LOS ANGELES - Ron Finley has been called a “guerrilla gardener” and the “gangsta gardener,” an edgier description of a man who once defied local authorities to bring nature to the inner city.
Finley’s efforts to plant edible gardens on public property have earned him court citations, but they also brought a victory two years ago when Los Angeles city officials approved community gardens on public parkways, the narrow strips of land between the street and sidewalk.
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Many mornings, Finley can be seen tending the dense vegetation in the sliver of a garden outside his house.
“This is a food forest,” he said, pointing to lemon trees, sunflower plants and tomato vines. “There’s fruit trees, there’s also weeds that are edible in here. And I want to educate people to the fact that there’s food all around you.”
From figs and Swiss chard to edible nasturtiums, Finley grows fruits and vegetables that are rare in the inner city, where he says residents have better access to fast food and liquor stores than to healthful produce.
He spends much of his time doing public speaking and urging people to start community gardens. But many in Los Angeles were already on board with the concept before he became involved.
A few miles from Finley’s garden in South Los Angeles, Tamiko Nakamoto walks through plots of edible plants tended by 22 gardeners.
This community garden is not far from the epicenter of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and Nakamoto said the community activist who set it up shortly afterward wanted “a place of peace and an oasis in this city that’s surrounded by turmoil.”
There are “collard greens, sugar cane, bananas, tomato trees (vines), cabbage,” said one gardener, a towering immigrant from the Virgin Islands who uses his Rastafarian name, Makado. He is here most days weeding and watering.
Los Angeles is now dotted with dozens of gardens and small strips of vegetation outside the homes of residents.
Others are being planted. Los Angeles officials are in the process of approving tax breaks for owners of vacant lots if the land is used for community gardens. The City Council gave preliminary approval to the measure this month.
“I want them to do more,” Finley said of city officials. “I want them to advocate for this. I want them to put bulletin boards up. I want them to have workshops showing people how to do this.”
Slowly, patches of greenery and color are appearing amid the concrete, and Finley said these gardens make residents feel “healthy all over, not just your body, your mind-set, everything because looking at this, smelling this affects every sense in your body.”
Just as importantly, he said, these gardens are putting fresh fruits and vegetables on the tables of local families.