Can a tomato change a child’s life?

“Yes,” says artist and designer Ron Finley, also known as the Gangsta Gardener.

Ron lives in South Central Los Angeles and quips that it’s “home of drive-thrus and drive-bys.” But Ron wanted to change that.

A few years ago, Ron planted a curbside garden in the strip of soil in front of his house in LA. The city tried to shut it down. So Ron accidentally started a revolution and changed the game of urban gardening. Now he’s teaching others to grow real food in urban landscapes and it’s transforming “food deserts” into “food forests”… one garden at a time.

On this powerful show with Ron, you’re about to learn:

  • Why growing your own food is like printing your own money
  • How Ron changed the laws of urban gardening
  • How to change a kid’s life with a tomato
  • And much more…

Ron Finley: The Renegade Gardener

A man of many interests, Ron’s career started in his family garage where he built a clothing company, The DROPDEAD Collexion. The line was a top seller with high-end retailers such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Ron’s passion for the arts is also reflected through his expansive collection of Black entertainment memorabilia, an exhibit titled Ron Finley’s Travels Through Blackness.

Based in LA, Ron’s vision is one of transformation through art. Today, Ron’s mission is changing the composition of soil in communities around the world.

You can also find Ron working on his latest plan for urban renewal: An acre of unused space that will be transformed into a maker-space where members of the community can come to learn, create, meet and share with one another founded on the belief that if we can change the culture, we will change the world.

Abel: I’m stoked to be here with Mr. Ron Finley. Nicknamed the “Gangsta Gardener” and the “Renegade Gardener,” Ron planted organic vegetables in the parkway in front of his South Los Angeles home and a revolution was started. Ron’s belief that gardens build communities has blossomed into a quest to change how we eat and the eventual founding of the Ron Finley Project, an organization dedicated to changing culture and growing people.

You started small. You just took a bit of land in your neighborhood and started growing food, but you accidentally started a revolution. Can you tell us about that?

I had no idea I’d be sitting here talking to you and that this would go all over the universe. It’s almost like I’ve been nominated for this position. I honor it and I’m inspired by it and the fact that I’ve been able to change lives all over the world. It gets me up in the morning. Some of the correspondence I get… you read them and start tearing up.

This simple thing, growing food, it goes further. It’s not about food, it’s about people.

The common denominator in everything is people. @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

I started gardening on my parkway. I started an organization where we were putting gardens in and around South Central LA for free to anyone who wanted one… and then the dynamics of the group kicked in. People started saying, “Well, hey, they have a Mercedes.” I don’t care. If you’re in South Central you’re going to get a garden if you want one. It has nothing to do with money.

It wasn’t a poor, downtrodden people who are down on their luck charity case. It was about the whole community. And in a place like South Central, you have $200,000 houses and $2,000,000 houses. These areas I call food prisons, not food deserts.

Nobody’s set trippin’— that’s like saying this religion don’t hang with that one, this gang don’t hang with that one. We are all human beings, and that’s how I wanted to treat this.

Abel: That’s the cool thing about food and eating. You’re all equal when you come to the table. When I  worked in D.C. right out of college, I volunteered to help kids in the city learn to cook. I pulled out a big heirloom tomato and some kids freaked—they had never seen a fresh whole tomato.

When I saw your TED Talk, I think you said “if kids grow kale, they’ll eat kale.”

Because you now have skin in the game. If you don’t have a hand in any of your food, you’re a slave. I don’t care how much money you have. They’re controlling a major portion of your life when they control where your nutrients come from.

The grocery stores in some of these neighborhoods don’t have this kind of produce. It’s all about changing that paradigm. This system was designed with that in mind. We have to change the current system and that’s what I’m trying to do.

It’s sad, and I’m glad that you got to see that. A lot of people don’t realize it. Some people are like, “If those people wanted to eat better. they could.” There’s nowhere to eat better in these communities.

Abel: You’re changing that.

Yeah, but not at the rate I want to. I have to celebrate the wins because it’s not close to what I want to see. If I bake a cake I want to eat a piece of it. My future is five minutes from now. So, if I have a hand in the change, I want to see it. Not, “Well I hope this tree grows in 2062.” If I planted it, I want to eat some of the apples.

I had this freak situation with a nectarine tree. I had 18-inches of soil, and I made the soil from square gardening. I had a nectarine pit that I just threw in there, and soon enough I look and there’s a branch. Then a year later there’s a tree with a nectarine on it. It’s a ginormous nectarine tree now in three years and there’s fruit.

If we expose kids to gardening, this alchemy, what mother nature does… it’s like magic. Click To Tweet

Why Gardening Is Smart & Sexy

Abel: What have you seen in people who may not have known what tomato is to working in your garden. What does that do when people get the dirt under their nails?

The soil under their fingernails, not the dirt.

I’ve witnessed people changing their whole lives. It changes your mindset of what’s important. Gardening taught me that nothing ever dies. It’s an energy transfer. When you see compost do what it does, you realize there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on.

