The coming of spring is typically the most exciting part of the year for Jessica Soulliere, the owner of Ferndale-based garden design and landscaping firm Potager. The recent spread of COVID-19 to Michigan, however, has forced her company, Potager Garden Design, LLC, to deal with a lot of unforeseen challenges this time around.
Like a lot of business owners Soulliere is now faced with several big obligations: responding to a shrinking economy; protecting herself, employees and clients from possible exposure to the novel coronavirus; and complying with Governor Whitmer's recent executive order that temporarily suspends "activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life."
"I’m not one of those people who's been suddenly lambasted like the food industry, but I'm at the cusp of the beginning of my season," she says. "So the questions are greater than the answers right now. And that's very scary.”
Jessica Soulliere.Soulliere's company specializes in designing and building landscapes that incorporate native plants, pollinator gardens, and vegetable gardens. The projects it works on tend to gravitate towards sustainability and the restoration of natural habitats.
Working mainly with clients in the City of Detroit and its suburbs, Potager offers a mix of consulting, planning, landscaping and maintenance services. Although Soulliere designs projects year-round, the bulk of her company's installation and maintenance work takes place from spring until the first frost later in the year.
One recent job involved helping a customer convert his traditional grass lawn into a landscape featuring native plants, support for pollinators like bees and butterflies, and a vegetable garden. After coming up with a hand-drawn design, Potager coached the property owner on build-out and maintenance, so he could handle the physical aspects of the project on his own.
Another client paid Soulliere and her staff to attend to landscaping and upkeep work like weeding and pruning. On occasion, Potager also takes on unique custom projects that fall outside these parameters. And since COVID-19 hit, she and her team have been looking into responding to the crisis in a way that's good for both her business and the greater community. The solution they're now exploring draws on several of Soulliere's past experiences.
Embracing the natural world
Working out in the open air is something that's always held an attraction for Soulliere. She grew up in a rural part of Brighton, a stone's throw away from a state park.
"I basically lived the first seven years of my life outside in the woods," she jokes. "I’ve always been an outside person."
During her formative years, Soulliere's family cultivated their own vegetable gardens. And her father ran his own construction business and also operated his own greenhouse and tree farm. Growing up in this environment, Soulliere was quick to pick up a variety of skills connected to both building and horticulture.
Five years ago, after spending many years working in the public relations and communications fields, she decided to go back to these roots by launching her garden design firm. For a name, she chose the word Potager, a French term meaning kitchen garden.
At first, Soulliere got by as a one-woman operation, offering gardening service to clients in the CIty of Detroit where she lived at the time. As work began to pick up, she developed a business plan centered around organic garden design, installation and maintenance. In these early days, her customer base included a lot of elders who wanted help with maintaining their garden plots. In time, Soulliere ended relocating to Ferndale and getting certified as a landscape designer, master gardener and concrete paver installer. With the help of referrals, Potager had been experiencing phenomenal growth and Soulliere had been planning on expanding operations substantially this year until everything took an unexpected turn.
"I’ve doubled my business year-over-year," she says. "Based on the trajectory and the business that we had, this year was going to be an explosive year, and suddenly the brakes hit hard."
Although Soulliere's phone is typically ringing off the hook this time of year, it's been pretty quiet lately. Soulliere had planned on hiring five people in 2020. As things now stand, she's brought back two employees from last year and one new person. Going forward, there's still a lot of uncertainty on how things will shake out over the next few months.
Working towards small victories
As for the present, to say business owners have plenty of obstacles right now is most certainly an understatement. Social distancing, in and of itself, hasn't been Soulliere's most pressing concern.
"I don’t need to be in someone’s house or in someone’s face to do my work. I get to be outside," she says."
Any in-person meetings Potager would normally have engaged in are now happening outside or through a new web-conferencing system. And while employees are taking precautions to minimize social interactions, due to the nature of the work it hasn't been difficult for them to maintain distance from clients.
The sudden contraction of the economy has been a tougher obstacle to overcome, as has Gov. Whitmer's executive order, which directs Michigan residents to stay at home until April 13. The shelter-in-place order, however, exempts "work that is not necessary to sustain or protect life."
With this in mind, Soulliere and her staff have opted to concentrate on the design and installation of small vegetable gardens. It's a focus that recalls Potager's origins helping elders with their garden plots and one that has a certain appeal to people concerned about the near-future outlook of the economy.
"Food security is important, especially in times where our futures are not quite certain," says a statement on the Potager website. "To that end, we have created organic quick-start victory garden packages that include seeds, soil, raised beds, delivery, and installation."
Potager's gardens are modeled after the Victory Gardens that were popular in the U.S. during the first and second World Wars. As the company understands it, food production and agricultural services are still allowed under the governor's order. So Victory Gardens offer a path forward for Potager and a way for clients to become a little more self-reliant.
Using the calculation that 20-feet of garden space can support a person for one year, Potager has designed three Victory Garden designs for customers: one focused on popular vegetables commonly used for cooking and canning; a gourmet option with a more daring collection of herbs and vegetables; and a macrobiotic version focused on nutrient-dense foods.
"We give people something that lets them feel like they have a little control and a little say," says Soulliere. "Just some sunlight and some water and a little knowledge and you can eat pretty well"
Designed as raised bed gardens, each victory garden will come in a frame that's two-foot-high, four-foot-wide and eight-foot-long. The kits Potager is offering to include lumber, soil, trellis or plant supports, seeds, crop transplants, reference and maintenance guides, and a list of resources. Interested households can buy up to three kits.And those concerned about keeping safe should know that Potager has instituted delivery and installation protocols that are in line with COVID-19 safety guidelines. The company will begin taking online orders for Victory Garden kits on March 30.