Talking to Urban Agriculture Pioneers Tereska Gesing and Shawn Manning
I was lucky enough to interview Shawn and Tereska on Valentine’s Day last month. They were a lot of fun. Hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
We began with each of them introducing themselves and describing what they care about most when it comes to their jobs.
Shawn Manning’s Passion: Teaching[00:01:04] I helped start Urban Seedling, which is a fantastic company that we started together with my cousin Trevor Manning. The things that I like most about my business, our business, are very simple.
[00:01:30] I love teaching people. So I guess that’s the thing that I like the best about her business is teaching. But more specifically, teaching people how to have a vegetable garden. Just teaching them that it’s okay to get your hands dirty and it’s okay to make mistakes, which is really what it’s all about.[00:02:05] It’s about having successes and failures just like everything in life.
[00:02:11] And it’s a great way to learn to take life a little bit less seriously and just kind of go with the flow and it doesn’t always work, but you try your best. And you have fun doing it. I find that that is my motto for everything in life and that gardening is really what got me there. Which is kind of weird. But, that’s the truth. That’s kind of who I am. And doing that more specifically in schools with kids is something that is so fun to do. It’s tiring, but it’s really very rewarding and I love doing that.
Tereska Gesing’s Passion: Building Urban Agriculture Movements[00:03:05] I am a co-owner of Urban Seedling with my partner here. We have a vegetable gardening company and our mission is to encourage Montrealers to grow food in the city, be that at their home, at schools and daycares, or in the workplace. We have a garden center at the Verdun greenhouses where we sell exclusively edible plants—and medicinal plants and pollinators—majoritarily edible plants. We give a lot of workshops and the educational portion is very important to our company.
My proudest thing or favourite thing about what we’re doing is the growth. When we started back in 2010, nobody was talking about urban agriculture. It was just like a tiny little niche nobody was talking about. It has been really fun to get in on the ground floor of what is now a movement that has taken on a lot of steam and it’s very exciting.
And so through my work as the owner of Urban Seedling, I’m able to be involved in all sorts of other great urban agriculture movements like Cultiver Montreal and there’s a great urban agriculture project coming on the rooftop of a big parking lot in Verdun called Camp Éthel. And of course our wonderful Grand Potager Urban Agriculture Centre at the Verdun greenhouses. So what really gets me out of bed in the morning is that kind of larger scale planning and being able to grow the idea and the practice of urban agriculture on a municipal level.
Among Co-founding Members of Grand Potager[00:05:01] I should mention that because people listening to this podcast know me from my winter world, which is notable nonfiction, but in the summer I’m a full-bodied member of Grand Potager and the urban agriculture movement with these guys that’s why we know each other. We are founding members together. [00:05:30] It all happened on that rainy day. [00:05:35] Oh yes so that is how we know each other and we are all part of the same urban agriculture movement. [00:05:45] But what’s really fascinating about the way your business runs is you guys have created an entrepreneurial force in this relatively new industry. You’re getting quite a name for yourself. Maybe we can talk about what happened with Shawn this week in terms of education. I think it’s a big scoop.
Sustainable Landscaper Education[00:06:02] Yeah I guess I can talk about it.
[00:06:13] So this week, I was invited to take part in an evaluation of profession for the future profession of a horticulturalist specializing in sustainable landscaping. This was with the Ministry of Education. I was part of a panel for a group of 13 other specialist horticulturalists that are in specific areas of sustainable landscaping and I was there representing the edible landscaping kind of urban agriculture.[00:07:22] Between the 13 of us, we are essentially creating the curriculum to train the future generation of horticulturalists that want to then take the next step in their education.
[00:07:45] So it’s going to be offered as a specialization. After they graduate they’re DEC in ag in horticulture to become a specialist. As someone that is specializing in sustainable horticultural practice and so it was really really interesting. I got to meet some amazing people and learned a lot about a lot of different aspects of sustainable agriculture that I didn’t really know much about and I’m super excited to dive really deeper into a few of those areas and learn more about it and maybe incorporate some of those things into what we do at Urban Seedling because we always wanted…you know initially, our goal was to just to do urban agriculture and to teach people how to grow food. And as an entrepreneur, and wanting to be viable and not go bankrupt… by successful, that’s like a whole other ball game. We just want to survive until the next season.
Seasonal Business Challenging
You can only grow vegetables for so long in the season. You know. It’s a season within a season within a season that you can actually do work and make money and pay your bills and pay for your trucks and your employees and all your things.
And so we decided that it would be in our best interests to do a few more traditional services like landscaping. I have a background in that. My family are all entrepreneurs and all involved in different aspects of construction. And so I learned how to do a lot of that landscaping stuff when I was younger. and Trevor, our partner, that’s the aspect of our business that he has really helped to grow that side of it so that we can continue working and stay above board.
