After taking a gardening class, Ron Finley planted vegetables, flowers… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Consider this the latest installment in the "no good deed goes unpunished" chronicles.
Our story began last spring, when fashion designer Ron Finley admitted to himself that, while he's always enjoyed gardening, he didn't really know what the hay he was doing.
"I'd just stick something in the ground and see what happened."
So Finley, who lives on Exposition Boulevard just west of the Crenshaw area, took a UC Cooperative Extension gardening class at the Natural History Museum. The instructor was Florence Nishida, who has been preaching the gospel of edible gardens in parts of the city with limited healthful food options.
Last fall, farmer Finley was ready to go, and he had the perfect plot to work with. Between the curb and the sidewalk along his property was a 10-foot-wide, 150-foot-long strip of useless, scrubby grass. So with help from Nishida, classmates and neighbors, he began scraping it all away to create a garden bed.
The sprouting began in late December, and it didn't stop. By early spring, the bounty was stalling traffic, with rubber-neckers taking in the eruptions of tomatoes, peppers, chard, melons, squash, pumpkins, onions, broccoli, eggplant, celery, kale and herbs. Some passersby helped themselves, others asked. Conversations began, friendships formed.
"He told me to take what I needed," said Peter Arceneaux, who was down on both luck and money.
And the crops kept coming.
Michelle Thomas, a nurse, said that just a glance at the garden across the street from her home was enough to lift her spirits and make her hungry.
"I'm going shopping," she would text to Finley, meaning she was headed back for more vegetables and, often, an impromptu conversation with a neighbor or two. "There's a fabulous exchange here."
You knew such a good thing couldn't last, right?
In May, Finley got a visit from an enforcement officer with the city Bureau of Street Services, followed by a citation. His edible garden, naturally, was out of compliance.
So what was the problem?
The city owns those spaces, or "parkways," as they're called. And Finley was ordered to trim and clear "all overgrown vegetation" or get a permit that would allow "the obstructions."
In the opinion of Finley and Nishida, there were no obstructions, and they even left a bit of space on the curb for car doors to swing open. At times, sure, the garden needed a trim, but Finley says he stayed on top of it.
As for the permit, those begin at $400. And the city's "residential parkway landscaping guideline," which Nishida dug up, says that even with a permit, plants must be drought-resistant and no taller than 36 inches.
In other words, you can plant turf and pour untold gallons of water into keeping it green, as thousands do in our state, despite its history of water shortages. But heaven forbid you plant fruits and vegetables that require less water and actually feed people. And in Finley's case, he collects rainwater in drums and uses it to irrigate his garden well into the summer.
"People are losing their homes, they're hungry, they're unemployed, and this area is so under-served with nutritional food," argued Finley, who has given away bushels of free eats.
Nishida called Finley's acreage a "demonstration garden" that would be visible to all who ride the new Expo line. She said there are tons of places in upscale neighborhoods where homeowners are violating the landscape guidelines, so why single out farmer Finley?
Finley said he would hate to lose the plot after experiencing what gardening does for the soul. The resilience of plants has made him see people differently, especially those struggling for a foothold. If he were in charge, thousands of miles of L.A.'s wasted curb strips would become neighborhood produce sections. One street would grow peaches, the next would grow peppers or tomatoes, and everybody would meet at the corner to share the harvest.
Finley decided to fight City Hall, both on principle and because $400 isn't peanuts. He said he got some initial support from staffers in Councilman Herb Wesson's office, until they discovered a deep, dark secret from Finley's past.
It turns out he'd been cited several years ago because of plantings on the same parkway strip. Last time, it was banana trees. Judging by old photos, I think the banana trees looked wonderfully tropical. But Finley chopped them down to keep the law off his back.
As for his current troubles, Finley has a hearing scheduled this coming Friday, and he's rounded up more than 500 signatures on a petition to save the garden. If there were any justice, I told him, there wouldn't be a hearing at City Hall, but a news conference at the garden. Councilman Wesson would tear up the citation and replace it with a commendation.
On Friday afternoon, a bit of hope sprouted when the councilman returned my call.
"This [fertilizer] shouldn't even have made it to my office," said Wesson, who told me he would immediately introduce a motion to get a permit for Finley's garden. And he said he'll also push for tweaking city guidelines so more residents can legally do what Finley has done.
"This is in an area that is vegetable-poor, with the highest rates of diabetes and obesity, and if we've got folks out there teaching young people the value of planting vegetables," said Wesson, he'll cheer them on.
We're with you, farmer Finley, and bon appetit.