Interview with Hillary Jensen, Green City Garden Designs

Image introducing Hillary Jensen, founder of Green City Garden Designs in Atlanta, GA

Can you tell us a little bit about your background that has led you to this point? 

I grew up in a family that integrated growing their own food as a lifestyle. Being outside and learning about growing food and different plants and animals was just part of my life, and something that I took for granted until I was an adult.

I went to college for art, and loved it, but felt like something was missing. After college, I started working on organic farms and fell in love with the satisfaction of growing food for myself and my community. I ended up pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Georgia (UGA) where I was able to combine my two passions: using creativity to better understand food access and the experience of food insecurity through working with food pantries.

I also have had the amazing opportunity to volunteer and work for an organization, Our Giving Garden, that constantly inspires me. They have a micro farm that grows and donates food to local food pantries, in addition to hosting educational events for the community and children’s summer programs, which I lead. These experiences led me to where I am now, designing small gardens for people who do not have access to green space, but want to grow their own food or have a garden. 

Tell us about your brand and the inspiration behind it? 

The concept behind Green City Garden Designs (GCGD) was inspired by two things: my graduate research regarding food insecurity and my own personal need for green space. Food access and security is a topic that is very near to my heart. My research in graduate school gave me the opportunity to work with Atlanta-area food pantries and the community members who used them. Many community members who utilized food pantries expressed a desire for fresh food access, to grow their own food or to have access to green space for their mental well being. Many of these families did not have the green space or time to tend to a garden as they were busy working multiple jobs and taking care of their families.

On the other side of the conversation, many food pantries are predominantly run by volunteers, with one or two staff members. They want to provide the community with the best food possible, but lack the time and resources to keep even a small garden on-site. This led me to think creatively about what a “garden” could look like.

Plants are resilient; just like people. Given the proper foundation and environment, they can thrive in surprising places. I wanted to create small-space, low maintenance ways that the average person could grow their own food or plants in a manner that could also function as a way to streamline and beautify that space.

Secondly, I drew inspiration for my own desire to have green space in my living spaces. Although I grew up surrounded by plenty of green space that could be used to garden and relax in, once I started college, my housing was predominantly in rented apartments or houses with small yards. I do not feel at home unless I am able to grow something, so the need to have low-impact, small-space designs that could be moved and/or taken with me had been in my mind for quite some time. 

How does sustainability play a role in your brand development? How important has this been to consumers? 

Sustainability has multiple meanings to the development of my brand. 1) Environmental sustainability is the motivation behind many of my designs, to encourage customers to not only grow their own food in small spaces, but that small green spaces can have a big impact environmentally through creating microclimates in urban and suburban spaces. These microclimates act as beneficial spaces to attract pollinators, as natural heat and cooling regulation, and can even act as emotional and mental health boosters for people who spend time around them! There are many environmental benefits to green spaces of all sizes. I hope to show people that they don’t have to have a large yard or a farm in order to feed themselves and impact the environment in a positive way. 2) In another sense, I hope to create a sustainable and attainable lifestyle for others to grow food. I want my designs to be a pathway to gardening that my customers feel they can consistently keep up with, despite busy lifestyles and long work hours. 

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regards to the future health of our planet? 

I think they have to be present in both. You cannot value sustainability and only act on it in one area of life; that goes against the very idea of it. I know on a larger scale, many people who do not own their own businesses, don’t necessarily have a choice in creating a sustainable workplace. Sustainability is such a broad and interconnected topic, as it impacts every facet of life: food, clothing, transportation; it can be overwhelming. But individual acts can make a large impact; through eating choices, using less plastic and simply raising awareness.

Sustainability may be a trendy topic now, but it is more important than ever for both customers and businesses to educate themselves on the impact of best practices for the environment. I hope to see more businesses adopting sustainable practices in the future, through their buying practices, as well as through environmentally-friendly accountability certifications like B Corp. 

Fresh strawberries grown in a small, home garden and a living bar on Hillary's porch

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business? 

