Photo by David Hochman for The New York Times
INTERVIEW : RON FINLEY : GUERRILLA GARDENER
Ron Finley doesn’t live in a Los Angeles zip code where buzzwords likeorganic and heirloom rule the supermarket. So a couple years back he took matter into his own hands and planted a sidewalk garden to cut down on his grocery commute times, earning him a citation from the city. His subsequent efforts to fight City Hall earned him an audience, then a TED talk that instantly made him the public face of the farm-to-table movement in underserved areas. The city of LA has since backed off, leading to enormous potential in a city with up to 26 square miles of vacant lots. But nowadays he’s thinking on a global scale. We caught up with him to talk about the ups and downs of being an overnight vegetable king and where he goes from here.
Were you surprised by the instant celebrity that you had after the TED talk?
A little surprised, but you definitely got to be prepared or it could suck you under like an undertow or something. Fortunately, I have a motto, when we used to train we’d say, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.”
Beyond winning a moratorium on the ban on parkway planting, is the city of LA more on board with what you’re doing now?
Totally on board. They want to create a shift in food access. My thing is LA should be one of the healthiest cities on the planet and the folks I was talking to feel the same way. LA is for innovators and that’s what we need to bring back, to where we are the innovators and we’re not checking for nobody because everybody is checking for us. What are they doing in LA? That’s what I want to bring. LA is the place where things happen big.
You have a unique aesthetic as a gardener. What kinds of things inspire you to plant what you do, how you do it?
I’m inspired by life. I’m inspired by air. The simplest thing on the planet, you can’t even see it, but it’s the thing we all need more than anything else and that’s my inspiration. I don’t really go out and design a place, I let it tell me what to do.
When people ask me, “Where should this go?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Where do you want to put it?” People need to let go of the books and let their body, let nature take over because we are nature. We need to stop separating ourselves from the butterflies and the bumblebees and the flowers, we’re nature. We decompose just like they do. “Where do you feel it should go?” Feel it, there’s no book. The hell with the book, throw the book away. When you walk out of your door, where do you want this? Where do you want to see this? What do you want to be greeted with? The same way when you design a path, walk it first. If it don’t feel comfortable it’s not right. Nothing in nature is really straight.
How important is the visual aspect relative to the nutritional?
The visual feeds you too. We are all artists, some of us just lose it and forget it. Everybody is born an artist, it’s still there. You need to feed that creativity and that’s what a garden lets you do. A garden is nothing but a metaphor for life. Everything that happens in life happens in that garden, everything. From you planting the seed, to you taking care of what comes out of that seed. It needs nutrients, it needs to be nurtured and you get a healthy plant. Everything is in there, [all the way] to compost, which is to me the rebirth.
Do you think we’re in a good moment as far as changing the way we eat?
We’re in a hell of a place right now. I get hits, inquiries and inspiring notes from New Zealand to Florida to Chicago to Canada to Italy, all over the world. It’s definitely happening. People want to take their food back. It’s almost impossible to not know somebody with a curable food related disease. I think right now we’re at a good point where people are waking up and wanting to grow their own food.
The hands-on of growing your own as cultural experience must help change attitudes towards what you eat.
Right, the thing with putting your hands in the dirt. That’s what we are, that’s where we’re from. We decompose just like that leaf does. I think that’s the lesson, I think that’s why people have these epiphanies when they get into the soil and it effects people. What’s next?
Well I’m opening SXSW Eco, [and presenting at] TEDYouth, New Zealand and Brazil. I’m working on some plans with Alice Waters, the godmother of the whole slow-food movement, where we’re trying to decide how we’re going to take over the world up in Berkeley. It’s a diabolical master plan, that’s all I can say for now.