• September 7, 2017

Green City Growers

Maureen White

Give a man some produce, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to garden, and you feed him for a lifetime.

That might as well be the motto of Green City Growers (GCG), a Somerville-based business that helps schools, businesses, and residents develop and maintain their own urban farms in vacant lots, rooftops, and other unused spaces. To date, GCG has worked with more than 7,000 clients to grow over 175,000 pounds of organic produce.

Founder Jessie Banhazl had no background in farming when she decided to start the company. Even more surprising is the profession she pivoted from: reality TV production. After freelancing on shows like The Hills and Wife Swap, she was feeling a lack of fulfillment in the work. Then she heard about some urban farmers on the West Coast who were installing vegetable gardens. “Now that’s cool,” Banhazl remembers thinking. Inspired, she ditched TV and move back to Boston to build a business of her own. “I felt like I was putting my all into a product that wasn’t helping anyone, really,” she says. “When I started GCG, I realized quickly how much I craved work with a purpose.”

Green City Growers launched in 2008, installing its first rooftop farm atop Ledge Kitchen and Drinks in Dorchester. By the end of the following year, the company was responsible for building over 100 raised beds. In 2012, a partnership with Whole Foods Market in Lynnfield allowed GCG to develop the first rooftop farm on a grocery store in the country—at 17,000 square feet, it’s also the largest rooftop farm in New England.

Since then, GCG has been greening the city in a myriad of ways: implementing a mixed-use garden at Assembly Row that provides fresh produce to River Bar and Papagayo; running a farm on one of the Harbor Islands for the fast food chain b.good; designing the rooftop farm at Brandeis University, which gives students a hands-on education in urban sustainability. More recently, GCG introduced chicken coop installation and maintenance services for Boston-area homeowners.

It goes without saying that the 5,000-square-foot rooftop farm at Fenway Park—which is located on the third-base side of the EMC level—is one of GCG’s most impressive feats to date. (Fun fact: Fenway’s history of vegetable growing kicked off during the 2000 season, when then-coach John Cumberland grew tomato and basil plants in the bullpen.) Each season, the park’s chefs get to select what they want to plant: perhaps carrots, snap peas, and radishes in spring, and basil, strawberries, and sweet potatoes in summer. More than 5,000 pounds of it will make its way into Fenway’s EMC Club menu. The Strega Deck also grows produce donated to the community via food rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls.

According to Banhazl, the positive feedback that’s been pouring in makes it all worth the effort. “I had a customer at one of our employee wellness programs tell me the other day that the garden program was the best part of her work week, and that it took her back to her childhood and gave her a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction,” she says.

Each of GCG’s urban farms is custom-designed, with the option for add-ons like pest fencing or cold frames (those trap heat from the sun, thus extending the growing season). A range of creative systems help meet customers’ budgets and space constraints—like modular milk crates, kiddie pools, and other unconventional containers for growing produce. Osteria Posto in Waltham, for instance, grows vegetables and herbs in large galvanized troughs at the restaurant’s entrance to use in their farm-to-table inspired cocktails.

No green thumb? No problem: GCG assists every step of the way, from surveying space and planting the crops to taking care of regular maintenance and harvesting the produce. On the other hand, DIYers can take advantage of GCG’s educational offerings, which include weekend intensive courses that teach participants how to build a bed, install irrigation systems, and harvest, among other topics.

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