Over the last couple of years I’ve been hearing rumors surrounding one of the more unusual structures on Grant Street. It’s an old greenhouse, and it had been sitting vacant for quite some time. Because it’s so unusual to see a greenhouse on a commercial street, I found myself imagining what it would eventually become – hopefully, not a parking lot. Then, a few months back I bumped into the proud new owners of the property – Vince Kuntz and Cynthia Van Ness. Apparently the two were in the midst of plotting a comeback for the greenhouse and the land directly behind it. How interesting.
The plan? Phase 1 is to rent garden plots to people who don’t have their own land to garden. Or don’t have quality soil, or the communal ability to grow produce. I think that many people who will be taking advantage of the plots are people who like to work on projects with others – to see what others are planting… to discuss crops with others in the most unlikely urban environment. This is an absolutely fascinating project that affords city dwellers the ability to become part-time farmers. Or advanced greenthumbs. The endeavor will most assuredly become a fruitful adventure for Vince and Cynthia, and will help to add to the vibrancy of Grant Street and the city’s West Side.
Following is a Q&A with Vince:
When did you purchase the greenhouse?
Summer of 2004.
What possessed you to buy this greenhouse?
It’s not enough to talk about neighborhood preservation; one needs to put their treasure behind their principles. The previous owners were planning to demolish the buildings. Cynthia and I felt that Grant Street didn’t need another vacant weedy lot. If it was to be my hobby greenhouse for a while that would be OK.
What function did it serve in the community?
The original owners, the Theodore Frank family, operated a general service floristry. One of the third generation family members stopped by one Sunday and told me of when she used to make corsages in an upstairs work room.
When did it become defunct?
Vacant from about 2000, until our purchase.
What is the historic significance of the greenhouse?
It is the oldest extant commercial greenhouse in Buffalo, built about 1907.
How big is the plot of land behind it?
There is about 3000 square feet – space which has never had buildings on it.
Has there been an interest in leasing the plots?
Several plots are already committed.
What makes the soil so great for growing?
The twelve beds, 10′ x 10′ each, have been double dug and screened. Then 1 inch of composted cow manure from an Akron farm has been spread. The tilled top soil/compost averages 6″ deep. The soil pH was 6.5 before adding compost, which will gradually move the pH toward 7. All the plots have full sun in excess of 8 hours a day. A few bushes and trees have been kept along the perimeter to attract birds which will help control pests.
Is this like a cooperative?
More like an apartment. We provide the plot, rainwater collection, and storage lockers. You simply pay rent, bring your tools, and plant your choice of crops. If people want to share the work on their plots, or share a plot, that’s fine.
I imagine that this is all organic produce?
While we might not meet NOFA certification, the emphasis is on good soil management and non-toxic pest control. The plot rental agreement excludes synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.
What do envision will be grown here?
Tomatoes, of course! One grower plans a plot of dwarf sunflowers, with climbing vine crops planted amongst them.
What if someone can’t get there to water their plot?
They can get a plant sitter to take care of them. We ask for the names of all adults who will be working on the plot.
What was the soil like when you got it?
It looked really lush. Then a friend, a landscape architect with NYS Parks, identified all the species on the site and I found out what kind of trouble I was in.
What did you do to make it fertile?
First I spent years trying to kill off invasive, non-native plants. The Bishop’s Weed had to go completely. Boxwood bushes removed and Japanese wisteria aggressively pruned. I am still fighting with Japanese knot weed, but I’ve taken the last few rounds.
I have been composting on site for years, and on an increasing scale lately. There will always be compost available for dressing the beds.
Do you have a plot yourself?
I will be using at least two. Any space that doesn’t rent in June, I will plant either easy to maintain crops or cover crops.
Will the greenhouse be used by some of the growers in the colder months?
The greenhouse is my own pet project. In 2003 I read about a grower in Maine, Elliot Coleman, who operates a market garden year round without supplemental heat. That inspired my first use of a cold frame and stirred my interest in having a greenhouse. If I can get the greenhouse roof reglazed before fall, this will be my first chance to put in a winter crop. The street side wall will be uncovered later this summer.
Will there be classes offered?
For now I’ll leave that to my friends at Urban Roots.
Have you looked at other models around the country?
Other than growing pussy willows for Dyngus Day, will there be other plants or vegetables grown that will be for sale to the community?
That will happen if I ever get good enough as a grower to predictably produce a crop for sale. I’ve been a back yard gardener since starting at 5 years old with my dad, but I have yet to scale up to profitable commercial growing.
Will the greenhouse ever be accessible to the adjoining gelateria?
Not in the plans now, but never say never. You’d have to eat your gelato really quickly because it is hot in summer and cold in winter. The greenhouse would be prohibitively costly to heat in both dollars and CO2 footprint.
Who are the worms (worm farm in lead photo) for? Everyone? Who feeds them?
It is easy to overfeed the worms.
Growers are encouraged to compost their healthy plant trimmings or damaged produce. There is currently one compost bin, and I plan to add several barrel composters. What is composted at gardensongrant, stays at gardensong
Will you work with Mum’s and Daisy’s across the street?
Though I have given some corkscrew willow to Rene, my personal interests lie in growing edibles and admiring wildflowers.
I hear that you use coffee grinds from Sweet_ness 7. Is that true?
Yes I do, as well as vegetable waste and eggshells. I am experimenting with the compostable plates, cups, and utensils to see how long they take to break down. I also get veggie scrap from Food Not Bombs. All that plus dry leaves is making a pretty hot, steaming heap right now.
Anything else that you would like to share with us?
I hear and read a lot about things that ought to be done, by someone else.
It doesn’t take a million dollars and you don’t have to wait till you’re older and established to tackle a project which can make difference in the community. Tackling a project is a good way to get older and established. I started at age 20 with my first house, when a lot of people thought Lexington and Ashland was a dying neighborhood, and haven’t stopped since. For this project, Cynthia and I have spent less than a lot of people spend on a car, with an outcome that I believe is far more valuable.
I’m pleased to be on Grant Street with the longtime business anchors as well as all the rest of us newcomers.
*If you would like to inquire about the plots, send Vince an email.
1/2 plot – 5×10 – $65 (through October)
1 plot – 10×10 – $100 (through October)
Annual rate – add 50%
16 plots total
Gardens on Grant – 205 Grant Street, corner of Lafayette