Tucked away around the north side of his Ocean Park home, Conrad Clark has a very productive garden.
Cilantro, parsley, kale, arugula, lettuce and spinach plants produce enough vegetables for fresh soups and salads every week from the four-by-ten-foot raised bed. A nearby Tsasuma tree is heavy with fruit.
It’s an impressive set-up for a 13-month-old amateur, who keeps his mom busy as he pulls out sticks and taste the soil for himself.
“It’s foolproof,” said his mom, Sharon, as she took a stick back from his dirty fingers and placed it where it belonged near the parsley. “It’s the easiest thing for a working mom.”
Admittedly, Sharon and Conrad have little to do with their garden’s success. They are just two of Farmcape’s many Santa Monica clients who have discovered the secret to a successful garden is hiring an expert to toil in the soil. The company built bed, installed a drip irrigation system and presented the working mother with a menu of seeds to choose from. Her personal famer, Nick Barner, shows up once a week to tend the garden and gather vegetables he leaves by Sharon’s back door.
“Every Thursday the harvest shows up with a note and a little string tied around each veggie,” Sharon said. “We make stuff with it and Conrad eats it and I’m making kale smoothies almost every day.”
Conrad knows Barner as “Farmer Nick,” who was spending that particular Thursday morning pruning the citrus trees. Farmscape claims to be the biggest urban farming venture on the west coast, working in both small, private gardens like Conrad’s as well as commercial projects. Founder Dan Allen says his employees bring their expertise to more than 700 gardens up and down the coast, creating beds that are 25 percent more cost effective than traditional set-ups.
Sharon said she planned to plant a garden for two years before discovering Farmscape. Even if she found the time to build the garden herself, she says it likely would have fallen to neglect as she balanced her business, baby and (now) second child on the way. Her current setup gives her a guaranteed harvest, even if she never sees a single seed herself.
Allen says the whole neighborhood benefits.
“One of the things I really like is you get neighbors and colleagues and friends sharing food, Allen said. “You get a bumper crop of tomatoes or cucumbers or squash and it becomes an opportunity to share that joy with the people around you.”
Conrad’s mom pays Farmscape about $45 a week for the service (plus the cost of initial construction). If it wasn’t for her garden, she would spend that money on organic produce at a grocery store or farmers market. As seasons change, Farmer Nick will rotate crops with a blend of cherry tomatoes, basil and squash on the menu for summer. The former chef says he enjoys getting to know the clients and what works well, and not so well, in their backyards..
“I’m observing the different microclimates around the city and how plants behave differently,” Barner said while clipping Tsasuma tree branches.
Allen says his company has begun working with more apartment complexes who want to add fresh fruits and vegetables as an amenity in their developments. In 2017, a bumper-crop of news articles declared “agrihoods” the new trend in Millenial living, claiming organically-minded young adults are looking for communities built around farms, rather than golf courses or swimming pools. Locally, Allen says more homeowners are moving their vegetable gardens to the front yard to encourage a feeling of community.
While Sharon occasionally enjoys sharing her harvest with neighbors, her motivation is mostly behind the garden is convenience.
“He’s really into beets and carrots,” she said as Conrad toddled around the raised bed. “There are so many pitfalls. Let’s leave it to the experts.”