Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Philadelphia is full of secrets.

A tangle of vines and flowers spills over the garage of an elegant brick townhouse on Lombard Street in Center City. Invisible from the sidewalk is the roof deck: a plot of vegetables verdant with spinach, lettuce, and sugar snap peas; a chaotic wildflower patch; some turf devoted to varieties of basil. Standing on this deck, you can see the roof of a house around the corner, an austere structure on its face. But on that roof too lurks a secret garden: trees and bushes heavy with cherries, kiwis, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.

Grace Wicks, founder of the urban landscape business Graceful Gardens, wishes all her clients could view this city from on high. That way, they could see the gardens everywhere. Not just those her business created but also the scattered swaths of Philadelphia’s 9,200-acre Fairmount Park system. “I like the idea of making a visual connection, so people realize it’s not just their little home garden but this whole web of gardens across the city,” says Wicks. “And the same butterfly lands on my flower and then on your flower, and on and on.”

Cheesesteak wars notwithstanding, Philadelphia is a city of farmers' markets, community gardens, and locavore eateries. While Wicks cheerfully talks aesthetics (“my direction for one backyard was to ‘make it a crayon box’”), her specialty is edible plants. Most clients cultivate at least a few fresh herbs or peppers among the blossoms. “They like to wake up in the morning and walk out on the terrace and pick berries for breakfast,” she says.

Graceful Gardens also is a service for people who care as much about living with plants as about decorating with them. Like others in the industry, the business both creates and maintains backyard gardens and window boxes. But staff also will coach those who want to plant and tend their gardens themselves. “I want to help people vision through what they want, set it up well, and train them to take care of it,” says Wicks.

Wicks launched Graceful Gardens in 2008 with very modest ambitions. “I thought I would just ride my bike around doing little pots and window boxes,” she says. Today the company employs five people and serves more than 200 clients. Top restaurants harvest their ingredients from Wicks-planted gardens. Almost every green oasis spied from a high-rise apartment in the city's affluent Rittenhouse Square neighborhood is a Wicks production.

Although not a family business, Graceful Gardens is the philosophical offspring of a Philadelphia institution. The White Dog Cafe--among the nation’s first and best-known sustainable restaurants--is located here, in consecutive brownstones on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Wicks grew up on the floors above White Dog, the daughter of its founder, Judy Wicks. “White Dog created a space for people to think more deeply about where they live and what can be done to improve it,” says Wicks. “That translates into my own approach to business.”

The seeds of passion

Grace Wicks, lover of plants, grew up without a backyard. She learned to garden at her grandmothers’ homes and from her father, an architect, who tended flowers in containers on a small deck outside White Dog. Each year, as the Penn population drained from campus, Wicks scouted dumpsters looking for abandoned plants to bring home. At White Dog, she worked in the kitchen. “It was an incredible treat when the farmers came in with the food,” she says, “and we could see what they’d brought and talk to them about it.” Often Wicks tagged along on the staff’s literal field trips to Green Meadows Farm, a practitioner of minimum-impact agriculture that was among White Dog’s chief suppliers.

In 2002, after graduating from Prescott College in Arizona, Wicks returned to Philadelphia, with vague ideas about taking over the business. But after serving in White Dog's kitchen and programming community events, “I realized I wanted to work outside,” she says. “I wanted to grow things.”

To learn the finer points of pruning, planting, and pest management, Wicks worked several years for a high-end horticulture company in nearby Chestnut Hill. Thinking farms might be her future, she signed on with the owner of Green Meadows Farm. In addition to paying Wicks for her labor, he gave her use of an acre of land. She repaid part of her student loan by sharecropping.

Wicks has long used her winters to study agriculture and horticulture in places like Hawaii, New Zealand, and Costa Rica. She became fascinated with agro-forestry, the practice of growing plants around and under trees as an alternative to clear-cutting. “A mango tree can be a big canopy, and under that you might have a lower canopy of coffee plants,” says Wicks. “In the forest, you can use layers to grow a lot in a small space.”

The space constraints of the forest pale in comparison with those of a densely built city. Yet the need for greenery in cities is greater. “It’s really hard to be surrounded by so much concrete and buildings and traffic and the pace of life,” says Wicks. “It’s important to have a sense of peace, serenity, and connectedness with the elements and the changes of the seasons. A place where birds come and you can recharge.”

Wicks had found her mission: to transform Philadelphia into a city of gardens and gardeners.

