How to Be a Gansta' Gardener
Seven Life Lessons From Ron Finley
If my dad had his druthers, he’d be hanging from roofs, doing overhead presses with bags of concrete mix, and lugging around hernia-causing pounds of lumber. Unfortunately, at seventy-eight years old, his body doesn’t allow for that anymore; however, it still allows for him to create. He’s an artist, and his art is his garden. He creates little seedlings in his garage with heated lamps and specially made soil. He prunes his trees carefully to give them the best opportunity to bear fruit. The plant needs him, and it thrives under his creativity and guidance.
Why does he love it? Maybe it’s because there's something life-giving about seeing growth from the tender care he puts forth, but I’ve only learned this recently, thanks to an incredible Black creator and innovator.
For years, my dad has shared his excitement for gardening with me, but I never paid much attention. I didn’t have time to pour water on a green thing and wait around for “paint to dry.” I needed to spend my free time learning more about my own craft: writing.
I joined MasterClass to learn about writing. Who better to teach me than those who’ve mastered it themselves? Storytelling lessons from David Sedaris? Yes, please. How to write dialogue from Aaron Sorkin? Sign me up. The list was impressive: Judy Blume, James Patterson, Shonda Rhimes. These were the masters I was here to see.
An ad for a new class displayed on the main page. “Ron Finley Teaches Gardening.” Huh. I’d heard about this guy. My students had mentioned him back when I taught high school in South Central: “the gangster gardener,” they called him. That’s all I knew. So I clicked on the trailer. Mr. Finley opened by claiming he was gonna show me how to transform an old dresser drawer into a garden. I imagined my underwear and socks buried under six inches of dirt and worms. Yes, he was engaging, but so were all the teachers on MasterClass. Then he said, “Compost is one of the sexiest things on the planet,” and I spit out my coffee, laughing. I was like, “Sign me up.”
Can we pause and have a brief intermission? And no, this isn’t to increase the Vocal “engagement” time spent on my page. You can cancel out and search my story again. But you really need to see Ron Finley’s Ted Talk. You need a taste of this man’s love, passion, and personality. My words will do an injustice to capture his charisma. I’ve linked it. Come back when you’re done. I’ll be here. :)
Well, hi! Welcome back. You can see why there’s NO WAY I'd attempt to succinctly summarize the beauty that pours forth from his words and heart.
For the next few weeks, I learned under Mr. Finley’s tutelage. There were countless lessons from him about “how to grow your own damn food.” But here are the ones I pocketed:
Plant Lesson 1. Get everything ready. Be prepared. And then, as Ron Finley says, “Plant some shit.” You may panic at the thought of trying something new at your age. What if you fail? You might. Call your Dad. He knows a thing or two. Dad’s advice: “You’re experimenting, kid. If you mess up, try again. There’s more seeds. There’s more plants.”
Life Lesson: Learn to laugh at yourself. Find ways to make others feel needed. It ends up blessing you both big time. Be teachable. Release worry. Do your best, and then leave the rest up to the elements. Continue.
Plant Lesson 2. Your plants are on your team and in your corner. By showing how the plants stretch for the sky, Mr. Finley reminded me that they want to live. They want to thrive. You just gotta give them what they need.
Life Lesson: Look at the world as if it’s your advocate, not your enemy. Give people what they need to grow and the space they need to thrive.
Plant Lesson 3. Soil is everything. Ron Finley’s words: “We gotta realize… LIFE comes out of it.” If the soil is right, then the sun, the water, and the plant will do their thing. I had two half whiskey barrels that Dad had gifted to me six years ago, and two leftover pots from the house’s previous owners. The dirt in them was a mess of cracked arid desert, so, of course, I called Dad for advice. Once I emptied them out and filled them with some compost and brand new soil from Home Depot, I was golden. My broccoli plant grew huge not because I had miraculously bought the Tom Brady of the broccoli world. It was the soil.
Life lesson: If you only work on your outside, your inside’s gonna rot. Work on your “soil” — aka heart. Surround yourself with nutrient-rich people and situations that challenge and fortify you, not wither and dry you out. What you put in and cultivate will dictate how you bloom and how much fruit you’ll bear.
Plant Lesson 4. Mr. Finley was right. Compost piles are sexy. Suddenly I got excited about avocado skins, banana peels, and eggshells. And hair from my hairbrush? Get outta here, Mr. Finley! I can use that? Mind officially blown. Call Dad to tell him. He already knew.
Life Lesson: Never lose your sense of wonder. Be open to new ideas. If you don’t open your eyes and look around, you may miss a gem and a treasure along the way.