I have nitrogen and I have carbon and I put them together… why am I getting 150℉ if this is supposed to be dead? It makes me look at life differently. Like us, do we die? Does anything die? Or is it just an energy transfer?

When you have a child put a little tiny seed in the soil and take care of it, the lessons that are being taught are unimaginable. They’re learning how to take care of things. There is a system to learning, and you can’t just jump to the next step. You have to follow the system and right now everybody’s trying to skip the essentials.

If this was Vegas, Mother Nature would be the house. Mother Nature don’t lose. @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

What I’d like people to realize in my garden is that we are nature. We are the same as the bumble bees and the worms and the butterflies and I think we lose sight of that. We are part of this ecosystem. Why don’t we make an efficient system for ourselves to survive? Mother Nature is going to be fine, but we are going to have problems if we continue the way we are going.

I don’t care what economic level or what color you are, it’s one people. One planet.

Abel: Once you start growing something, you realize that fulfillment as a human isn’t about consumption, it’s about production and creating. You’re an artist, so you see growing plants as an agent of creation. Some people might consider gardening a bore or a chore, but it’s a gift.

Once you get to it, it seduces you. And a lot of it is pride. I want to see gang fights over who‘s got the biggest cucumbers or the baddest beet. It’s this pride you get in growing your own food—you can’t get that anywhere else.

What’s sexier than making someone a meal right out of your backyard? @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

It should be that easy. There’s a community in Georgia that’s built around a farm. There’s a farm within 50 feet of everyone, and at this place the properties are 5 times the price of everywhere else around the city. People are getting serious about their health.

We have to realize we’ve been terrorized by fast food companies and big chemical companies. What’s happening here and in Hawaii is a travesty. They’re ruining paradise.

Abel: Did you have a moment maybe where you were eating out of boxes and bags and you were like, “I have to do something else.”

I went to the store and was looking at tomatoes, and I realized that they’re all the same and all perfect. The sticker says, “Coated with shellac to preserve.” Isn’t that what we used to use in woodshop when I was in junior high school? Why do I need shellac on my tomatoes? Even though it’s food grade, it’s still shellac.

And I was constantly seeing the news at dinner time about all the recalls. If you have this product, please return it to the store. I thought, “How many people are eating that watching the news and seeing that it’s going to make them sick?” That’s not cool.

Then also going to the schools and seeing what the kids are eating and looking back seeing what I was eating… and there’s no way we can expect our children to compete while they’re eating this garbage that has no nutritional value whatsoever. You’re not learning what you’re supposed to be learning, you’re not using your brain capacity, you’re not getting those nutrients in your body where you need them.

Abel: Do you find once you grow food in a neighborhood, that people simply start eating it? Or is there more education needed about how to cook it and prepare fresh foods?

It’s hard. It’s very hard. Especially being an African American—what I have to deal with is double. First of all, you have the convenience of the convenience food that’s conveniently killing you.

As an African American, we have this legacy of slavery. People can’t get past the “I don’t do dirt. I’m not a slave.” This here right under your feet, this here is gold. This is how they got that big house up on the hill. Now imagine you own the soil and imagine what you could have.

The soil is everything. It’s alive.

They tell you, you are what you eat. No, you are what you eat, eats. Plants eat soil. Plants get their nourishment out of the soil, and that’s what the plant eats.

The soil is everything. It’s alive. @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

Take that same metaphor and apply it to a child. If you don’t have healthy soil as a child, what will you become?

People say money don’t grow on trees. Money does grow on trees. Billions and billions of dollars year after year grows on trees. The tree is even worth money.  But as you know, some of these organic apples, what do they cost? $4 or $5 each. Now let’s look at the chain of production on that tree—from the people who planted, to people who harvest, to the distributor to the supermarket and then to your table. There’s a lot of people being employed and paid from trees.

How Growing Food Is Like Printing Your Own Money

Ron planted a curbside garden in the strip of soil in front of his house in LA. The city tried to shut it down. So Ron accidentally started a revolution:

Abel: In your TED Talk, you said growing food is like printing your own money.

I’ve seen Facebook posts saying, “This guy’s an idiot, you can’t grow money, it’s illegal. Where’s this clown coming from?”

Either they don’t get it, or they’re acting like they don’t get it, but the people who get it—it’s like, “Damn, you’re right.”

You’re saving on so many different parts of your life when you grow your own food—your health, time, your money—it becomes your meditation and your solace. We are creating an ecosystem when we grow food. It just so happens the things I planted attract hummingbirds.

I get kissed by hummingbirds every day. Who wouldn’t love that? @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

I look at my garden, then I look across the street and they have no life. It’s amazing, I’m getting to see wildlife I saw as a child just by planting food and planting flowers. One of the biggest things I do is I garden like I create art. I apply the colors of nature to give people color therapy. Who does color better than Mother Nature?

You can paint with your flowers and your food—that’s your palette and it affects people.

People do the slow “Disney Small World” drive-by when they pass because it’s something they don’t expect to see. They don’t expect 14 ft sunflowers on a parkway. What does it really cost? It’s nominal. Why do some neighborhoods have it and some don’t.

