On a recent January day, the cold weather temporarily gave way to warmer temperatures, and Walker Marsh was out on a half-acre lot in East Baltimore starting preparations for a new year.
Soon, he spotted a familiar face.
“I’m starting the season again. It’s time to get at it,” he told the man walking by.
Two of the sides that make up the triangle lot are N. Gay St. and N. Washington St., which are some of the most highly-trafficked roads through the Broadway East neighborhood. So it gets a lot of attention.
Come spring, passersby will see flowers. Like others in the area, the lot used to be vacant. In all, there are 14,000 vacant lots in the city, according to the Baltimore Housing Department. Three years ago, Marsh transformed this one into an urban farm called Tha Flower Factory. With the visibility, Marsh said his intention was “to use the aesthetics of flowers to change the neighborhoods.” Figuring out how to make money came afterward.
“The whole driving force behind Tha Flower Factory is to beautify the neighborhood,” he said. “…If you grow up in an environment that’s beautiful and inspires you to grow and think, that changes the way you view the world and how you are as a person.”
Marsh, who has roots in the city and grew up in Pikesville, started the business after getting backing from the city at a time when city officials were exploring flower farms as one way to combat blight.
“The development of an urban flower farming industry will fulfill multiple priorities – greening vacant lots, providing business and employment opportunities, furthering the buy local movement and supporting the local economy,” a 2016 report from the Baltimore Office of Sustainability states. It added that the cut flowers produced for local florists and other businesses can be lucrative.
Marsh started his urban agricultural work with Real Food Farm in Clifton Park, which is run by Civic Works. He said he wasn’t initially excited about getting into farming, but took to it once he dug in.
When he settled on the idea for his own flower farm, he applied for the city’s Growing Green Design Competition and won a $63,000 grant. He credits Eric Booker, the president of the local community association, for coming up with the name, but Marsh added “Tha” to add some character.
To create the farm, he employed young adults who were involved in the juvenile justice system through a partnership with the Community Conferencing Center. Digging, cleaning and other work to create rain gardens and more space for growing started. He soon began linking with local businesses to sell cut flowers. Posting on Instagram also brought some buyers straight to the farm.
“I want people to experience it. I think that’s the valuable experience is to see how it’s growing, to see where it’s growing.”
Last year, another opportunity for Marsh came when he was selected as one of the social entrepreneurs to take part in the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, which held its first U.S. program in Baltimore over the summer. After working with mentors, he decided this year to add more sunflowers that will be sold for seeds.
He said going through the program also changed the way he is thinking about the business.
“I want to create a business where I can create a model” of a profitable flower farm that could move to other lots, and other cities, he said.
Since the academy program ended, he’s kept in touch with other Baltimore entrepreneurs who took part in the program, which also helped. Before the program, he said, “I didn’t really get to meet other entrepreneurs trying to make it work. It’s really nice to just have that network of people.” And he connected with more people outside this city, as well.
Marsh has more plans for beautification of his own space. A volunteer group would be coming on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to help install a bamboo fence. He also talked about plans for public art on a large octagonal structure that he inherited after the Academy’s closing party. Now, Marsh calls the lot his “happy place.”
When he’s there, he said, “I can breathe easier. I feel at peace.”-30-