The Herr's Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company
Wil Alvarez and Natasha Herr
Are you one of millions of Americans with a seasonal tomato garden? Or perhaps you have a smelly compost pile or small greenhouse in your backyard. Wil Alvarez and Natasha Herr were, at one point, just like any normal American with these typical backyard features until their interest in and love for environmentally friendly initiatives led them to start Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company, which specializes in designing and installing organic vegetable gardens, edible landscapes and a wide assortment of other customizable and environmentally-friendly designs and installations. They have also just started a new branch of their company called the Rewilding School, where they will teach classes about wilderness survival, nature awareness and primitive skills. Whether it’s a providing no-mow lawn mix, nature skill-building classes or simply installing an organic tomato garden, the couple’s unique company helps customers turn their yards from average and boring into exciting, more useful spaces that help promote more sustainable living. Because, as their company’s slogan says, a yard is a terrible thing to waste!
History and Background
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Wil Alvarez moved to Lancaster County when has 11 years old and in fourth grade. He wound up attending Manheim Township school district, where he graduated from Manheim Township High School in 1999.
So how did a kid growing up in Brooklyn become interested in environmental issues?
“I have actually always been interested in environmental activism,” says Wil. “It is something that has always been important to me, even though I spent the first 11 years of my life in an urban area.”
Wil spent his adolescent years in Lancaster County, growing up in the largely agricultural county. As a high school student, he began the normal process of looking at colleges, and initially settled on Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. However, he found Temple was not for him and moved back home to attend Millersville University in Millersville, PA, where he met Natasha Herr, a fellow undergraduate at Millersville, while working at the Lancaster Borders.
Natasha, a Lampeter-Strasburg graduate and a year younger than Wil, said the two were just getting to know each other when Wil mentioned his desire to take a little trek across the states.
The two took a semester off from college and traveled cross-country in summer 2003 for two and a half months. Armed with $2,000, an old Subaru station wagon and an 8 by 10 foot wall tent, Wil and Natasha traveled nomad-style across the country, and the couple has been together ever since.
“We just sort of hit it off and formed a bond,” says Natasha. “I could tell there was a connection there.”
The trip was not just a romantic getaway. The couple, now married, always shared a common bond of environmental advocacy and an interest in nature, but their journey launched them head first towards a love of nature and a dedication to protecting, preserving and maximizing the environment.
While Wil had some previous experience with environmental issues, including an arrest in Washington, D.C. during a protest, the couple’s interest took off to the next level as they visited sustainable farms around the country and picked up people’s trash in national parks. The couple was interested in exploring the vast amount of nature to see across the country and getting involved in environmental issues and environmental activism. They came across other people who shared similar interests and love for the environment and sustainable, primitive living.
During their trip, Wil and Natasha began learning primitive skills, which are based on the old nomadic and hunting and gathering philosophy of living off the earth. Primitive skills are those that do not require typical human technology and innovation to survive, such as finding and making your own food, creating your own shelter, making your own clothing, creating fire, designing your own land for growing food based off natural ecology, and so forth.
On their journey, Wil and Natasha also checked out a public bike-sharing program in Austin, Texas and an urban collection, almost like a forest, of edible shrubs and trees in Asheville, NC, a well-developed area.
After their initial journey, Wil and Natasha lived a nomadic lifestyle for the next three years. The couple lived out of a minivan converted into a poor man’s camper and traveled everywhere across the country, from New York to North Carolina to Colorado. After awhile though, they wanted to return to Lancaster County, where they grew up and consider home.
While both originally intended to go back to Millersville University to finish their college educations, they decided not to and felt like they could learn more on their own, although Natasha may go back to learn about herbal medicine. They see some problems within the structure of higher education, particularly that the education is not well rounded enough and essential primitive skills are not emphasized at any level of education.
“This earth is all we have,” says Wil. “We need to know how to survive off this earth and how to respect it.”
Home Sweet Home
Now married for two years, Wil and Natasha live in a tiny, three room apartment on North Concord St. in Lancaster. To the outsider, it seems like nothing special. The furniture is second hand, to say the least. The bed is a heap of blankets on the floor. However, their simple yet charming place is like a microcosm of Wil and Natasha’s lives – lives dedicated to environmental sustainability.