But that’s not what we initially intended it nor is it really part of what we want to be doing.[00:10:24] No I think you’re trying to say is that we’re really excited to take our business into it an even more sustainable future and to be able to really do better in the world in all parts of the business so that our success as entrepreneurs the more success we have, the better that the world is in a little way.
[00:10:46] And to be fair the sustainable landscaping movement is growing and so is the kind of thing that people are getting a lot more informed about and that’s all well we’re doing more yeah. [00:10:58] We are well-placed and we actually care about it, and we actually want to do it.[00:11:08] You know it’s not like someone who is approaching a big huge company and saying oh can you do this like a sustainable thing that I’ve heard about or that I’ve read about and the company be like oh you know we really do that but I don’t know let’s see maybe we can do a little something like that for you whereas I would like to position ourselves as being the experts in those specific fields.
And that’s what will set us apart and that’s what you know we we’ve strive for.
Expanding Sustainable Landscaping Across the Island
[00:12:04] I really want to continue to be a big part of developing the industry across the Greater Montreal region. Urban Seedling, right now, I believe is considered a leader in the industry. I want to continue to develop the market and to really push hard on adding more and more and more people who are interested in just rethinking the way that they view their garden and that they view their yard.
I want it to become mainstream to look at your yard and say ‘this should be an edible oasis.’ There should be pollinator gardens, and there should be a huge vegetable garden that’s super productive and there should be fruit trees and there should be a berry hedge instead of cedars.
[00:13:11] And really also think about maintaining a yard in an ecological way and that the default should not be traditional gardening. It should not automatically equal using pesticides and herbicides and planting plants that are not meant to be in our climate and then trying to manage them with all sorts of chemicals. I don’t want that to be the default anymore.
I want to work on getting people excited about biodiversity. Get them excited about indigenous plants. Get them excited about growing food. That’s really where I see our strength as a company. And so I think that in collaborating with others…
In small niches like ours, I honestly don’t believe in competition. I don’t think it’s real. I think it’s a fiction.
We have such a small kind of corner of the gardening market, that the more people that are out there practicing urban agriculture and knocking on doors and talking about vegetable gardens and talking about biodiversity, the better it is for everybody.
[00:14:22] And so I think in terms of growing our business well I hope anyway that the work that I’m doing outside of Urban Seedling to really push the development of the market for everybody, a high tide raising all ships. That where I see the growth potential for our businesses is making the market itself bigger.
Living and Working Together[00:14:46] Right. So and then now to go into the moving towards working together and how each one of you has different strengths and how but you still live together you raise a family together and you work together which many couples would think that would be a big challenge. [00:15:06] I’d like to hear you and downtimes day talking to you every day is a blessing. Mostly I find it really easy. [00:15:23] I don’t find it difficult at all.
[00:15:28] I only wish there was more time every day. Honestly that was the biggest challenge is the fact that we’re both so busy working and taking care of the kids and making allowances and doing this and the time they were so tired we don’t actually get to spend time together.[00:15:47] We don’t get to spend as much time together.
Where am I supposed to be. We do everything together but it’s always like passing the torch where it was supposed to be ok.[00:16:01] Okay where you lay all… [00:16:05] I’m calling the .
We do it. We communicate. We work through everything. We support each other. We help each other.
I try my best to do all those things.
We jumped into this adventure together without a lot of forethought and you’re right that it could have been really disastrous and we didn’t really consider that before starting the business together.
Different Skill Sets
[00:17:39] We’re also landlords we have tenants and yet, fortunately, they’re wonderful.
I think the thing that has made it really easy is that Shawn and I are very different in our skill set. And so it’s really obvious who’s going to do what. Like there’s no kind of ambiguity there. There is no ‘you should have done this, you should have done that…
I have strengths in administration in the office and in kind of more a broader strategic planning and Shawn is really really skilled at going out and meeting with clients and doing sales and being out there on the ground every day doing the work.
So yeah I would agree 100 percent that the biggest struggle was starting a family and a business at the same time. That was another lack of forethought. Having three kids, and a start-up not recommended.
We just take it one day at a time. Cliché. Cliche all the cliches are true cliches because they’re true.[00:18:03] Is there. Do you have any hints for other couples who are thinking about doing this kind of thing like if you were to do it over again which you almost like a marriage course which you do have let’s start a business or a business together. I mean how do you deal with finances. People have a hard time discussing that in their home life and you guys have a home life and a business life and a rental property. [00:18:31] Division of labour. [00:18:33] I don’t deal with finances and my receipts like receipts you know I should do a better job. This year it will be every day. [00:18:52] Tereska will let me know when we need more money and I have another job so I will work more on my other job when I have to. I also manage a catering company and do some weddings and things like that so you know. But for the most part,
Making Sure Your Partner Feels Heard
As far as like advice I would say to just you know obviously just like listen to the person and know what they want to hear.
