Farmscape, the company behind the garden that supplies organic food for San Francisco's Stem Kitchen and many others, can do the same for any backyard.
Lara Hermanson, co-founder of Farmscape
Ask a California chef to name a kitchen’s secret weapon, and the answer is inevitable: the fresh produce, likely grown within a few miles—or a few feet away in an on-site garden. Farmscape (farmscapegardens.com) is the state’s largest urban farming company, with commercial, residential and multifamily community projects. Notable clients include Stem Kitchen, Levi’s Stadium, Oracle Park and even Ayesha and Steph Curry.
For most clients, the biggest surprise is the company’s hands-on approach. The Farmscape team takes care of everything from planning and mapping out a backyard space to working with clients to choose the best products to grow and harvesting the fruits and veggies. Co-founder Lara Hermanson, who is based in San Francisco, sat down with us to discuss how to get started in a slice of terra firma, no matter the size.
For homeowners who don’t know the first thing about launching an organic garden, what do you say to them?
Calculate the hours of sun, because you can engineer a solution for everything but sun exposure. If your yard is in total shade, fruits and vegetables are not going to do well, no matter what. Full sun is categorized as six to eight hours daily, and I recommend getting an app like Sunseeker so you can analyze the garden year-round. If you have full sun, then you can do a vegetable garden. If not, do an ornamental garden and save yourself the drama!
How do I launch my garden with your team?
After checking for sun exposure, we learn more about the client’s vision and taste through an initial consultation. If the client wants to solely focus on growing vegetables, we can get the project going almost immediately. First, we quote out raised beds, which are necessary growing in our heavy clay and frequently otherwise junky urban soils. From there, we provide clients with a list of crops that will grow that season in each specific microclimate, and they select what they want to eat. Then, our maintenance team handles the planting plan from season to season.
If clients are looking for a more whole-site design approach, including ornamentals, hardscape and irrigation, our landscape architecture team takes the project on. The design process can take from three to six months and involves a lot of conversation and discovery, so it’s important for us to have a healthy working relationship with our clients.
Before our design team starts at the drawing board, we spend time with you spelling out all of your unique project intentions while analyzing your site to assess how your needs align with the specific parameters of your site. For example, how many people in your home do you want to feed? Are there specific fruits your family enjoys regularly? What is your past experience with growing food on your site? Every property has its own quirks and microclimates, making the design planning process critical.
Sun is key, as you mentioned, so how do you work in conjunction with shade trees?
You may have beautiful shade trees on your property. Growing food in the shade isn’t optimal, and trees are the ultimate necessity for healthy cities and ecosystems. So, in this instance, we would want to work in harmony with the microclimate and select summerdry, shade-loving plants that would thrive in the shadow of the trees and within their rootzone.
Farmscape finds inspiration in the connection between cultivated crops and wild spaces. Our farmscapes draw on our experience as organic growers yet are inspired by the summer-dry natural landscapes of California. That tension inspires active spaces that anticipate the daily rhythms of people and pollinators alike. Our design process includes our farmer and builder colleagues, providing consistent land stewardship from concept to harvest. No matter what shape your garden takes, it will always be in service to climate, cultivation and curiosity.
How do you educate clients about the daily steps to allow a garden to thrive?
I don’t. Farmscape doesn’t teach people how to garden. We provide the maintenance for them, so they don’t have to worry about it. But even with professional maintenance, some years are better than others. For instance, we had a longer than average ‘June gloom’ this year that lasted for about six weeks, until the beginning of August.
When that happens, powdery mildew takes hold of a garden and can shorten the lifespan of crops like summer and winter squash. There are organic methods for dealing with this, but weather events can increase the challenges every grower, no matter how skilled, faces.
What are the benefits of multifamily community gardens?
Patterson Ranch in Fremont is the first fully operational ‘agrihood’ in the Bay Area, and the 500-home community pays for the 3-acre farm operations out of their HOA dues. For a very reasonable monthly amount per household, the farm grows 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of food annually shared with the neighbors through a free farmers market held weekly during peak production periods.
Another great model is what we call a farm park, which is great for smaller condo and townhome communities that are frequently nestled into tighter lots. Prometheus Apartments has built farm parks, containing 20 raised beds or more at each location, at apartment buildings in Mountain View, Redwood Shores and Santa Clara. Since 2015, Prometheus has been growing food for their communities that all residents can enjoy.
Sunflowers are also part of the Stem Kitchen garden, another option for backyard curations.
What do you think would surprise our readers the most about Farmscape and launching a sustainable garden in their backyard?
How much food you can grow in a relatively small space. Farmscape gardens grow 3 to 5 pounds per square foot annually, so a hundred feet of vegetable garden can net 300 to 500 pounds per year!
What are some of the best items to grow in our region?
Go kale! Kale is the totem crop of the Bay Area. We usually have three to four types growing in the garden at Stem Kitchen. It is sculptural, hardy, bountiful, diverse and gorgeous. If you don’t think you like kale, try growing the lovely, tender Ethiopian variety from West Coast Seeds, but any homegrown kale will be more toothsome and sweet than store-bought.
What’s your best advice for getting started?
Unlike the rest of the country, Californians can start a vegetable garden at literally any time of year. Fall and winter are great times to get started—you can grow amazing salad crops like lettuce, arugula, carrots, radishes and beets, and be ready to plant tomatoes in the spring. If you’re looking for inspiration, cruise the row crops at Stem Kitchen, and check out what we’re growing—and copy it in your yard. Finally, don’t wait for the dreaded ‘tomato envy’ to set in. Get that garden going now.
Photography by: ERIN KUNKEL; ELIAS-MORR