Grow your own food

Startup installs, maintains organic vegetable gardens in local backyards

Kamila Lambert, founder of Edible Urban Farm Company, is optimistic about her gardening start-up in spite of this year's drought.

For one thing, her company, which installs vegetable gardens in customers' homes and offers optional maintenance programs for busier clients, has seen success since the start of this year's drier weather.

"People are a lot more conscientious about how much water they are using," she said. "They want to use water for a good cause ... and gardens give something back."

Many of her customers saw the potential in their expansive green lawns and the practicality of the water they could be saving. But Silicon Valley is full of busy people, and though they may buy organic produce from the farmers market, many couldn't fathom growing it themselves.

Enter Edible Urban Farm Company and Lambert, with her green thumb and gardening know-how.

Lambert's interest in gardening began at Santa Clara University, where she majored in public health science and environmental studies. She got involved with the Forge, the university's community garden, where she learned the basics of what to grow, and when. During her junior year, she spent a semester abroad, working with rice farmers in Thailand.

After college, Lambert worked for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation doing community outreach for the Innovation Center. Still an avid gardener, she had already installed raised planters in family and friends' gardens and said she figured she could make a full-time career out of her passion.

Lambert founded the company in January 2013, but didn't leave PAMF to go pro-gardener until earlier this year. Last fall, she took the Gardening & Composting Educator Training Program at San Francisco's Garden for the Environment -- a program which teaches people how to teach others to grow plants. Now well into her first full growing season, she excitedly discussed new clients and new employees.

"Initially, I was subcontracting from landscaping companies for labor," she said. But she's since hired a small team of her own, adding three members to her budding start-up.

Installations can range in size and shape to fit in a variety of yard spaces. Lambert's clients include Atherton and Woodside residents with acres of farm-ready private land as well as apartment dwellers with backyards as wide as an arm span. The company's service area covers Redwood City to Sunnyvale, Portola Valley to East Palo Alto.

"Our goal is to get everyone growing their own food," Lambert said.

The company does large and small installments, planter boxes and raised beds alike. Lambert admits it can be challenging when homes have limited space, but like any Silicon Valley entrepreneur, she welcomes the tribulations.

"One installation we did a couple of months ago was in a really small backyard," Lambert said, describing the yard's sloping perimeter wall. "We ended up making the tomatoes vine up and over the fence."

Despite the literal barriers gardens may come up against, Lambert appreciates the simplicity of the company's raised beds and the flexibility they allow for customization. Lambert says you can really put them in any kind of configuration, from basic grids to angular U-shapes.

"They're kind of like Legos," she said.

The installation process runs around $1,000 for one 4-by-8 foot bed, and includes the labor, soil, planting, a drip irrigation system, seeds and seedlings. Clients can opt for the Garden Guru plan, a flat rate of $200 per month that includes maintenance by Lambert or one of her employees. They'll take care of debugging or any other issues that arise, and leave a harvest box full of vegetables and recipes on the client's doorstep. Lambert said about 90 percent of her clients opt for this service.

So clients don't have to worry about watering their gardens, Lambert and her team install drip irrigation systems, attached to hose spigots or sprinkler heads, that can run on timers according to the season or a client's vacation schedule. Lambert adds that some of her clients have seen lower water bills that coincide with her company's installations.

Ariel Johnston, a Palo Alto resident with two children ages 2 and 4, bought four raised beds and the Garden Guru service.

"I really wanted to raise my kids knowing where their food comes from," said the work-from-home mom, but added that she didn't know a whole lot about irrigation systems and didn't feel like she had time to garden.

Johnston's case is typical of most of Lambert's clients -- families who value the idea of teaching their kids where food comes from but don't have the time to garden themselves.

"I knew the kid aspect would be a big part of it, but I didn't realize how big," Lambert said of getting children involved with the gardening process. "Kids are more willing to eat vegetables if they're coming out of their own garden."

Johnston agrees. Her kids "run back and see everything that's grown and they're excited about it. ... When it's ready to eat, they're chomping on it."

In addition, Johnston cites practical backyard usage as another viable reason to seek Lambert's help.

"We recently redid the whole backyard and ended up with more lawn than I expected," said Johnston. "I wanted something more productive."

The bounty from Johnston's garden continually surprises her: "We get a good meal every day out of what we have," she said, noting that she only buys produce at the market when her garden is between seasons and hasn't produced any edibles yet.

And when the gardens start to bloom, customers get spreads that are both beautiful, practical and customized to their preferences, as they get to go "shopping" for the types of plants they would like to see in their gardens.

Lambert said she also values sustainability and organic materials in her gardens. Home gardens are, by nature, sustainable, but Lambert even uses sustainably forested cedar for the construction of her raised beds, which she has custom built by Natural Yards based in Ashland, Oregon. The soil, seeds and pest management are also organic. Lambert cites companion planting as one way to keep the aphids at bay.

"Instead of spraying a pesticide, we'll plant marigold, nasturtiums and pansies," she said. "They attract bees and they're also a natural deterrent for pests, because they don't like the smell." And, they bring vibrant color to practical vegetable gardens.

Johnston observed that Lambert has carved an interesting and very distinct niche for herself in the Silicon Valley business world. "It's a different kind of start-up than we see around here," she said.

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