Mary Lemmer tends to a client's mini-farm. (Alix Wall)
San Francisco resident Kai Stinchcombe likes to cook his own meals, and he eats a lot of fresh vegetables. And he loves the idea of growing his own food. But between his job at a startup and out-of-town trips and life, he said, “I can barely keep the cactus in my room alive. Plus, I’m just not the type to install irrigation.”
So he called someone who was.
Only a month later, he is harvesting kale, fava bean greens and just had his first strawberry from his own garden.
Introducing San Francisco-based Scape, which turns your own front or backyard –- and sometimes both –- into a mini-farm, with little or no work required on your part.
“My mission is to provide access to fresh, healthy food, by helping people grow food right in their own yards,” Scape founder Mary Lemmer told Bay Area Bites at a recent interview at one of the farms (read: backyards) she helps oversee.
While the homeowner pays for installation of the garden, she can then choose how much service she wants; she can either maintain it herself for free, continue to pay a monthly fee of $25 for a box of DIY garden tools and materials (seeds, organic pest control, harvest tools, etc), or pay $50 per month to have someone come take care of it. If the cost of installation is prohibitive (an average size garden costs around $350 both for labor and starts or seeds, but does not include irrigation costs), the homeowner can split the cost with friends, and then share the produce as well. Scape can also help match up the homeowner with others nearby who want to share in the costs, but don’t have the space for a garden of their own.
In one case, Lemmer said, a San Francisco landowner got nine friends to each chip in $50 to pay for the garden, and each one is now entitled to a share of the produce.
“We met out of happenstance, and I liked the idea of putting my great soil to use to grow produce,” said Susie Wyshak, Rockridge resident and author of “Good Food, Great Business: How to Take Your Artisan Food Business From Concept to Marketplace” (Chronicle Books). “I had been wanting to clean up the weeds and set up a garden. It was a match made in a heaven, at a reasonable price, to meet these goals —- as they did the work. Now I want to hang out in the back yard admiring the farm, more than before, too. It will be fun to start getting the boxes of produce once the crops are ready.”
Stinchcombe appreciates how he can show up to friend’s houses bearing a bunch of kale as a gift, or that when friends ask him at his house the source of certain items at the table, he can say his own yard.
Lemmer has also been running a gelato business for half her life, quite a feat since she is all of 26. When her family would visit her Italian grandparents in Philadelphia, she loved the Italian ices she would get there, ices she couldn't find where she lived in Michigan. With her father as her first investor, she began making ices and gelato and sold them at festivals and events and eventually opened a store in a “Ferry Building-like place."
“People loved our ices and gelato,” she said. “That inspired me to create something from scratch that was serving a need in the community that made people happy.”
Her brother still runs the business, while she has since moved to San Francisco.
Lemmer grew up on a 20-acre farm, and growing things is in her blood, she says. During her studies at the University of Michigan, she was always interested in food and worked for a time at the famed mail-order business Zingerman’s Deli.
But she also discovered the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.
“I went vegetarian in high school, and then I got really sick in college, as a lot of what I was eating was wheat, dairy, soy and corn. I ate a lot of processed vegetarian food and once I cut it out, I got better. In looking at the world of food, I realized that people should be eating more of this,” she said while pointing to her freshly growing veggies “and less of so-called ‘healthy’ granola bars.”
At first, her plan was for a company with a different business model in which homeowners paid nothing for the installation, but she quickly realized she needed to improve upon the concept to become sustainable. While her business has now overseen a number of garden installations in the area so far -- plus in other parts of the country where she has gardening contacts as well –- she said she has 50 people waiting to have gardens installed by Scape, and she’s put together a large network of freelance gardeners with experience growing food.
The landowner and gardener collaborate on deciding what should be grown, depending not only on what veggies they may want, but what will grow in the conditions they have.
So far, she’s finding that many of her customers are in the younger demographic like herself, since “younger people are busy and are not cooking every night. A share in one of our gardens is a good amount for them because a lot of people say with a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box, they waste some of it because it’s too big and they’re not home every night.”
Another benefit: Stinchcombe, who said he was pretty indifferent to fava beans before growing them, found that the fava leaves make a delicious pesto, which has the flavor of the beans.
Of the overall Scape experience so far, he said, “It’s fun. It’s producing a surprising large amount of food already. I’m delighted.”