On a roof or in a yard, Grace Wicks grows gardeners
by Char Vandermeer
It was easy to pick Grace Wicks, sole proprietor of Graceful Gardens, out of the horde of stern-faced suits bustling by the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City. She was the one wearing a great big grin and carrying a giant green gardening bag. Her custom Neighborhood Bicycle Works-built gardening cart didn’t hurt the identification process, either. Wicks was showing off one of her recent projects: a thriving kitchen garden, teeming with herbs, chard, beets, peas, chives and so much more, growing on the roof of one of Philly’s swankiest hotels.
Could you tell us a little bit about Graceful Gardens?
Graceful Gardens is a full-service urban gardening company. I specialize in edible landscapes, but I do all sorts of urban gardens. You saw my bike trailer out there? I tell people I’ll go as far as I’m willing to haul that thing, so I try to keep it local.
The urban gardening movement has caught on pretty rapidly. Have you noticed any significant changes?
More people are interested in the edibles. My fantasy was that I wanted to teach people how to grow food in the city. In the last year, the percentage of my edible [garden] clients has doubled. The services I offer are garden design, installation, maintenance, consulting and coaching. And coaching, I think, is unusual. Usually, when it’s an edible landscape, I work side-by-side with the client. I teach them how to garden and we do it together.
Do you have any clients who really took what you were doing and ran with it?
One of my clients, she’s a nutrition counselor. She was great because she wanted to make sure that it was local, organic [and] sustainable. She was looking at it in terms of trying to feed her family really healthy food. We’re going to build a garden on the roof of her garage next season. This is the first year, so we just started doing everything in containers and pots on her patio. I planted some blueberries, a fig tree, perennial herbs and some annuals in pots. Now she’s out there with her kid, and every time I come back, it’s just another level.
So, how did you hook up with the Four Seasons?
A farmer friend of mine, Glenn Brendle of Green Meadow Farm, heats all of his greenhouses using waste vegetable oil. He picks up the waste oil from restaurants all around the city, and the Four Seasons is one of them. So, my contact at the Four Seasons, Marvin Dixon, who’s the engineer, knows Glenn from the oil pick-up. Marvin wanted to start this garden, so he called Glenn and Glenn was all, “Why don’t you call Grace? She lives in Center City and this is what she does!”
What about the organic nature of your work?
It all starts with the soil and using really nice compost. Two, select the right plant for the right place so that it really thrives and is disease-resistant. And then if it comes to plants having illnesses, organic products would be the last resort. I guess the last resort is ripping it out. Yeah, that’s the fourth thing—don’t treat it; just pull it out and start over with something else.
If you were talking with someone who’s interested in getting into gardening, but they’ve never done it before, what advice would you have?
Experiment, experiment, experiment! Be fearless in trying things. Mint is a hard one to kill. In October, I’d suggest planting garlic. You’ve got a clove of garlic in your house—break it up and plant each one. It’s very economical: each clove turns into a head.
When do you harvest those?
Probably in June. You wait until the stalk dies back. And you don’t have to do anything; that’s the greatest part. You just put it in the ground and ignore it.
What is your favorite part of all this?
Growing gardeners! My clients become gardeners and take on their own gardens. Now that’s success!