PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR CLIENTS TO GROW THEIR OWN
In late January, Windsor resident Susan Nelson was harvesting beautiful orange cauliflower, bright green broccoli and the delicious leaves of both plants, which she had never before eaten, from raised beds in her front yard.
Nelson is a longtime gardening enthusiast, with success best described as “random.” “Some things work,” she says, “and some things don’t. I’ve never understood why.”
Then a neighbor told her about Avalow, a new local company that offers unique gardening services. Soon thereafter, as she was heading to lunch at Spinster Sisters in the South of A Arts District in Santa Rosa, she walked past Avalow’s newly established headquarters, across Sebastopol Avenue in a small building that previously housed the Cookhouse Café.
The company’s demonstration gardens were in their summer glory and founders Amanda Dunker, CEO, and Jeremy Nusser, COO, were on site. Nelson soon signed on as a client, hence the bountiful raised beds in her front yard.
“I just couldn’t be happier,” she says of both the beds and Avalow’s services, adding that her Labrador, Hana, not only loves it when she gardens, but the canine also loves those brassica leaves, oft en snagging them before Susan can prepare them.
Avalow was founded in 2016, with a single raised bed located on public land. By the end of 2017, Dunker and Nusser had surpassed their goal of a hundred clients, with 104 installations in a service area stretching from Central Marin north to Healdsburg, east to Sonoma and west to Sebastopol and Graton. Clients include private residences, businesses and schools, including 21 beds they installed for the Guerneville School District. Their goal for 2018 is 300 clients.
At the heart of Avalow’s offerings are raised beds equipped with a highly water efficient irrigation system of the company’s own design (and for which a patent is pending). The model is to create, install and maintain the beds for a year, at which time clients can sign up for another year of maintenance or take over care of the beds themselves. Maintenance includes not just initial planting, but also watering, weeding, pest management, maintaining soil health, harvesting and, perhaps most importantly, educating clients about their gardens.
“We are an education company and we spend a lot of time coaching,” Nusser says, adding that clients fall into two groups: those who know nothing about gardening and those who already love it but want to advance to a new level. “The clients who are the most engaged with their beds have the best results,” he continues, adding that harvesting seems to be the hardest thing for most clients to get right. They either harvest too much or too little, and need to be coached about how to harvest selectively and at the right times.
“It is our job to notice everything,” Nusser says, adding that they have developed an app for clients that allows the Avalow team to see what is happening in the beds, which in turn helps them understand what might need a bit of extra attention. Last fall, birds were the biggest problem, as unseasonably warm weather resulted in late migration.
Clients find the educational aspect both surprising and delightful.
“I was not prepared for how much I would learn,” Nelson says. “I had wanted to do more serious gardening for a long time. Sometimes things would work, sometimes they wouldn’t, and I didn’t really understand irrigation at all. Amanda and Jeremy really know what they are doing. I’ve even learned how to identify slug poop!”
The company says that most of their clients sign up for the “Assist” level of service, which requires active participation by the client. They also offer a “Concierge” service, which includes doing everything but the cooking.
Raised-bed gardening may not have the capacity to grow everything a family needs in the way of produce, but it can contribute a lot, often more than many people actually eat. Because the harvest is so fresh and so good, clients typically increase the amount of produce they eat, which is an important goal of the company: to help people develop a set of lifelong skills, including an appreciation and enthusiasm for fresh produce.
A key aspect of Avalow’s educational program is helping clients learn to cook and eat what they grow, and to enjoy produce that they either thought they didn’t like or that is unfamiliar. New clients are interviewed about what they like to eat, how they take their coffee—black or with cream and sugar?—and what sort of cooking style they have. Italian? Mexican? If they don’t like, say, red beets, might they be willing to try golden beets, which have a milder flavor? The information helps determine plant selection.
In furtherance of this goal, Avalow also sells high-quality culinary and pantry items that complement the fresh ingredients their clients will be harvesting, and offers classes in the home-style kitchen at the company’s headquarters.
Gerry Lazzareschi of Healdsburg, another client with his wife, Susan, for whom Avalow converted existing but non-thriving raised beds, says he enjoys learning his way around foods that were once unfamiliar. One January night, dinner was just-harvested turnips, roasted and enjoyed on a bed of wilted greens. He’s been enjoying bok choy in salads, too, and praises his plethora of fresh herbs.
According to Nelson, as much as she loves her beds, their year-round harvest and the hands-on services, it’s the Avalow team’s knowledge and passion that is the special sauce that pulls it all together.
As 2018 unfolds, Avalow is growing its own team, alongside its clients’ gardens, and coming up with new ways to spread the joy of having beautiful and bountiful fresh produce harvestable right outside your door.