Although my day-to-day designs are pretty low-tech to keep costs down, my inspiration is founded in the ag tech industry, through green walls, vertical farming and the technology that is inherent to those systems. My living logo designs incorporate electronic lighting, and water retention systems with the intent of being visually-pleasing, self-sustaining living art.

My first design, 3 years ago, was a self-irrigating, aeroponic herb cart meant for a farmer’s market. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned so much in the process, and was hooked after that. Innovation is the axis of my business; as a creative designer with a farming background, I am constantly looking for new ways to adapt, learn and improve my designs through technology, networking and research of plants best-suited for varying environments. 

What does wilderness mean to you? 

It brings a lot of words to mind: preservation, freedom, and healthy ecosystems. More than that, it brings to mind that there are very few places that are still truly wild and have been untouched by humans. 

Do you have a favorite item- it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind- that has great meaning to you? 

Yes. My grandmother’s kitchen table---I spent countless meals with my family around that table that were prepared by my grandparents, who were amazing and innovative cooks themselves. Many of those meals came straight from their extensive garden, which is where my love of growing food began. The table now sits in my own kitchen; where I share meals with my family and friends and do my best planning and thinking (I’m sitting at it as I write this). Food is the common denominator for all of us; the bond of growing and preparing food for friends and family is what started me down this path. 

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you (apart from the obvious survival gear)? 

Probably North Georgia or Southern Colorado. I love the mountains, and both of those areas have some thriving forest ecosystems that you could forage from. Besides survival gear, I would bring seeds (hello!), a field guide, and my other “essentials:” my husband, Josh, and my two dogs and cat. Also, maybe coffee. 

A living wall in a kitchen

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind? 

That the smallest things can make a huge impact; it’s the action that is important, not the size or recognition of that action. That you don’t have to necessarily “know” everything before you start making positive changes in your community. 

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation? 

When I first began making designs, I feel a good deal of analysis paralysis about what the “right” designs should be. Would people like them? Were they sustainable enough? It wasn’t until I started making some designs to use in my own home, that I really started enjoying the process. Create things you want to have, as well as what your ideal customer would want. At the end of the day, you have to go with the things that excite you and part of what excites me is the challenge of making something visually-appealing, functional and that inspires others to grow food or house microclimate gardens. Also, find a community of people you admire and who admire you! Supporting and learning from each other is everything. 

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it? 

Peace of the Wild Things by Wendell Berry has always been a grounding poem for me. 

What brands do you admire? 

Shades of Green Permaculture, Our Giving Garden, Aglanta, Homestead Design Collective, Verdura 

A medley of images displaying Green City Garden Designs' innovative concepts for small-scale green space

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers? 

Extremely important. The companies that I admire have a realness and relatability to them. In the age of social media, it is easy to present yourself in any light you choose. But when it comes to human interactions and connecting face-to-face, you can’t fake that or filter it! So, I try to present my goals and values in my business in the same way that I present my goals and values in real life. I never want people to be disappointed to meet me in person after thinking that I have it all together based on my website or social media. 

Can you tell us something about your personal journey that might surprise us to know? 

My path to this business has been a winding one. It took me years to become confident in my skill set. As a creative person, I am excited by new opportunities and new paths of learning. This resulted in a large spectrum of skills, where others may have stayed on one path and specialized in it. Both paths are perfectly fine. It was the realization that I didn’t have to be perfect in order to have a successful vision for the future that allowed me to make the jump to start my own business. 

What is your favorite animal and why? 

The Possum (or Opossum, if you are outside the US!). Not only are they so ugly they’re cute, but they have all sorts of cool beneficial traits, like being America’s only marsupial and eating ticks like nobody’s business! Dogs are an extremely close second. The ultimate companion! 

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind? 

One-use coffee cups. I make my own coffee at home everyday, but if I do go to a coffee shop I try to bring my own cup. So simple, and as a coffee addict, I can be happy knowing that I will be preventing potentially hundreds of single use items from going to the landfill and ocean in my lifetime.