster gardener
Credit: Master Class

This year, he shared his compendium of knowledge as part of MasterClass, the digital platform that provides video lessons taught by superstars in fields from filmmaking to political strategy. Now, with his organization the Ron Finley Project, he travels the world leading workshops and seminars.

While the urban-gardening movement has grown—“I get messages from people in the U.K., Brazil, India,” he says—it has felt especially vital to him in the last few months, when the pandemic magnified issues of food insecurity and protests called for racial equality.

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Finley says gardening is more important than ever. “This is not a hobby, this is a life skill. Everybody should be able to have a healthy, nutritious meal, and this is where it starts.”

And he's optimistic about the future. “We have an opportunity now to change things. That’s what I love,” he says. “Everything starts small. Everything you eat starts with a flower before it’s a piece of fruit or a vegetable.”

Ron Finley’s MasterClass on Gardening is available now on masterclass.com