Ten years ago, artist and designer Ron Finley planted a modest vegetable garden in the little strip of soil between the sidewalk and the street outside his own front door in South Central Los Angeles. And with that small action he sowed the seeds of what he envisions as both a forest and a revolution.
A decade on, Finley’s HQ has grown into a lush garden of flowers, fruits, vegetables, grains and ad hoc sculptures. He’s lectured and worked all over the world and shot to fame with a stratospherically popular TED talk. And according to the Sunset Plaza Drive billboards asking whether “Y’all want to plant some motherfucking kale?” Finley has now taken his rightful, genre-bending place on the Masterclass online academy faculty.
When the Weekly caught up with him by video conference from the sunniest bench in his garden, we asked whether he thought that pandemic conditions had boosted interest in the Masterclass, since it’s centered around the why and how of growing one’s own food at home. He is certain that it has. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “Motherfuckers are realizing they can’t eat diamonds. They are figuring out the true value of shit, that there are certain things you can’t buy.”
Finley’s motivation in 2010 had to do with the availability, or actually the total lack, of fresh produce at stores in his urban neighborhood — a common condition in many inner city regions around the country. And through that process he has become immersed in everything from civic policy regarding growing food on “public” lands to the ways in which communities are created, sustained and protected, to the effects of empowerment on the individual.
“This experience has also made me an urban sociologist, and anthropologist, and a psychologist,” he says. With his clear-eyed understanding of how food insecurity and food justice directly impact the health and well-being of a given zipcode, he has placed the act of gardening within the spheres of not only agriculture, but economics, public art, political activism and self-determination.
Now with the intensifying, overlapping contexts of disrupted food supply chains, a global health threat and resource inequity, Finley isn’t surprised more people are becoming agriculture-curious. “What if,” he offers, instead of being dependent on faceless corporate forces to shape your life, what if instead of that, “you could be your own food supply chain?”
And for Finley, the idea of growing food at home and the freedoms it affords doesn’t stop at the property line. He is an advocate for forming collectives with the neighbors on your block, sharing your crops, so that everyone ends up with some of everything they need.
“Resources means more than just money,” Finley says. “It means food and neighbors, it means dirt and air. There’s so much I hope will be different in the new world that’s coming. You can design the life you want to live, and this is a wake up call. I hope.”
The garden has always been a powerful cultural, mythological, poetic and religious symbol even across history and societies. But for Finley what a garden represents is much more than a metaphor. “The garden teaches patience and persistence, math and science,” he says, and above all, “it teaches freedom.”
So what’s growing in his garden right now? “Well,” he laughs. “What’s not growing in my garden right now? Pomegranates, nectarines, stargazers, cape gooseberries, apples, collard greens, peppers, bananas, beets, corn, sugar cane, succulents, milkweed, butterfly bush, lemons, figs…You just missed the amaryllis!”
So what exactly does his 10-lesson Masterclass “Ron Finley Teaches Gardening” course actually teach subscribers, many of whom are presumably new to the idea? As its promo says, he’s talking to people where they are, about how to make use of any and every spot of available land or wherever they can put a pot.
For example his ingenious and completely charming dresser-drawer planters, which have been especially popular on social media. It’s a good thing Finley enjoys engaging with people online, because he’s been inundated with proof from all over the world that his lessons are being learned.
“I love to be able to see that I’m changing people’s lives,” Finley says. “They send me pictures and videos, especially their dresser-drawer gardens! Now I get to see who is taking the class, or who has seen the TED talk and been inspired. And there are people from Africa, the Philippines, India, Jordan, Brazil…It’s crazy. But I love it.” And everyday it keeps growing taller.
See more about how the garden grows at ronfinley.com.