Adding edibles

Learn the benefits and challenges of offering edible landscaping.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Urban Farm Company

With the booming foodie culture, the “eat local” food movement and an increased concern for food’s origins, edible landscapes have taken root across the country. Whether you call it edible landscaping, urban agriculture or urban farming, more people want to grow their own food. In fact, the most recent American Society of Landscape Architects survey predicts that vegetable gardens will be one of the most popular customer requests this year.

Residential clients are not the only ones embracing the trend. Cities all over the country have built community gardens. In drought-stricken areas, such as Palm Springs, California, cities have offered to reimburse residents for replacing turf with edibles. Commercial clients such as restaurants, hospitals, universities, corporations, health care companies and even professional sports teams have installed gardens on site for employee and visitor use.

While some companies offer edible landscaping as an add-on to their lineup of services, others specialize in edible design. Basic garden installations typically range from $3,000 to $10,000. Larger landscape projects that include other design elements such as hardscaping, native plants and ornamentals run $30,000 to $50,000. Some companies boost cash flow by growing their own plants, teaching gardening workshops or offering maintenance programs to tend crops.

Before digging in, here’s what you should know about this market.

Learn what works.

When Colin McCrate, cofounder of Seattle Urban Farm Company, started his business in 2007, it was a leap of faith. With experience working in agricultural and landscaping businesses, he wondered if homeowners would pay to have someone build vegetable gardens for them. “Conventional landscaping companies said, ‘No, people always do that themselves,’ but I wasn’t convinced,” he says.

McCrate and his partner have been busy from the outset, designing, building and maintaining edible gardens in the Seattle area. “The interest in food over the last decade has increased so much, and we’re essentially a tangential market to that,” he says.

The majority of his clients are residential, but he also works with commercial accounts.

© nicolas_ | iStockphoto

Pete Kanaris, president of GreenDreams Sustainable Solutions in the greater Tampa Bay area of Florida, grew up in his dad’s landscaping business. He started mowing lawns as a young man, then built his own landscaping company until the financial crisis and his son’s illness made him rethink his business model in 2012. “I turned toward the use of more sustainable practices and edibles,” he says.

Kanaris’ company specializes in the concept of working with nature, not against it. He plants fruit trees and perennial plants that produce food for two or more years, have few pests and require little water. “In the Tampa Bay area, they’re passing new gardening and backyard chicken ordinances all the time,” Kanaris says. “That kind of culture fuels the movement to grow your own food.”

On the other side of the country in San Diego, Ari Tenenbaum studied plant science but graduated in the midst of the financial crisis. “There were not a lot of job opportunities, so a friend with a business background and I talked about whether people would be willing to pay for help in planting edible gardens,” he says. They founded Revolution Landscape in 2008, with a focus on edibles but soon transitioned into comprehensive landscape services.

Know the challenges.

Some aspects of edible landscaping can be logistically complicated. “We’re juggling seeds, tiny transplants and crop lists for multiple clients at once,” McCrate says. “You’ve also got to find the right people with the right background, which is sometimes tough.”

Company size is another issue. He’s chosen to keep staff to about 15 max and limit the number of new builds each year to a manageable level. “We want to stay small,” he says. “I’m not that interested in running lots of crews. That detracts from a high level of customer service and quality.”

Edible landscaping often appeals to families with kids who want to grow crops but don’t know how to start or to clients with disposable income. But the idea may not necessarily work in certain locations. “There’s always been a garden-forward culture in Seattle and we know people running some sort of business model of this type now in most major cities. But you have to understand your market,” McCrate says.

“You can’t do this overnight. You need to educate yourself ... But the most essential element in all of this is to get your hands in the dirt.” Pete Kanaris, president, GreenDreams Sustainable Solutions

Implementation can take time, too, Kanaris says. “You can’t do this overnight. You need to educate yourself. Take a course on permaculture. Do some reading. Learn about more eco-savvy irrigation practices,” he says. “But the most essential element in all of this is to get your hands in the dirt. Understand the soil and learn how to add organic materials to promote fungal life. The real magic of any garden happens in the dirt.”

Dealing with Mother Nature’s fickleness is nothing new in the landscaping business, but sometimes the challenges present new opportunities. “Because of the drought, people want low water use in their landscapes,” Tenenbaum says. “They get rid of their lawns but want a small area with vegetables. The idea has become, ‘If I’m going spend money on water, I might as well get something out of it.’”

It’s important to understand whether or not edible landscaping will work well in your part of the country.
Photo courtesy of Plug Connection
Get the word out.

Your client base is a good place to market new services. Reach out to existing customers with flyers, emails or social media. McCrate continues to promote his company and educate clients through regular email newsletters and a newly-launched podcast, Encyclopedia Botanica. He says it’s also helpful to develop relationships with food and garden writers at local publications such as newspapers to keep your name in circulation.

During the launch of their company, Tenenbaum and his partner set up a booth to sell veggies at local farmers’ markets. “We didn’t make much off that, but it gave us a venue to meet people and talk to people about our business,” Tenenbaum says. From early jobs, their client base grew. “Word of mouth still tends to be one of the biggest ways new clients come to us,” he says.

Another approach is to partner with other companies or design firms. “We have always been willing to collaborate,” McCrate says. “We take our work very seriously so we have established a reputation as experts in edibles. We work with local landscape architecture firms who get amazing projects and do a lot in-house, but they may not have the expertise in this area, so we get called in. We’ve become a resource for them, which expands our opportunities.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.

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