Jessie Banhazl’s internship at the Food Network was going to help her break into the food industry, instead it lead to jobs on reality television shows like Wife Swap and The Hills. Banhazl wanted work that was more fulfilling and she found it when a friend from college called to say he wanted to start a backyard farming business. Though Banhzal had no horticulture experience, she jumped at the chance to do something with food, even if it wasn’t what she originally planned. Four years later her company, Green City Growers, is a booming Somerville business.
“I had zero horticulture experience,” Banhazl said of her early says. “But now I would consider myself a pro.” She learned everything about growing food from hands-on experience and encourages others to engage in experiential learning. Banhazl didn’t have much choice in the matter when her orignal business partner left during the first year. “You learn as you go along. I know a lot about plants now.” Banhazl said.
Green City Growers installs and maintains raised beds for various people in residential and commercial locations. Though the company started with a residential focus, it now does a lot of work with elder care facilities, youth camps and schools and wellness programs at other businesses.
Green City Growers branched out beyond backyard gardens when Harvard Pilgrim contacted the company about installing a garden for a wellness program at the facility.
“It opened us up to the idea of working with businesses,” Banhazl said. “People feel really good about getting outside and away from the cubicle during the day.”
When Green City Growers was still in its infancy, Banhazl was working out of her parents’ Wayland home and Central Square coffee shops. Almost by chance she met Wenzday Jane of Metro Pedal Power who happened to have a desk for rent in the office. Banhazl jumped at the chance to have a real space for her burgeoning business and worked out of Metro’s Union Square location for a year before finding a more permanent home a little further outside Union near the Taza Chocolate Factory.
“We ended up in Somerville out of chance,” Banhazl said. “But we wanted to stay in the community. I just like it here. People seem really engaged in what we do here [at Green City Growers] and in general.”
Indeed it seems that Green City Growers is a perfect fit for Somerville, where much of the focus around town lately has been on locally sourced food, sometimes even from right within the city limits. Banhazl praised City Hall’s urban agriculture initiatives, like its new fruit and vegetable garden and the South Street Farm, which her company helped put together.
“It’s really good for people to engage in food production,” Banhazl said. “It was really fun doing the South Street Farm with Groundwork Somerville. The whole community came out and engaged in it.”
One place that is often underutilized in the city is roofs, but with the help of Recover Green Roofs, which is based out of Fringe in Union Square, Green City Growers is trying to change that. The two companies worked together to install the largest rooftop farm in New England on top of Ledge Kitchen in Dorchester. Green City Growers is also installing a rooftop garden for Flatbread Pizza in Davis Square where it will grow many of the ingredients used in menu items.
“They are such a perfect fit for growing their own,” Banhazl said of the Flatbread project.
After four years of installing and maintaining food gardens for people, Green City Growers has a vast knowledge of what it takes to grow food successfully in any location. So they decided to share that information with the world through a book called The Urban Bounty: Growing Your Own Fresh Organic Produce, Anywhere. The project was recently funded through a Kickstarter campaign and the book will likely be out sometime before the end of the year.
“We get a lot of questions,” Banhazl said. “It started as an internal resource that we would give to clients.” Dubbed “The Manual,” the book is “an all-encompassing resource for urban agriculture.”
Some of the more surprising things Banhazl has learned since starting Green City Growers are what types of vegetables can be grown in this area. Edamame and white raspberries are just two plants that Banhazl is testing in the raised beds that dot the front of the Green City Growers office.
Some of Banhazl’s favorite plants to grow are ground cherries, swiss chard and cucumbers, which, along with perennial herbs (thyme, oregano, chives), are relatively easy to take care of.
“You can’t really screw it up,” Banhazl said. “They come back every year and there’s no pruning. That’s what gets tricky for people.”
Banhazl said the most important thing needed for successful gardening is sunlight. A minimum of four-and-a-half hours a day is required for herbs and six hours or more is best for flowering plants like tomatoes, zucchini or eggplant.
Green City Growers has grown from an operation of one to 11 in the last four years and Banhazl isn’t done yet. She’s hoping to secure a patent for Green City Growers’ cold frame design. And while her company already has 75 clients all over the greater Boston area, she has her heart set on tackling all of New England.
“I want to have offices all over, in whatever market makes sense,” Banhazl said. But for now, she says “we want to be a resource for the Somerville community.”