Sometimes people when people complain about something it’s because they want to feel heard. Right.
So when they’re having a hard time. And that’s for everyone having a hard time too. And you might be bitchy and you might be you know annoyed and you might be not wanting to hear or deal with their stuff, but you just have to simply say “that sucks. I’m sorry that you feel that way’ and that’s it.
If you say like ‘well I’m having a shitty day too. Sorry I’m apologizing. I’m sorry. I’m Canadian. But sometimes you just need to you know to take a breath and listen and hear and say “that sucks” and that’s it. You don’t have to have the solution which is my weakness. Something I always try and come up with like oh you should do this or you should do that or why are you not doing this or why are you doing that. And this is how you’ll feel better.
That doesn’t help.[00:20:49] It will. It will turn into a. What do you think a man already doing. Oh I mean that sucks. [00:21:00] Thank you. That’s all I wanted to hear. Eventually that message gets through. Yes. [00:21:07] I hope do it sometimes too but I don’t know. Yeah.
Don’t Take Business Disagreements Personally[00:21:15] My advice. And again I think this is good advice across the board. It’s something that I’ve learned over the years in managing employees and being on committees and you know collaboration is that it’s just work. You can’t make professional things personal and you can take things personally and I think that just in our personality types Shawn and I just as a default don’t take that kind of stuff personally.
But I could see maybe a challenge for couples who are already taking personally with each other that bad.[00:22:01] You know that being in business together just amplifies everything. [00:22:05] So if you have a couple who already fight like we don’t really fight very often.
[00:22:13] And so I think if you’re already before your question was you know before starting a business together, what should people consider. And I would say”
- Do we get along without fighting?
- Are we able to separate professional things from personal?
- Are we able to listen to each other?
If the answer to any of those things is no, then don’t start a business together.
Do you consider yourself a Canadian? If so, what does that mean to you?
Tereska[00:22:56] So this time you get very interesting question. I’m actually really excited to hear what Shawn has to say to this. [00:23:02] I am from Ontario and this is not a question in Ontario. Obviously you’re Canadian. This kind of underlying politics of Canadianism and language politics and all that are totally different from where I come from but I’ve been here for 20 years so I’m starting to understand I. So I absolutely do consider myself Canadian.
I am a first generation immigrant. My parents emigrated from Poland.[00:00:04] Yes so I was born in Ontario. I’m I am the child of Polish immigrants. They met here so my family has been in Canada. You know my polish is terrible but also you know my grandparents came here with nothing.
And there you know I think this is common for a lot of immigrant families is that the goal is to become Canadian and being Canadian is a huge point of pride. And and I have always believed that.
I love this country and I think that it is the best place on earth to live.
You know we have really a lot going for us here in Canada.
So I definitely do consider myself Canadian and I think the most important thing for me when thinking about being Canadian is the freedom we have to disagree with each other.
And you know like if I think of other countries obviously that are oppressed or under dictatorship that’s an extreme example but even you know the United States everything’s super polarized or in Europe there’s a lot of kind of old world hangover notions about gender roles or other attitudes.
I just feel like here and, especially in Montreal, everyone is free to live their own life and colour it the way they want to colour it. And and we have a nice big and wide social safety net so that people like Shawn and I can go out on a limb and start a business and a family at the same time which I’m pretty sure we would not be able to do anywhere else.
It’s not really something that I’ve ever thought about to be perfectly honest. It’s all I know. I consider myself to be Canadian. I’ve always been a happy and proud Canadian.
As far as what it is in particular, I just love where I live. I grew up in Montreal. I never even really left Montreal until I was. You know I haven’t really traveled around that much. I’ve been around I know I’ve traveled a bit. But everywhere I go, I miss Montreal. I lived in L.A. for a while. I didn’t like it.
I mean it was nice and warm that was great. You know the weather was great.
Like I can’t complain about the weather that
That guy at the depaneur, the guy will say oh boy it’s cold out. Boy oh boy.
OK Jimmy Oh yeah. OK. And that’s I love that and I love I love you know that it is the city that we’re in here is a total a little melting pot and there are so many little different communities and seeing and interacting and more and more just.
I don’t know.
I think that it’s it’s a beautiful beautiful place to live.
The great people here are very very kind. Except when we’re driving in which case we’re less kind, but I love the fact that I can honk my horn and shake my fist and someone else will be like yeah shake it. And that’s OK and we’ll park and we’ll say hi there and they’ll say hi nice day or beautiful.
And I love hockey and I love beer and there you go.
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.