Plant Lesson 5. Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose! When you get so excited after your first crop that you overbuy seedlings the next time and run out of pots, don’t rush out to buy more pots. Remember Mr. Finley’s lesson about the old dresser drawer. Get out your drill, and find that old plastic dog food container — the one that broke last week and was destined for next trash day? Yeah, that one. Whip out your drill (the one Dad gave you that you never used) and drill some holes in the bottom, fill it with soil, and “plant some shit.” Voila! Repurposed dog food container.
Life Lesson: Look for beauty among the ashes. Look at people in the same way — the marginalized, the discarded, the overlooked. Those people still have something to offer. Look at them and talk to them as if they do. Because they do.
Plant Lesson 6. Your plants are food. They’re important. They’re going to take care of you, so you need to take care of them. Are your plants getting enough sun? Too much sun? Are they dry? Watered? Over-watered? How’s the soil? Pay attention. If you do, they’ll grow.
Life Lesson: Learn what it means to sow beauty in order to reap beauty. As Ron Finley says, “Beauty in, beauty out. If you put beauty into a space, that's what you’re gonna get out of it. But if you have a place lacking in this… that’s what you’re gonna get out of it.” If you make a person feel important, they’re going to feel like they can bring something important to the table. They’ll seek to do important things. Likewise, be careful not to sow negativity or neglect. If you treat a person as if they’re “less than,” they may feel unimportant and not give a damn about value and purpose and integrity. Why should they care about the world if the world doesn’t care about them?
I’ve always had a heart for the inner city. Never understood why many of my students lived off of daily diets of Hot Cheetos and fast food. Never understood why they had no problem tossing those empty chip bags and food wrappers onto the ground when the trash can was ten feet away. But the city itself was overgrown. Neglected. Tossed aside. What was one more Taco Bell bag amidst litter-strewn streets and medians?
“You sow beauty and you reap beauty…”
Beauty in, beauty out.
Plant Lesson 7: Mr. Finley’s words: “There’s no end to the bounty of Mother Nature. There’s enough for everybody, and that’s the one thing that you will learn from gardening.”
There’s enough for everybody.
Life Lesson: Feel overwhelmed by “the bigger picture.” Poverty. Hunger. Lack of healthy alternatives in certain neighborhoods. How to break a generational cycle of negative self-mindset that is encouraged by culture. Wonder how you can get children to value air and soil and Mother Nature. Look for ways to help anonymously so that you’re truly doing it to help and not to help yourself. But still feel overwhelmed. And then.
You’re reminded of what DID happen over the course of Mr. Finley’s class. No, you didn’t change the world, fix a culture’s mindset, or transform a neighborhood. For God’s sake, you planted lettuce in a dog food container. But Mr. Finley said he desired for us to “build community with each other by sharing in the work and sharing in the food.” And isn’t that what I did?
As stated before, my dad is in his late seventies, still happily married to my kick-ass mom. He’s always been the “Macguyver” of our family. Need something fixed? Your toilet? Your bike? Your credit? Give him a paperclip, a match, and a shoestring, and he’ll be done in time for Happy Hour. He can also build anything: a deck, a fence, a perfect cocktail. He’s been strong as far back as I can remember. The lift it, hammer it, drill it, move it type of guy.
So you can understand how frustrating it must be when that body you once relied on starts misbehaving terribly. Aging is a doozy of a malady.
Welcome to age 78: Things just start breaking down no matter how much kale you ingest. Not only does your body stop bouncing back, but the world around you needs you less. Your kids now have their own lives thanks to their awesome upbringing, and because you did such a damn good job, they don’t need you as much. And then you retire, so your job doesn’t need you as much.
But suddenly, I needed him. A lot. And not just for answers and advice. Sometimes just to text him pictures of how everything was growing.
Dad was needed. Big time. No, he wasn’t doing any heavy lifting, but in a way, he was. He was lifting my fear of getting it wrong, my confusion at my first rodeo, my worry about the bigger picture. Giving me lists and advice for my trips to Home Depot. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Community? Purpose? Value?
Yes, “the bigger picture” dilemma still bothers me. But at least that means my heart is in the right place. It’s a start. I want to do more. But I also don’t want to miss what was done. Through the course of this class, my dad was needed. Valued. Reminded of his importance. And I felt valued, too, as both my parents were so proud of my "work." Mom got a kick out of sending her "wow-face" emojis every time I texted a pic.
My parents just came to visit from out-of-state, and today I surprised them by serving them my home grown broccoli leaves and florets, sautéed and baked. I was exploding with excitement over it. So silly, but it made me feel like such a kid again.
And Dad surprised me by showing up with a baby butternut squash plant that he grew from a seed with special lights in his garage (since it was too cold where he lived). Just for me.
Beauty in, beauty out. That's how it starts.
Thanks, Mr. Finley.
About the author
I love sports, reading, and a good glass of whiskey.
Being kind is cool.
Brevity is hard.
If I send you a note on IG, I swear I'm not sliding into your DM's.
I just like people.
Oh, and Jesus is my everything.