Thursday, June 29, 2017 This Week's Paper

Hilltop workplace garden prompts new enterprise

John Rowe and Alejandra Walker’s workplace garden is just out the back door of their Hilltop home.

There are lovely shrubs, trees and small plants out front, too, but they don’t eat most of them.

Out back, it’s business, and more business.

He’s a horticulture broker with a specialty in distinctive plants grown to suit this climate. She’s a businesswoman, artist and cook for whom organic food is a matter of life and death.

Both of them are growing new expertise and raw materials on what used to be their parking pad off the alley.

Rowe wanted a spot to learn more about the plants he sells wholesale. Because he already had landscaped much of the yard, he looked to that idle spread of concrete as the ideal spot to get familiar with grafted tomatoes, Russian basil and new flower varieties. The more he knows, the better he can sell them.

He hammered together a rough frame – nothing permanent - and threw plastic sheeting over it to create a makeshift greenhouse. Anyone could get the same result with the frames of two old swing sets.

Last year he demonstrated how Brandywine tomatoes grafted onto hardy root stock from Russia, live long and prosper. This year he’s seeing if a Russian basil variety performs as well, and suits American palates. He’s also asking his friends and neighbors which bicolor verbena they prefer –the pink or the purple. So far, it’s the purple.

So prosperous were those grafted tomatoes last year that his wife used them in sauces from her native Mexico. She has a violent allergy to chemicals in some foods, and, to be safe, eats mainly the organic vegetables and fruits she and her husband grow in the yard.

Her sauces are tasty, and she is developing a plan to up her production and sell them, creating a new business.

With that experience, Rowe and Walker were the first to bite when Tacoma Weekly issued its Workplace Garden Challenge last week. When we did, we suggested a broader vision, and one suited to Tacoma’s spirit of innovation and collaboration.

“I like your thought provoking article on gardening at the workplace,” Rowe wrote in an e-mail. “I sense many people are intimidated to garden on their own and perhaps doing so in a social context such as the workplace takes some of the hesitation out of it.”

That’s how it’s working at the mighty Weekly, where hardened journalists are fascinated by the radishes’ progress. We’re counting on salad by Memorial Day, and squash by Flag Day.

“Getting plants out front in public venues is important,” Rowe continued as prelude to his Big Idea.

“It is shameful to see how many plants get dumped by commercial greenhouse operations if the weather is rainy or they speculated too high on a particular crop, or a contract got cancelled. Many times, I wished I had a truck that could haul those wonderful plants to designated businesses in high-visibility areas that NEEDED a cosmetic facelift with just a few flowering plants.  Not only would the particular business benefit, but it would have a ripple effect in the local community.  I envision other businesses following their neighbor’s example and incorporating hanging baskets or window boxes and developing a look akin to Leavenworth.”

Small signs amidst the flowers with information on the plants would serve as advertisements for the growers, Rowe said. That exposure would be more useful, and a lot less depressing, than a pile of composting geraniums. He thinks the growers would go for the idea. It’s possible, he said, that retail nurseries and big-box stores might do the same.

All the idea needs, he said, is a few folks to figure out the details of how it would work, then volunteers to set up the distribution. A little innovation and collaboration could get flowers and vegetables rolling into the neighborhoods where they’re needed.

He’s talking to the right town.

Here’s irony for you:

Here’s irony for you: Kathleen Merryman wrote last week’s Workplace Garden Challenge story on the Garden Island of Kauai, where she was visiting her children and grandchildren. When she e-mailed the story to the Tacoma Weekly, she sent only the first page, which could have been a complete, but depressing, article. We’ve posted the whole story on Kathleen will get extra TAGRO-shoveling duty in our raised bed gardens.