In a remarkable dedication to this cause, almost every aspect of the couple’s small apartment revolves around environmental sustainability. The small size of the apartment is no coincidence, as the small space uses fewer resources. Walking in, it is hard not to notice the wide variety of cream-colored animal skulls and bones collected during their years of nomadic living across the country, displayed proudly in several locations.
Or the large collection of bows placed on several makeshift shelves on the far wall of the small living room, part of the primitive living skills set the couple has developed and can’t wait to share with others as part of the Rewilding School. Some of the bows, which can be used as bow and arrows for hunting, are produced from natural trees while others are actually produced from raised bed kits and wood found at salvage construction sites.
While small, the living room does have a second hand Futon, where the couple’s little white and brown puppy often lazily resides, as well as a small television set and laptop computer for taking care of business obligations. Moving to the kitchen, you will find a refrigerator and small stove, but that is about the extent of normal technology Wil and Natasha have as part of their sustainability efforts.
The couple grows much of their own food in their apartment, as they have no real yard living in the city. Looking around the kitchen, you may notice a curious looking, vertical, damp log with little white dots lined in a row. No, these are not your typical mold, moss or fungus, they are Shiitake Mushrooms, a delicacy in mushroom land. This log produces a half-pound of these mushrooms every two months.
“These mushrooms can cost $15 or $20 per pound in the grocery store, yet we’re able to grow them in our home,” says Wil. “They’re delicious, too.”
Right next to the mushroom limb is a large, forest green Tupperware-type storage container, except there is nothing being permanently stored in there. No surprise, it is an in-home composting system, acting like a trash can for many people and keeping in line with Wil and Natasha’s sustainability efforts. Lining the bottom of the container is an earthy combination of dirt, worms, their waste, newspaper scraps and food scraps. When the couple is done eating natural foods, they throw them in this in-home composting system, where the worms eat it and replenish the container with their droppings, which has a look and texture similar to that of dirt. The cycle is recurring – Wil and Natasha put food in the container, the worms eat the food, deposit it creating layers of nutrient-rich dirt, and survive to repeat the process. As the container fills through this natural process, the couple uses it as fertilizer in their gardens.
Moving across the kitchen, a smaller, beige Tupperware container contains what looks like a strange batch of oatmeal. Well, that is partially correct, as there are actually several dozen worms living among the oatmeal and pieces of egg cartons. The worms eat the oatmeal and survive solely off of that. Additionally, the worms live out their entire life cycle in this container, as at any time you can find adult worms, pupa and larvae indicating the reproductive process and life cycle. These worms are not just for display and entertainment value; they’re actually edible and, in the words of Natasha, “They taste like popcorn!”
Walking around the corner, you come to their bathroom. This surely has to be one place with no creative or fancy environmental sustainability practices, you think. Wrong! Wil and Natasha bought and installed an apparatus on the back of their toilet which saves hundreds of gallons per year. The device, which looks something like a miniature bath tub, functions as a hand washing bowl. When you flush a toilet, the toilet fills up with about five gallons of clean water, which then becomes dirty and flushed the next time the toilet is used. However, instead of wasting water at the sink to wash your hands, this device allows you to wash your hands in the clean water filling up the toilet after flushing. This makes further use of perfectly clean toilet water and uses less water from the sink.
The Idea for Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company
For Wil and Natasha, interest in environmental sustainability started as a casual individual interest and morphed into a part of their lives, whether it was traveling nomadic-style across country to explore nature and get involved in environmental issues and activism, or whether it was transforming their three-room apartment, admittedly the largest space the two have shared together, into a minimal resource use facility.
However, as terrific as these individual sustainability initiatives are, the couple wanted to do more and make an impact in other people’s lives by helping them become more environmentally sustainable as well.
Wil has always had a great interest in permaculture, which are systems of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and self-sustaining ecosystems. Wil’s interest in designing these systems is a result of his hunting and gathering as well as primitive skills training. After properly designing a permaculture system, whether it is housing, shelter or the land, the desired result is that animals and nature will do the work with as little human interference as possible. This philosophy is based off of natural ecology and the “seven layer forest” – that is, a wide variety of plants and animals working together to produce a balanced, independent and self-sufficient ecosystem.
