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Work dried up during the pandemic. So this commercials director pivoted to planter boxes

Raul B. Fernandez and Colin Hakes, co-founders of Victory Garden L.A.
Raul B. Fernandez and Colin Hakes were trying to make ends meet amid the pandemic when they started Victory Garden L.A.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In March, when the pandemic closed down the economy, commercials director Raúl B. Fernández used the free time to build his wife a pair of planter boxes for their Mount Washington home. Friends on his soccer team asked for some, and he built a few more.

Then he put a picture of the boxes on the neighborhood app Nextdoor to see what would happen, and the response was dozens of orders, far beyond his expectations, all fueled by the sudden boom in gardening that has occurred since so many of us found ourselves cooped up at home during the pandemic, anxious for something to do.

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“You can see the immediate reaction when you do a little marketing push; you advertise and you get more orders,” says Fernández, 36.

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A Victory Gardens L.A. planter box
This planter box went to celebrity Sara Rue: “This space on our patio was empty for years. We could never figure out what to put here ... now we have a thriving @victorygarden box! It’s filled with Basil, Dill, orange blaze peppers and three varieties of tomatoes. We just started some kale and carrots from seed!”
(Sara Rue)

On April Fools’ Day he and his business partner, producer Colin Hakes, officially started Victory Garden L.A., offering customized planter boxes made out of cedar and redwood. The boxes continue to evolve.

Hakes, a neighbor, had farming experience and suggested adding a veggie-flower growing soil, weed barrier fabric lining and drip-line irrigation. Hinged covers to keep out pests came next, plus wheels, and now in the latest iteration, trellises. They also build stand-alone covers for existing boxes as well as containers for odd shaped spaces: triangles, hexagons, terraces. The boxes range from 2-by-4 feet to 3-by-8 feet and start at $250.

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Fernández is a “carpenter by chance” but grew up building things in the garage with his engineer dad. For help in meeting demand — 171 boxes delivered so far — they hired former industry colleagues.

The team at Victory Garden L.A.
The Victory Garden L.A. team: Kevin Paniagua, from left, Colin Hakes, Raul B. Fernandez, Katie Oscar, Codee Hutchins, Robert Gomez and Benjamin Maries. The film and TV workers started making raised planter boxes as a means to supplement their income, feeding off the gardening boom sparked by the pandemic.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Some are carpenters, others handle finishing, others do delivery and installation. Two more deal with customer service and financials from their home offices. A cinematographer with a laser etcher made the nameplates.

It’s time to stop wringing your hands over COVID-19: Plant some food and create your own victory garden. Here are eight steps to get started.

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“We knew everybody from the industry,” Fernández says. “People I knew that were smart and unemployed. All who worked in the camera or art department or were grips had the skills.”

“In the art department we’re used to not understanding how it’s going to work but knowing it’s going to happen,” says carpenter Codee Hutchins. “So if Rául says we’re going to build this and people will want it, it makes sense.”

A Victory Garden L.A. planter box.
This planter box keeps critters out.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m really impressed by the way this business has grown from nothing,” adds director and production designer Katie Oscar, now doing finishing on planter boxes. “It’s something people want because just feeling you have something growing is really positive right now.”

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The irrigation system in the boxes helps take away the fear of failure, says Hakes: “The watering system is essential to get people to continue to garden.”

Here at L.A. Times Plants, we love “plantfluencers” — people whose Instagram feeds and stories are abundantly verdant. We’ve launched a new series, PLANT PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world, such as the voice behind @LatinxWithPlants, Andi Xoch of Boyle Heights.

After a recent move to a workspace in Boyle Heights next to landscape architect Mia Leher’s Studio-MLA, they now have turnaround for new orders in under a week.

Landscape designer Jennifer Johnson at Native by Design ordered four boxes for a client in Elysian Valley in June. “I needed them as fast as possible and custom designed for a slope and kids. It was insane; they turned it around in five days. They’re experienced in film production and can do big projects quickly.”

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Victory Gardens L.A. planter box
Raised planter boxes are easier on the back.
(Sarah Bixler)

It’s not just planter boxes. One customer asked for an enclosed cat space — a “catio” — complete with a 9-foot catwalk from a window to a wired-in 150-square-foot cat playground.

What will happen when the pandemic eases and people start going back to their regular jobs? After all, Fernández had a commercials job two weeks ago.

“We’ll just roll with the punches,” Hakes says. “That’s how we got into this business. We’ll roll with that punch too.”


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