Urban achievers

Features - Cover Story

Garden centers in urban areas face unique challenges, but city-based successes offer insights that all IGCs can put to work.

August 20, 2019

The word “urban” evokes jumbled imagery — from high-end apartment projects and trend-setting restaurants to food deserts and neighborhoods struggling with hardship and crime. For urban IGCs, success can mean a balancing act of leading community transformation and not being left behind. We spoke with three independent urban garden centers securing their spots in their changing communities’ hearts and minds.

City Escape Garden Center & Design Studio – Chicago, Illinois

Connie Rivera, CEO of City Escape in Chicago

When City Escape founder Connie Rivera left her CEO career behind, she returned to her farming roots. But instead of an idyllic country setting, her dreams took shape on 3 acres in an underdeveloped Chicago neighborhood. Inspired by European gardens, she set out to create an unforgettable experience. In the process, she experienced a great deal herself.

In the IGC’s early days, crime was commonplace, from open drug deals to disappearing plant material whenever Rivera landscaped the site with her signature waves of bulbs and flowers. “We just had to be tenacious and steadfast,” she says.

Many early hires came from the neighborhood, and Rivera worked with the community and police. “Today, the theft is not occurring,” she says. “The community has taken great pride.”

Landscape installation and maintenance for municipal sites and high-end HOA (homeowner association) buildings is a core part of Rivera’s business, one she originally was forced to pursue. When she started out, she went to 11 banks before someone believed in her vision. Steady income from landscape contracts impressed lenders and became vital to Rivera. “We don’t lose clients,” she says. “Client satisfaction is very important to me.”

In the shop and in landscaping, City Escape is known for pushing the envelope on unusual plant combinations and one-of-a-kind results. Rivera offers the example of four HOA contracts on Chicago’s ultra-affluent East Lakeshore Drive: “Each one has its own personality, and each one wants to be the best.”

With City Escape, every property warrants unique designs, with seasonal changes planned months in advance and all plants contract grown.

Retail presentation is another strong point. “I’m dogged about merchandising,” Rivera says. “It has to be a thoughtful process … It can’t just happen randomly.” Inspiration comes from travel, magazines and retail scouting trips, where she looks for what stores carry and what they don’t.

Community investment comes with the territory for Rivera. When a sizable nonprofit for food-industry entrepreneurs opened nearby, she donated all the landscaping — plants and labor.

As she explains, “It was an opportunity to be a good neighbor, embrace a significant project and let them know how important it was to the community.” She also won another landscape contract in the process.

City Escape in Chicago
photo © Matt Haas
City Escape is known for pushing the envelope with unusual plants and combinations.
Greensgrow Farms in Philadelphia sits on a former industrial site capped by the EPA. Now, it’s a thriving greenhouse and garden center.

Greensgrow – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Twenty-two years ago, the full city block that houses Greensgrow was a former industrial site capped by the Environmental Protection Agency. Then Greensgrow’s founders transformed it through a small-scale hydroponic lettuce farm that, within a few years, became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. A seasonal nursery and garden center followed in 2001, with a second garden center added on Philadelphia’s west side in 2014.

Though four-season vegetable production still happens on site, the farm and community have changed dramatically. “We have the double-edged sword — both lucky and difficult — of being in a community that’s in rapid transformation,” says Executive Director Meg DeBrito. “There’s a lot of gentrification and growth happening in the neighborhood.”

Large houseplants and pollinator-friendly selections cater to new Millennial neighbors, but Greensgrow’s focus remains on education and food access. “We run a garden center and a farm, but that space really becomes an education space and a launching pad for a larger greening and educational opportunity,” DeBrito says.

Greensgrow nurtures community through educational programs, often with an environmental focus, as well as food- and greening-related events and outreach. Hands-on programs target children and adults. “Team retreat” workshops for businesses occur on and off site. Monthly music-and-food events with crafty, farm-market appeal complement quarterly farm dinners highlighting local growers and chefs.

The nonprofit also partners with a farm share program to subsidize community supported agriculture-style boxes for families that receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Between the subsidy and food-assistance benefits, 30 families receive produce at no cost to them. The program allows families to buy edible Greensgrow plants, seeds and herbs with SNAP benefits as well. “We’re able to both support one’s ability to grow their own food and then make sure everybody has access to healthy and fresh produce,” DeBrito says.

“Greensgrow is really a special place because we’re in an urban area,” DeBrito says. “While we’re a garden center, we’re very much a green space, a public space that engages community on many different levels. Within that, we’re able to empower and educate at the same time.”

Greensgrow has kept up with a rapidly changing community, offering education and food access.
Diners take part in a farm dinner at Greensgrow.

NORTH PARK NURSERY – San Diego, California

San Diego’s trendy North Park neighborhood has come a long way from its Craftsman bungalow beginnings. North Park Nursery CEO and co-owner Jeff Thrift, who bought the business with family members in 2017, reports the transformation in neighborhood demographics has elevated area businesses. “It’s been a very positive shift,” he says.

Thrift also launched Eden, a nearby interior plant store, in 2017. In September 2018, he opened The Bungalow, a gift/event shop housed on nursery property. Staff rotate between the three shops. “That was originally by need, not design, but it’s been a very positive benefit,” he says. Employees stay connected to all three stores, and customers do the same. “These communities really take pride in and like to shop in their own communities,” Thrift says.

North Park’s primary customer base prefers communicating via Instagram. “We really leverage social media,” Thrift says. “Instagram is the most powerful avenue we use. It’s a very interactive tool.” He devotes two full-time employees solely to monitoring, interacting and posting (two to three posts per day) on the North Park/Bungalow and Eden Instagram accounts.

Houseplants and plant parenting are hot at North Park, where an Instagram-announced Bungalow plant swap drew nearly 100 attendees. “We have plant moms and dads that are really engaged,” Thrift says, but that’s not the only craze.

“Our customers love ‘different.’ That’s the biggest trend,” he says. “Whenever we see anything unusual, we grab it. As soon as we post it on social media, they gobble it up.”

Thrift transcends his urban footprint by thinking outside the walls. A music-filled, parklike space for workshops, weddings or simply hanging out now connects the nursery and The Bungalow. A new design, installation and maintenance division, focused on commercial interiorscaping, has driven business growth. Exterior landscaping isn’t on the menu, but custom planters and planter maintenance are.

Thrift offers a simple recipe for urban success: “Know your business ABCs, leverage social media, stay on the hunt for new, give your customers a great experience and be a good community member in the area you’re in.”

North Park Nursery

The author is a freelance writer specializing in the horticulture industry and a frequent contributor to GIE Media publications. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.