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Getting dirty with Ron Finley: The ‘Gangsta Gardener’

Cory Alexander Haywood | 6/1/2017, midnight
Ron Finley owns an Olympic-size swimming pool, but there’s no water inside. The cavernous structure has been empty for several ...

Ron Finley, the self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener.”

Ron Finley, the self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener.”

Ron Finley owns an Olympic-size swimming pool, but there’s no water inside. The cavernous structure has been empty for several years and currently serves as the centerpiece for a tropical paradise embedded in the heart of South Los Angeles.

“I have three sons—they’re all creators like me,” Finley explained. His voice emitted the joyous tone of a proud father. “They painted these murals [referring to the spray art [graffiti] decorating the curved walls of the pool]. My ex-girlfriend did that over there [pointing to a wooden beach chair featuring her artwork, lodged between clumps of dirt and greenery].”

Finley’s expansive (and elaborate) Crenshaw area garden is becoming a hotspot for residents of LA and surrounding cities. His blooming popularity has also garnered recognition from the media. Over the past several weeks, dozens of the country’s most recognizable publications have flocked to him for exclusive quotes, including the New York Times and LA Weekly. Ammy Scattergood, reporter for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote:

Finley’s garden includes hundreds of plants surrounding an empty, olympic-size swimming pool (shown here).

Finley’s garden includes hundreds of plants surrounding an empty, olympic-size swimming pool (shown here).

“Above the pool, there’s a network of buckets, shopping carts planted with strawberries, [and] a system of compost bins, beds of kale and oxalis, a nectarine tree growing in a layer of 18 inches of soil above concrete. Butterflies and hummingbirds dart through a pomegranate tree. If you didn’t know it, you’d think you were somewhere in the tropics, someplace like Macondo, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s imaginary, lush, butterfly-filled town—not in South Los Angeles where Finley grew up and lives, a few hundred yards from the Metro Farmdale Expo station.

She continues, “Finley’s parkway garden catalog [includes]: a Valencia orange tree, a pear tree, a pomegranate tree, papyrus, sugar cane, an almond tree, rosemary, artichokes, chard, flowering celery, Mexican marigolds, Red Russian kale, mint, sweet potato vines, blackberries, fennel, a Santa Rosa plum tree, a banana tree, Christmas Lima beans, sunflowers, volunteer Green Zebra tomatoes, an apple tree, red dandelions, corn, nasturtiums, [and] an apricot tree. It’s a lot of food, but Finley says he grows [it] mostly for himself and his family, friends and neighbors, as well as for groups who visit the garden, either by appointment or accident.”

Graffiti art meets horticultural artistry in Finley’s breathtaking garden.

Graffiti art meets horticultural artistry in Finley’s breathtaking garden.

Of course, Finley isn’t the first gardener to plant flowers in South LA (i.e. “the hood”), but he’s quickly ascending to heights of prominence that only a few of his contemporaries have reached. He’s a self-taught craftsman, but his lack of formal knowledge hasn’t deterred fans of his work from offering him gobs of cash to deliver messages about gardening. His slogan is, “plant some shit,” and since 2010 he’s been cultivating a colorful network of plantlife and artwork. His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, he was invited to speak at a TED talk in Long Beach, Calif.

The footage (an influential video by an expert speaker) has since gone viral, amassing nearly three million views on YouTube, simultaneously transforming Finley into an overnight celebrity of sorts. “Have you seen it [the video],” he asked with a glint of pride in his eyes. “I wasn’t reading from a script when I spoke—it was spiritual. That’s why so many people have rallied around what I’m doing. They can tell this is personal for me. I teach people to value the importance of creating life instead of taking it for granted.”