We know what that does for you. It calms you, it puts you in another state of mind.

Abel: We seem to be losing knowledge of ancient traditions like gardening. Generations ago, many of us ate from backyard gardens. That changed. Hopefully enough people can get back on board. It’s relatively simple to get something to grow.

There’s this thing called sun, water, soil, and seed. You put water on it, let the sun hit it, and it grows.

What I do should not be special. I speak all over the world now on this, and I’m just some guy that put a carrot in the ground. Feeding yourself shouldn’t be special. So what I want people to realize is that I’m not telling you to grow all your food. But imagine if you did it collectively. Your neighbor and the guy across the street and you got together and decided what to grow. You have the orange and pomegranate trees, and I’ve got the kale and rhubarb, and Sally has the lettuce and passion fruit or whatever.

You cannot eat all the food you can grow. It’s impossible. You’d be eating 24 hours a day.

Now you’re creating community and safety. You know my children and I know yours. Gardens build community. Period. They build relationships. Real simple. Good in and good out.

Technology & Returning To The Soil

Abel: Why did we lose our backyard gardens and what can we do to turn this around?

What’s happening with the digital computer age? I’m going to put Pomona College on blast. I love them, but they had some students come help me and I had an old drill and two bits and they couldn’t figure it out. How many college kids does it take to put a hole in a box?

We brought up several generations that don’t do anything. It’s scary because I don’t know what’s going to happen with everything automated.

I was in the Barilla pasta factory in Italy—the machine that makes the pasta is 2 to 3 stories high. Where are the people? There were little robots mowing the lawn when you walk up.

So, we have to create… we believed in the whole convenience thing, now we don’t have skills. Not everyone is going to make money off the internet. We need to get back to where we made and created stuff. I’m not talking 3D printing. I’m talking about making things, trading food and canning. These are the normal things we have to get back to.

People tell me, “You think outside the box.” There is no damn box. It’s just thinking.

We have to get in the soil. We have to get back to where we touch and do things. We have to get back where everything’s not social media. Social media is not going to feed you.

Can we mesh technology with agriculture? Hell, yeah. But we’re losing a lot from not being in the soil and from everybody sitting around behind their computers.

Abel: It’s a double edged sword.

Definitely. It gets the word out. You take my TED talk, it went viral because of social media. Where can you get that kind of message out that fast? But we have to close the computers, and make and touch and build and participate and have conversations and hug people. You can’t really engage people on the computer. There’s social skills and there’s a generation that’s losing it.

Abel: We are losing our skills in the physical world… and all of a sudden we’re losing our social skills, too.

And how many people don’t know how to cook now because of convenient food. It’s not that convenient. If it’s killing you, it’s really not that convenient.

Abel: And it looks cheap at first, but when you see the value of growing your own food and what it does to your body and how every other bill (especially health related bills), start taking a nosedive—it’s life changing. You said in your TED Talk, feeding yourself homegrown food is like manufacturing your own reality. When you look at soil and you suddenly understand it’s alive and you’re responsible for it, something changes right?

You stop and see what it does, that it’s this perfect circle.

I tell people a leaf falls for a reason in a particular season, it’s by design. Stacking functions is what that leaf has. It gives energy to the tree, then the leaf falls off and it becomes a bed around the tree which serves as a mulch so the water percolates down, then the leaves turn into soil. So, the tree is now feeding itself. Then it fruits and starts all over again.

When you look at these systems that have been in place since the dawn of time, you realize how simple and magical it is at the same time.

We have to start looking at things as resources, not trash. When I look at a leaf I think money. I think I can make compost and sell or use that compost.

Our job is to make gardening sexy. We gotta get gangsta’ for Mother Nature. If you heal your mother, you heal yourself.

I look at things I use differently now. I think, “What can I use that for?” I know what it was used for, but now how can I use it again to take it out of the trash stream so that when I’m finished with it, it’s dust?

We have to repurpose, restructure, renew, revitalize, rethink. @RonFinleyHQ Click To Tweet

Abel: It goes against getting a new iPhone every year.

It’s terrible that they have it set up like that. What kind of landfill does this necessitate? Do they have any consciousness? You’re going to make this phone obsolete on purpose. A lot of these phones—the things on them are not that new. They have a little more space and three more colors. They really need to rethink that and be more responsible as far as what’s happening to our landfills. Can all this stuff be recycled? How many phones do you have sitting in a drawer?

Where To Find Ron Finley

Find Ron’s film “Can You Dig This?” produced by John Legend at You can bring a screening to your city.

Be sure to catch Ron’s Ted Talk A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA, and on Facebook.

Also, check out the Ron Finley Project which was inspired by the idea of turning unused space such as parkways and vacant lots into fruitful endeavors. The garden being built is a gathering place and will be a community hub, where people learn about nutrition and join together to plant, work and unwind.

Ron: When you think about it. We all want fresh air, we all want fresh water, we all want healthy nutritious vital food. These things have been taken from us because of greed. Definitely not need. So we have to save our seeds.

These things have been taken from us because of greed. Not need. So we have to save our seeds. Click To Tweet


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