Living the Sustainable ‘Dream’ in Pittsburgh, P.A.
June 24, 2014 | Abbie Stutzer
Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery started operating in 2001 after founder Mindy Schwartz began acquiring and remediating vacant properties in Pittsburgh. Once the lots were fixed, she started gardening.
Hannah Reiff, Garden Dreams’ production manager, says that when the farm and nursery first began to operate, they didn’t sell much. In fact, Garden Dreams’ start was quite humble – the organization was just selling off some extra tomato seedlings. Now, though, the operation is impressive.
“Garden Dreams has grown to a 1/3-acre nursery that produces 45,000 seedlings annually,” Reiff says.
Currently, Garden Dreams is mainly a nursery business that specializes in heirloom tomato seedlings.
“We grow over 100 kinds,” Reiff says. “We also offer other vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings, and many unusual and hard to find varieties.”
Garden Dreams also has a CSA that includes lettuce, onions, peas, spicy greens, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, herbs, and flowers. CSA customers can also buy fresh eggs from Garden Dreams’ chickens.
“For our CSA, families buy in at the beginning of the season to receive a weekly bag of produce for 16 weeks,” says Rieff. “We believe that having an urban oasis that community members can visit, whether they buy seedlings or not, is a positive thing.”
While Garden Dreams is not certified organic, the farm and nursery is looking into it.
“We follow practices that are good for the earth and our ecosystem on the farm,” Reiff says. “We have not sprayed any organic spray for aphids in two years. We rely entirely on our beneficial insect population to control this pest and grow flowers throughout the year to provide habitat and food for these beneficials.”
Garden Dreams also uses a high-quality organic potting mix for its seedlings, then adds beneficial mycorrhizal fungus to it.
“We use sustainable growing practices in the garden including minimal soil cultivation, mulching, soaker hose irrigation, and fertility through compost, kelp, and cover crops. We sell organic fertilizers, potting soil, soil amendments, and pest control products.”
So far, the farm is self-sustaining and is able to pay its employees.
“Entry level positions are $10 an hour and myself and the other manager are salaried,” Reiff says. “We believe in reinvesting in the business to make it stronger and more resilient. The business is still growing and we believe it will be profitable soon.”
One of the challenges that Dreams faces is that the establishment never has enough space.
“Our seedlings start in an indoor space on light shelves, but once they come outside, things inevitably get crowded,” Reiff says. “We have to have a lot of ‘flexible space’ — hoophouses that serve one function part of the year, and later can be used for something else.”
While the nursery and farm does face some economic challenges (most of its revenue goes to labor), those challenges allow the staff to get creative about recycling and reusing materials in its infrastructure, and to find ways to make things work creatively financially.
Seedling sales bring in most of the money and fund its vegetable production for the CSA.
“Time-wise, balancing seedling production and garden planting for the CSA is tricky,” Reiff says. “This is our third CSA year, and we had a bit of a hard time because the months when we are logging so many hours with seedlings is when we needed to be planting the garden.”
Luckily, CSA customers were supportive and flexible when the business pushed back its CSA start date.
“We will make up for ‘light shares’ in early summer with ‘heavier shares’ in late summer,” she says. “I think at the end of the year we will be re-evaluating how the planting of the garden can be timely, how the garden can be most productive, and how produce can best be distributed to folks, through CSA or other means.
In additional to regular sales, Garden Dreams also sells its seedlings at wholesale prices to a multitude of Pittsburgh nonprofits and community gardening initiatives, and also donates seedlings.
In the future, Garden Dreams hopes to start an urban homestead on its property that houses a commercial kitchen and community space. The staff would also like to have classes at its location and to provide its neighborhood with healthy, fresh produce and starts.
“Just this past Saturday, we partnered with Grow Pittsburgh and The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to give away over 1,000 seedlings in their Braddock location,” Reiff says. “It was a good time, and folks that didn’t have yards got five gallon buckets filled with potting soil for container gardening. Detailed planting instructions were also included. I like to think of us as a ‘community oriented business’ — we are a business, but food justice issues and access to fresh food are important to us, and when we are able to get behind folks doing good work in these areas, we do.”