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Urban Garden Center: A family biz with community spirit

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Shortly after emigrating from Greece in 1959, Dimitri and Calliope Gravanis opened a flower shop on New York’s Upper East Side. Decades later, it has blossomed into the 20,000 square-foot outdoor Urban Garden Center in East Harlem, now owned and run by grandson Dimitri Gatanas.

A leading supplier of garden supplies and plants in NYC, the Urban Garden Center—the subject of this week’s Real. Est. List Spotlight Series—also builds gardens from scratch...designing, maintaining and installing them. 

In Manhattan, that most often means working on terrace or rooftop gardens. And while most people have simple requests—climbing hydrangeas, juniper plants, some Japanese Maple trees—Gatanas has also received some outlandish demands.

“I’ve had to incorporate a Moroccan tent into a rooftop garden, design a playhouse that looks like the Hotel des Artistes, and built a number of rooftop ponds—complete with fish,” he says.

Gatanas describes the Urban Garden Center as “a community-minded profit business,” pointing to its composting program, wherein locals bring in their scraps and are given compost in return. In addition, Urban Garden Center offers monthly (soon to be weekly) gardening classes, teaching planting neophytes how to make their very own window boxes or showing kids the best way to plant seeds.

The on-site chicken coop is home to half a dozen hens (whose waste products accelerate the composting process) visited often by neighborhood kids who otherwise wouldn’t get to experience that aspect of nature. The center is also a drop-off point for recycling old clothes.

Gatanas credits his grandparents with passing on lessons of conservation. “They were poor immigrants who often had to pinch pennies,” he says. “I grew up learning never to throw things away, but to see if it could be used for another purpose.

“I’m not a hippie or anything,” he says. “I just like to project positivity.”

How it works

Call the garden center or stop in for a free consultation to describe the space where you envision your future garden (its measurements, light exposure, proximity to a water source) and get a sense for what can be done. Gatanas or one of the three designers who work for him will visit the site, then draw up a design to present for the client’s approval—a process that typically takes two weeks.

After some back and forth to finalize plans—adding a few teak planters here, removing a too-lavish fountain there—the garden can usually be erected in 4-6 weeks time, sooner if the customer’s chosen trees and planters are in stock. Prices for terrace or rooftop gardens vary widely—some can be completed for just $1,000, little more than the cost of labor, while others go for many thousands of dollars.

Following installation, Urban Garden Center periodically maintains the space. Work varies from season to season, but maintenance can entail deadheading flowers, removing leaves, spraying infested plants with eco-friendly substances, adding soil or compost as needed, or picking fruit.

For those who live in typical Manhattan apartments with little to no outdoor space, Gatanas often recommends window boxes. The narrow boxes ($15-$45), which can be placed on window sills, hold just three to four plants—usually herbs or seasonal flowers that can be purchased for $3-$6 each.

Getting started

If you want to add a little life to your stark space, Gatanas offers some guidance:

  • Start small: Gardening newbies should begin with smaller plants that make sense in closet-sized New York City apartments. “I really don’t like seeing people start with $100 plants that they’ll most likely kill,” he says. Begin planting herbs like mint or basil, or seasonal flowers like geraniums. If your thumb proves to be more green than black, then you can move up to larger plants that require more care.
  • Know thyself: Will you water a plant to death or not at all? For those who over-water, Gatanas recommends the pothos plant, which can flourish despite excessive wetness. If, however, your idea of plant maintenance is to toss out a dead one and buy a replacement, then cacti and aloe vera plants are right up your alley. Neither needs much moisture to thrive, making them “great for bachelors,” according to Gatanas.
  • Know your space: Is it shady or sunny in your living room? Is your apartment typically hot and dry or cold and moist? The dracaena plant, which can be watered often and requires only medium light, does particularly well in small apartments. Corn plants and lucky bamboo are also popular indoors.

Check out The Real.Est. List, the ultimate real estate guide and resource directory for all those who buy, rent, sell or dwell in NYC. Want to get listed and put your business in the Spotlight Gallery? Click here to get started or email us.        

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