While Wil had a clear love of, respect for and expertise in permaculture, he was not quite sure how he could use that to make a difference in everyday people’s relationship with environment. It is certainly a great concept, but is not easily applied in everyday life. Then, the couple came up with the idea to apply permaculture to landscaping techniques by designing and installing gardens and landscapes with diverse casts of plants and agriculture that simulate real life ecosystems.
“In nature, you don’t see just one of a certain tree or a certain crop or a certain plant,” says Natasha. “The variety of plants and animals work together to create a cohesive, functioning, self-sufficient ecosystem that doesn’t need human interference.”
This desire to apply permaculture to landscaping practices combined with the desire to help others practice environmental sustainability inspired the couple to start a company that could make this a reality.
Additionally, the couple’s dislike of the traditional green, perfect lawn that seems to fit the “American Dream” stereotype led to the development of their unofficial marketing slogan: “Because a yard is a terrible thing to waste!” In short, they have a problem with people’s obsession with their lawns because the sterilization that occurs through fertilization, weed killer, pesticide and constant preening makes them wasted space. These practices destroy the lawns and any existing habitats, and one of their goals through Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company is to turn lawns into more natural habitats.
Despite these inspiring reasons to start Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company, there was another intriguing factor that made early 2009 a prime time to start this company – the economy. Yes, the economy. You know, the same one we have heard nothing but doom and gloom about over the past year plus. Wil and Natasha found the downturn in the economy to actually be an opportunity, despite it being a threat to many organizations. They found people were more interested in learning how to grow their own food, and becoming more conscious of gardening in their personal life. For example, people became more conscious of the notion of a food tree vs. a non food tree, and how it does not make sense to have a tree that does not produce food when you can have one that does. People realized they could save money buy growing their own food, so this timing was perfect for the launch of Homegrown Edibles Landscaping Company.
From Idea to Reality
Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company was officially started in January 2009. Now just shy of its first birthday, the company, comprised solely of Wil and Natasha, was quite busy in its first year. The couple serviced eight clients, with the first job done in April 2009 and the last job of the season completed Nov. 7, 2009.
Running a business was a new venture for both Wil and Natasha. The couple was excited, albeit slightly nervous, about those first calls they received. Among their first group of clients this year, Wil and Natasha found them to be very thankful, nice and helpful when working on projects.
It comes as no surprise that the couple’s personal sustainability philosophies carry over to their new business. When doing work, they only use hand tools and no power tools, as hand tools require no energy usage. They have no machine overhead costs as the couple already owns many of these hand tools, or they are second hand or, at the very least, much cheaper than heavy duty electrical machinery. However, there is always a price for everything, and while hand tools are more environmentally sustainable and save money for Wil and Natasha, they require longer hours and more physical labor.
The couple also purchased an older four cylinder Ford Ranger, an economical vehicle in line with their sustainability philosophy. The truck gets 20 miles per gallon, which is good gas mileage for a truck. It can also carry 2,000 lbs. compared to their first truck, which could carry only 1,000 lbs. Wil and Natasha also walk and use bike power as much as possible, as it is carbon free and has no adverse effect on the environment. Being in the city, they are also relatively close to everything, making it practical as well as environmentally friendly.
As anybody who has started a business knows, there are numerous challenges, not the least of which is the often grassroots marketing and public relations to get your business’s name, identity, products and services out there. For Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company, this was primarily accomplished through community outreach. Wil and Natasha attended many community events where they distributed fliers and relied on word of mouth networking to spread the word about their business. They regularly can be found at places such as the local nonprofit Eastern Market, local garden shows, Harrisburg Area Community College, the F&M Greenfest, First Friday events and around several local coffee shops.
Attending such events and visiting such places allows Wil and Natasha to tell people with similar interests about their business, what they do and their personal philosophies that go into their business. These grassroots networking efforts keep the business’s overhead as low as possible and contribute to sustainability, as fewer physical marketing and public relations tactics use fewer resources. The couple is part of a “tight-knit” community where it is easy to reach out to potential clients.
While the business had impressive clientele numbers in its first year of operation, especially for a two person operation, Wil and Natasha are not necessarily interested in growth for growth’s sake in the future. They intend to keep it a smaller operation and keep it the same, or simply change what types of projects they are actually working on.
