While California is one of the nation’s leaders in agricultural output, smog-cloaked and concrete-coated Los Angeles is hardly considered representative of the Golden State’s verdancy. But don’t tell that to South Central L.A. native Ron Finley, who in 2010 embarked on a guerrilla gardening project by growing food on the humble strip of soil sitting adjacent to the sidewalk in front of his house. Despite objection from local authorities, Finley persevered with his groundbreaking initiative and the legend of the Gangsta Gardener was born.
Over the past decade, Finley’s “if you can grow it there, you can grow it anywhere” message has earned him legions of fans (his TED Talk on the subject has over 3.6 million views) and his lobbying efforts have resulted in laxer attitudes and legislation towards urban farming in public spaces.
More recently, Finley offered up his green thumb and brilliant mind to MasterClass, the virtual classroom where luminaries ranging from Thomas Keller to Margaret Atwood provide in-depth instruction in their respective field of expertise.
It goes without saying that a MasterClass in gardening from Finley could not have arrived at a better time. With a surplus of boredom, isolation, and a shrinking grocery budget (if you can even manage to schedule a delivery), the concept of DIYing your dinner is having a real moment right now. Finley’s tutorials, however, go well beyond simply growing herbs and sweet potatoes.
During a recent conservation we discussed his thoughts on the importance of taking gardening into your own hands and how it will change your life and the world at large. Below you’ll find some of Finley’s signature seeds of wisdom.
When I mentioned to Finley my family’s recent foray into indoor herb gardening I foolishly expected him to validate this self-perceived achievement. Instead, he responded incredulously “What took you so long?”
Finley’s point is well taken. Growing your own food shouldn’t feel like a necessary chore to undertake just because times got tough. It serves you well both physically and mentally regardless of a global pandemic. “I’ve seen people change their whole lives once they garden,” says Finley who adds that through his work he has become an urban sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist. “This ain’t no damn hobby. This is life.”
“First and foremost, you need healthy, vibrant, rich, nutritious soil,” says Finley.
While it’s tempting to grab whatever earth you see lying around outside to get your garden started, it really is best to invest in soil. Consider what you want to grow and do the appropriate research. For example, aloe vera will thrive in a sandy environment, but basil is going to need more loam.
Whatever soil you work with, Finley offers many tips on how to improve its quality in his MasterClass and it all starts with compost.
“When you make compost, you realize nothing ever dies,” he says. Any scrap of organic matter is capable of creating more organic matter, and his particular methodologies will have your garden blooming in no time. Which leads to Finley’s next valuable insight…
Finley’s instruction takes pragmatic to the next level. “I want people to realize that there are resources all around us and they don’t have to cost money,” he stresses.
From forming a planter from an old sneaker to using a nutrient-rich empty eggshell as a temporary vessel for pepper seeds to take root, everything has a purpose.
You also might be surprised to learn that your power tools can be helpful in creating a garden by drilling holes into everyday items in order to provide drainage and prevent root rot.
For those homeschooling and home-cooking with their offspring, Finley has seen firsthand how the science, art, and beauty of gardening opens the eyes of many children.
“A seed destroys itself, literally, to give us food… and then it blossoms. Kids need to see that action,” he advises.
Finley recommends radishes as a friendly starter crop since they generate quick results and thus boost enthusiasm for future gardening projects.
“Worms are some of the hardest workers in the garden,” per Finley. Particularly when composting, worms are your best friend. Not only do they consume and (*ahem*) reconstitute the waste in the pile, their squiggling around provides beneficial aeration that keeps your trash pile fresh, fluffy, and fertile.
You can also upgrade your worm game and make worm tea, also known as the liquid that you can collect when draining compost that worms have called home (compost without worms won’t yield anywhere near the same benefits). You won’t like the taste of it (to be clear: do not consume!), but your plants sure will.
Maybe you have a whole backyard that’s covered in lawn and weeds and not much else, or maybe you only have a windowsill. Either way, Finley’s sage advice will give you the head start you need to have a continuous source of cooking ingredients, including sage. But don’t overlook the fundamentals of our environment. “We don’t look at water as a resource because we turn on the faucet and it’s there,” says Finley. “We don’t appreciate one of the most important things in our life, which is oxygen. That needs to change. There needs to be a reverence.”
So after you’ve fed that sourdough starter, fire up your streaming device, take notes from the master, and nourish your body and soul.