Ron Finley, Guerilla Gardener

Garden gangsta, game changer, provocateur.

These aren’t your average LinkedIn occupations, but then again, Ron Finley isn’t your average guy. The native Angeleno is best known for his 2013 TED Talk, as well as his instrumental role in amending the Residential Parkway Landscaping Guidelines in Los Angeles to allow for the planting of edibles in public parkways (that up until last year, was considered an illegal crime).

Finley first embarked on his campaign to cultivate the neglected corners of the city when, in 2010, he planted vegetables in the parkway in front of his home. He reaped a harvest of fresh produce, along with a fine from the city for not adhering to the landscaping guidelines, which prohibited the planting of edibles in parkways. This led to a petition that caught the attention of Council President Herb Wesson, and ultimately resulted in a unanimous vote to amend the city’s landscaping guidelines.

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Like most activist-gardeners, Finley developed an interest in art and nature at an early age. “It started in elementary school, where you learned to grow a bean in a petri dish with a paper towel,” he recalls. “It kind of sticks with you, but you don’t have anywhere to really practice it in the end. So a lot of that [interest] gets lost, but it’s in there.”

At 15 he taught himself to make his own clothes, and at 17 he studied yoga at LA Trade Technical College. His creative pursuits led him to study fashion design. “That’s how I make a living,” says Finley. “I’m a fashion designer, not a gardener. That’s what I’ve done most of my life, manufacturing and designing clothes.”

His clients included Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, athletes and entertainers – “everybody who wanted to look fresh.” But when the recession hit in the early 2000’s (“for most of us, it was a depression”) the course of his life’s work was impacted in a hard way. But instead of allowing the economy to break him down, he decided to build back his life from the ground up – literally. “Gardening is just another form of design. It’s another art form. I use the soil. That’s my canvas now, instead of fabric. The soil is just another fabric for me that I embellish. I embellish soil to make it look the way I want it to look. Everybody to me is an artist.”

RonFinleyPlants_ChristineKimA desire to see and share beauty – instead of parkways littered with waste and old furniture – was the impetus for his urban gardening movement. “That’s what I try to do with my garden. I plant with color pops and different heights and textures. […] It’s a public art piece to me. In a month or so you’ll see the sunflowers on the end, and I want people to see it from the train. The artichokes will get these purple flowers, then the yellow from the sunflowers. People notice that. To me it’s about inspiring people and showing them they have the right and opportunity to have fun and be happy.”

Angelenos are invited to get a taste of Finley’s colorful, living works of art over the next few months in a series of events that seek to promote creativity and community in LA. From May 1-10, Finley will display a version of his urban garden at Manifest Justice.And on June 13, he’ll be at the Vermont Square Library for Da FUNction – an all-day placemaking event full of food, music, art, yoga, movies, gardening, and more as a part of the Los Angeles Design Festival.

In his own garden, a mini ecosystem is blossoming – one where hummingbirds, finches, butterflies, and other wildlife flock and flourish. And in Los Angeles, a movement for change is also growing – one Finley hopes will result in more public gardening and positive transformation for the community.

“We all need to heal this planet. Go out and plant some shit. Change this planet and heal it.”

Photo credit: Ron Finley by Stephen Zeigler; garden images by Christine Kim for Hollywood Park Life
Video credit: TED Talks