The Urban Garden Center is located under the train tracks by the 116th Street 6 train stop in East Harlem in New York City. Surrounded by roads with heavy traffic on all sides and steel train tracks above, it is an island of rural peace in a very urban setting.
Dimitri Gatanas, this week’s Food Hero, owns and runs the business, which was started by his grandparents Dimitri and Calliope Gravanis in 1959 as a florist’s shop. Gravanis regularly built greenhouses for apartment terraces, but they were often too heavy and even a bit dangerous, considering that they were constructed from glass. To find an alternative use for the greenhouses, he started selling plants out of them, and this was the beginning of a transition from floral shop to garden center. “I have clients that date back to my grandfather’s day,” Gatanas shares proudly.
The first garden center found space on top of a Shake Shack restaurant on East 86th Street. Since then, the center has moved several times around Harlem before settling at the lot on 116th Street. This is where Gatanas started to get a feel for the local food and organic movement. “I was the least treehugging person ever,” he recalls. “My grandparents were natural gardeners. I became this jagged thing; I would throw cans and bottles in the garbage. Then, at a point I thought, ‘What am I doing? We are going broke and destroying the environment.’ So I started to check out alternatives and I fell in love with the urban gardening movement. I warped overnight.”
Now, Gatanas and his crew have made creative reuse of materials their main business. Old lawn chairs are painted by local artists and resold; tiles from the deconstruction of a nearby church serve as the floor for the indoor part of the center.
The most popular product for the last two seasons has been planters made from old pallets. Gatanas came up with the idea for this product while planting a garden for the community outside the fence of the garden center. Gatanas’ goal with this garden is to show East Harlem-dwellers that it’s not necessary to be a person of means to have a nice garden.
“My idea was to show that you can build a garden with whatever you have, out of junk basically,” says Gatanas enthusiastically. “I was making a planter of an old pallet and this hipster came walking by and asked if he could buy it! I was a bit surprised because I thought of it as junk, but being a businessman I sold him the planter. The next day I walked by our big stack of pallets that we were about to send off and I said: no, that is money.”
And he was right. No pallets leave the Urban Garden Center today; apart from the pallet planter, Gatanas has since found multiple uses for them, from construction materials for his tool shed to display tables.“We have a real thing for pallets here now,” he chuckles.
Gatanas says the new strategy is good for business. “I used to throw out US$12,000 of garbage each year – all this stuff we could reuse. It was costing me money and I was throwing out good stuff,” says Gatanas.
He is also having more fun now. One of his favorite new projects is a recently launched community composting facility that includes a chicken coop. “I was learning about compost because I thought that would be a nice thing we could do for the community. I learned that some manure would be beneficial and was offered to buy manure from a farm, but I thought it was expensive and too far away. So I went down to the slaughterhouse and bought some chickens. I didn’t know anything about chickens when I started,” he says.
There are now five healthy chickens at work processing compost at the Urban Garden Center – compost which is then donated to the community gardens in East Harlem. Gatanas explains that the same community gardens are also the main customers for seedlings and seeds of edible plants from the garden center, creating a symbiotic relationship between the local business and the local gardeners.
Gatanas’ future plans include a vertical farm and community flea-market; with enthusiasm and optimism, he is creating an urban gardening hub amidst the urban concrete architecture in East Harlem.