The couple finds their business venture to be a “happy medium” between living and working, as they are able to employ their personal sustainability philosophies and love for nature in a way that helps others practice sustainability while being able to bring in a little money in the process.
So What Does The Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company Do?
The Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company, from its business side, specializes in the design and installation of several types of landscaping features and environmentally sustainable systems, all achieved through environmentally friendly methods. The name Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company does not necessarily imply that all products, installations and designs are, in fact, edible; however, it emphasizes the philosophy of Wil and Natasha in making maximum use of the land, crops, agriculture, produce and so forth.
Organic vegetable gardens are one of the more popular designs and installations performed. Organic gardening is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers or plants by following principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management and heirloom variety preservation. In addition to the naturalistic principles of organic vegetable gardening, these plants are also edible, giving the gardens multiple purposes of aesthetic value, environmentally friendly practices and providing food to their growers.
In a general sense, these organic vegetable gardens can also be categorized under edible landscape design and installation. Edible landscapes are what they seem – a type of agricultural installation that can be consumed by humans, thus taking full advantage of this potential.
Homegrown Edibles Landscaping Company also installs indoor and outdoor composting systems using natural processes to dispose of natural waste. Indoor composting systems are typically used to naturally dispose of leftover or old food, while outdoor composting systems can be used to naturally dispose of grass, leaves and other natural matter found in the yard. The processes vary, but are all natural and are in line with the sustainability philosophy and efforts of Wil and Natasha.
The company also helps install container and vertical gardens. A container garden is simply when you grow plants in containers instead of planting them in the ground. A vertical garden is a wall that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and soil or an inorganic growing medium.
Besides gardens, Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company stays true to its holistic environmental goals and provides services including rainwater catchment systems. These systems include the installation of rain barrels, which are large, retrofitted drums designed to catch rain water. This water can be used for any desired functions, such as drinking, bathing or washing. Instead of wasting limited water from wells or public water systems, collected rain water can be substituted as it is just as clean and does not drain other resources. Additionally, it can help save people money on their water bills, as they are not using as much water from public water systems.
Lancaster Backyard Farm Initiative
Wil and Natasha are actively involved in the Lancaster Backyard Farm Initiative, which aims to create more farming and gardening within the city limits of Lancaster. The goal is to use backyards, or at least small plots of growable land, to make a “decentralized farm” within Lancaster.
A discussion of a potential system to implement includes a “rent for land” program where Lancaster residents could rent out chunks of land to gardeners. The residents renting the land would get food, and the gardeners would get a place to farm within the city limits.
The whole initiative is very local in nature. Its focus is on urban gardening within the city limits, something that is rather rare in most metropolitan areas. Those involved envision a day when plants and produce are grown within the city limits and then sold at local farmers’ markets such as Central Market and Eastern Market. It would be exciting for local customers to be able to buy food and produce in Lancaster that is grown potentially right down the street.
The Lancaster Backyard Farm Initiative was inspired partially by the community garden plots in Lancaster County Park. Here, local residents and gardeners can plant and maintain their own gardens in a public setting, or help others work on theirs. It was also inspired by a man doing something similar in Canada, just with a lot of large backyards. The Initiative will take this same spirit of community garden plots and try to implement it in an urban setting, something that is rather rare around the country.
The Rewilding School
As a separate project from the Homegrown Edible Landscaping Company, Wil and Natasha are forming the Rewilding School, which will teach people ancient, primitive skills such as building natural shelters, creating fire and purifying water. This is all part of an effort to teach people pure sustainability skills.
This educational project with an emphasis on developing primitive, long-term living skills also aims, in the “big picture” sense, to get people to respect nature more by giving them a different perspective than we are usually used to. For many people in our society, the thought of primitive living skills may never cross their minds, as they are used to air conditioning, man made shelter, buying groceries at a store and so on. However, our ancient ancestors had to live off the land and had to have the skills necessary to do so. While most people likely will not need to know ancient, primitive skills, having them or at least being aware of them can generate an increased respect towards nature and the simple skills needed for survival in an environment isolated from human civilization.
The school hopes to educate people about how things occur naturally (a naturalist perspective) and help them gain a general sense of knowledge about nature. Wil and Natasha hope to work with the Lancaster County Central Park, Wilderness Awareness School, YWCA and other communities to network with people and teach classes at community events.