Pioneering San Diego Business Builds Urban Edible Landscapes
September 22, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
Established in 2008, Urban Plantations was one of the nation’s first edible landscaping companies. Offering year-round organic gardening and landscaping services to corporate, residential and assisted-living clients, this small company of 11 continues to grow while providing jobs and quality organic food to residents in the San Diego area.
“We were one of the first of our kind. When we started the business, there was no model for us to pull from. We were, I feel, like true entrepreneurs. We weren’t starting a dry cleaning business or something like that. We had to figure out how to market a business that didn’t really exist,” says Karen Contreras, founder, president and CEO of the company.
Urban Plantations provides its customers with the planning, installation and maintenance of edible landscapes. They also assist with food distribution, marketing and education. They keep detailed records of the gardens and assist with garden certification per the County of San Diego’s culinary garden standards.
“Our business model has always been about quality: quality of service and quality of products,” says Contreras. “It’s about honesty and taking care of the earth and doing it in a way that the average person can understand.”
Like most edible landscapers, Contreras knows that some clients will not harvest the majority of their food, choosing an edible landscape for aesthetics rather than produce.
“That’s disappointing for our staff. They don’t utilize the food like we would on a farm,” says Contreras. “We have tried to lead our clients into it rather than demand it of them.” The majority of Urban Plantations customers do enjoy their edible gardens to the fullest. Several corporate and campus clients utilize the food in their cafeterias.
For Contreras, the most exciting and challenging part of her business is their foray into the world of assisted-living gardens.
“It’s so rewarding when you see women who had gardens back in the day. You see their eyes light up and you see them stand up for the first time in weeks to get into the garden,” she says. “That is truly exciting. I think assisted living facilities are an important place where the industry could grow.”
A challenge for Urban Plantations is the lack of experienced and trained farmers living in the local urban environment.
“The cool thing about this is it doesn’t take a lot of capital to get started,” says Contreras. “The hard thing is finding people who know farming in the city. There are a lot of people interested in it, but finding someone who knows how to plant a seed or knows that in the summertime, you need to mulch. It’s tough. There are not a lot of people out there who know how to be successful. So finding good staff is important.”
To overcome this issue, Contreras is in the process of creating a training program for her employees to ensure they continue to provide consistent, professional landscaping services to their clients. Her hope is that local colleges also begin to offer agriculture courses shortly.
Urban Plantations is a for-profit edible landscaping company. In the past, Contreras has felt some heat for choosing to be a for-profit, she says.
“We made a conscious decision not to be nonprofit because we realized a lot of nonprofits have very well-paid executives,” says Contreras. “I thought why am I going to go through all this stuff to get a nonprofit certificate when I can volunteer my time? We pay our people well, and we are making a profit. The hardest thing for me was to charge people for gardening and farming because I love it so much. We do give back to our community and we donate our services.”
For Contreras, having well-paid workers, a healthy profit, satisfied customers and an ever increasing body of community education spells success for her company.
“We’re on time. We have excellent customer service. I’m really proud of our company and what we do,” she says .