Garden company thinks inside the box

ENCINITAS —  Robin Hansen and Sean Kirkwood are part of a revolution calling upon Americans to take control of their food supply.
They subscribe to the teachings of  UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times and the Washington Post.
“The very things that make our food supply so cheap and plentiful are the features that rob our food of taste, freshness and nutritional quality,” Hansen said. “Industrialized agriculture has resulted in making a large part of our food supply basically, as Michael Pollan points out, a byproduct of the petroleum industry because it takes more fuel to ‘grow’ chemically-dependent crops than the foods themselves contribute to our bodies nutritionally. If the food we eat comes from a chemical environment, it simply lacks what nature normally provides from a healthy ecosystem.”
Last year they started Harmony Organic Gardens to empower local families to grow their own organic food in custom, raised container boxes made of redwood.
The duo says that raised boxes offer many advantages to traditional gardening methods: work can be done in a standing position, without the strain of kneeling; the raised boxes eliminate damage from burrowing animals such as rabbits and gophers; there are no weeds or soil borne pests; and water drains more efficiently.
What’s more, raised boxes can fit in a space as small as a patio.
The cost for a 3-foot-by-6-foot custom box installed with soil, irrigation and organic plants is about $1,000.
“We compost ourselves and use local soil,” Hansen said. “The owner of the company is a fanatic about organic gardening.”
San Diego offers an ideal climate for growing your own organic vegetables.
“You have two months where you can’t grow summer vegetables, but the rest of the time you can,” Kirkwood said.
Summer vegetables include tomatoes, squashes such as zucchini, cucumbers, melons, legumes, eggplant, peppers, artichokes, celery, garlic and onion.
Winter crops include snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips and dark, leafy vegetables that are particularly nutritious such as spinach, chard and kale.
First, Hansen and Kirkwood collaborate with the client to identify the best source of sun. Then Kirkwood begins work on a custom box.
The most popular size is 3-feet-by-6-feet, which typically holds two large tomato plants, basil, carrots and beets. Vegetables can be “doubled up” by planting lower-to-the- ground crops such as basil and lettuce in the shadow of tomatoes and trellises with beans or peas.
Hansen says she was a student at UC Berkeley in the mid-1980s when she became passionate about cooking, and recognized the importance of growing your own vegetables.
“My favorite restaurant was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse,” she said. “That was the beginning of California cuisine where they used fresh, organic local produce. They bought their vegetables from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe.”
Hansen took her love of gardening to a new level two years ago.
“We came home from Tomato Mania at Quail Gardens in 2007 with 25 heirloom tomato plants,” she said. “Sean had to build boxes because there was no where to put them.”
A hobby turned into a business.
Hansen was a collection development consultant at the time who was contracted to select books for new libraries.
“The publishing industry was having a downturn the same as the economy,” she said. “Budgets were frozen. Librarians were let go.”
Hansen recognized an opportunity to cultivate a new career when she found herself so absorbed in gardening that she lost track of time. She began Harmony Organic Gardens by first taking over maintenance contracts for an established company.
“It grew through word-of-mouth,” she said. “My dad has been a great publicist.”
No doubt that helped. Her parents are Jim and Pat Hansen, Carlsbad’s Citizens of the Year.
Hansen charges $40 an hour for maintenance, which includes amending soil, refertilizing, checking irrigation, harvesting and adding new plants. Some clients with multiple boxes may ask her to come a couple times a week, others who are more “hands-on” every two months.
For more information, call (760) 525-5015 or visit harmonyorganicgardens.com.

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