'Gangsta Gardener' Ron Finley's easy guide to growing your own veggies
'Gardening is not just a hobby — it’s a life skill that we all should have,' says the American gardening guru
American Ron Finley doesn’t call himself the “Gangsta Gardener” for nothing.
When he first started to grow vegetables on the pavement outside his home in Los Angeles in 2010, he not only received a citation for gardening without a permit, but a warrant for his arrest. He fought back, received permission to keep his garden and started a movement to promote urban gardening.
Having recently enjoyed Finley's new online gardening MasterClass, we asked him to share some advice for newbies who are itching to get growing:
Is not having green fingers really a thing?
We all have green fingers because we all are carbon, we come from the earth and where do we go back to? We turn into soil. Everybody has green hands — you just have to put them to use. The bottom line is you are a custodian of the system. Mother Nature does everything else, we just are helping. I tell people: grow it to know it. People need to find the joy in this. It’s not just a hobby — it’s a life skill that we all should have.
What is a good idea to kick off with in a summer garden in SA?
I always like people to start with flowers, because I think your garden needs to be beautiful. All our food actually comes from flowers, because everything starts with a blossom. Especially if it’s an urban setting, you want to be able to walk out, you want to smell, you want to be able to taste it, you want to see. You want to be able to feed all your senses.
What fruit or vegetables are easy to get going with?
Lettuce or any type of leafy green — kale, chard. Probably one of the simplest and fastest things you can do is radishes because they come up pretty fast. But you can’t get any simpler than lettuce or arugula/rocket. Things like that. A lot of the time these things will keep coming back season after season. Start with sunflowers. You can grow those and also eat the seeds.
Should you try to control garden pests naturally or use pesticides?
Everything naturally — this is going into your body so what do you want in your body? Do you want pesticides and chemicals in your body, or do you want nature in your body? No pesticides — they’re killing the soil. The bottom line is it gets into the water stream and it gets into our bodies and wreaks havoc. You can make all kinds of home solutions with things from your garden. Things like neem oil are natural ways [to repel pests].
Are you a fan of companion planting*?
Yes, definitely. There are all kinds of companion plants. For example, the three sisters are where you plant corn or sunflowers, beans for nitrogen and squash. So the corn [or sunflowers] grow up, the beans use the corn or sunflowers for stock and then the squash covers the ground, so it’s ground cover. You want to keep your soil moist and protect it from the sun.
Is it daunting to start your own compost heap?
No. I’m going to refer to the forest, the system is made to compost. When that leaf falls to the ground it becomes mulch and, after the mulch process is not needed, it turns into compost. They’re not adding soil to the forest — the forest does it on its own. Compost is something we all should be doing.
You can dig a hole and put all your scraps in there — it’s going to break down. If you don’t have that, you can build or buy a composter, but the bottom line is compost is going to happen. You don’t need money and confinements. Lose that brain space and get creative.
Do you need to have worms in your compost heap or can you just let nature take its course?
You don’t have to but it is a good thing, it helps to break it down. Worms are definitely one of nature’s big helpers because they break down food, they aerate soil — they do a lot of work.
A guideline for watering your plants?
A good rule of thumb is to have a couple of inches of mulch on top of your garden bed — at least 5cm. It’s kind of like a sponge and it’s going to keep the moisture in the soil for longer because the sun takes a while to get through the mulch — if it does. With vegetables, they like water so you want to keep them moist, you don’t want the soil to dry out.
A good rule of thumb is when you’re watering and it’s in a pot, water until the water comes out the bottom of the pot and then stop. Another rule is if you put your finger in the soil and go down 2.5-5cm, and it’s dry, you need more water.
Would you recommend having some form of water catchment system to catch water when it rains?
When it rains, everything livens up. You don’t get that instant reaction when you water from the hose. Right now I’m sitting in a swimming pool — my garden is in a swimming pool. The catchment is the deeper end. I have a pump and when it rains and even when I water — because a lot of water runs off — I catch it with the pump and I pump it up into the other plants. I store water in barrels, especially rain water. But yes, you should have a catchment.
*Companion planting involves planting plants that will benefit each other in close proximity. This can assist with pest control amongst having other advantages.