From rooftop to table

In 2008 Wicks launched Graceful Gardens with her life savings: $1,500. Most of that went for a cart she could hitch to her bike to ferry tools, bags of soil, and six-foot trees around the city. A nonprofit called Neighborhood Bike Works built the cart for her out of an old bunk-bed frame. “I put a little white picket fence around the top so I could store plants there,” she says.

When she started, Wicks had no idea that Philadelphia’s mannered brick façade concealed so many secret spaces: courtyards, roof decks, backyards, and balconies. As clients flocked to her--drawn solely by word of mouth--she grew adept at packing functionality into small spaces without crowding them. In such situations, “things that serve more than one function are pretty key,” says Wicks. “If you are building a planter bed, maybe you cap it with a thicker lip. So if you are entertaining, people can sit on the top of that wall.”

At the beginning, Wicks focused heavily on coaching. “I think a lot of people want to grow their own food but are overwhelmed,” she says. “If a plant dies, they get emotionally disturbed about it and are afraid to start again.” But that teach-a-man-to-fish model had drawbacks: “I didn’t consider that if I succeeded in my goal, they wouldn’t call me back,” she says. She still coaches clients, but it is a smaller part of the business. Often she will teach people a few skills, like how to trim thyme or prevent basil from flowering.

She also specialized in chef’s gardens. Her first was at White Dog, which Judy Wicks had just sold. (That sale was stipulated on a number of social provisions, including the continued use of local, ethically produced food.) White Dog has very little growing room, so it was a modest installation. But the restaurant’s high profile led to other work, including a project for the Fountain Restaurant at the Four Seasons.

Among Wicks’s most successful chef’s gardens was one created for Brinn Sinnott, then chef at the farm-to-table restaurant Noble American Cookery. On the restaurant’s roof, Wicks planted a lemon-themed bed (lemon verbena, lemon grass, and lemon thyme), an edible flowers bed (borage, nasturtiums, Mexican marigolds, flowering chives), and a bed of ingredients for herbes de Provence (lavender, thyme, sage, savory, and marjoram).

“From an inspirational point of view, it put me in touch with the rhythm of the seasons,” says Sinnott, who now works at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., at which he has applied Wicks’s lessons to create his own garden. “We used to do whole menus around it, called the Rooftop Dinner. Ten people sitting at the chef’s table, using as much stuff as we could right off the roof.”

At her facility in Chestnut Hill, Wicks experiments with native edibles she might offer to clients. Currently she is working with ground cherries, which are cloaked in husks like tomatillos and taste faintly tropical. Apios groundnuts--once a staple of the Lenape tribe, which lived in this area--“add fertility to the soil and are fairly high in protein,” says Wicks. “I’m interested in seeing, do people like the taste?”

Gardener as artist

Some of Wicks’s clients just hand her their house keys and ask her to make something beautiful. Others want to co-create. Those are the jobs she prefers. “I like to take a backseat to the aesthetic of my clients,” she says. “They should be able to create a landscape that’s an expression of themselves, whether it’s a simple set of grasses with white flowers or something just this side of chaos.” (Graceful Gardens' prices vary widely depending on the project. A typical rooftop garden might cost $5,000 to $10,000.)

But even when clients supply the overall aesthetic, Wicks designs the composition. Using plants from local nurseries--most are grown in Pennsylvania and New Jersey--she carefully balances colors, textures, and shapes, keenly aware of how the arrangement will evolve as the seasons change. One plant, previously a focal point, will wither. One that once looked like nothing “becomes the diva of the window box,” she says.

One typical collaboration is a garden Wicks created with Jo Buyske, who first hired the company in 2010. Buyske told Wicks she liked scent and lots of texture. She also worked during the day, so she wanted something that looked nice in the evening and early morning. Wicks started with flowering plants, weaving in a few edibles. The number of edibles has increased year after year.

“Now I have a whole farm, and it’s really fun,” says Buyske. “I have pole beans every year, which are just insanely productive. Tomatoes, including those little orange ones that are just like candy. This year I had a lot of peppers, so I made dried chili powder and pepper oil. I have a garden full of herbs. Lettuces in the spring.”

Buyske, who grew up in cities, imagined that given the chance she would herself become an active gardener. That has not turned out to be the case. Wicks has taught her to do some basic pruning. Mostly though, the two conspire over plans for each year’s garden, and then Wicks’s staff handles the maintenance.

“I feel lucky that I got started with her early,” says Buyske. “Now she is like a celebrity. I drop her name. ‘Grace Wicks does my garden.’”

 

 

Published on: Sep 14, 2015