It stood sentinel over the sprawling urban farm I visited on Saturday, posing for me in the dappled midday sunlight, its leaves open wide in the best sun salutation I've ever seen.
These are but two of the 8 ft tall sunflowers that grow in small groves at the urban farm at the Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church. Nestled on a half acre at 445 Lawton St SW, one the the main reasons this farm thrives is because the sunflowers attract pollinators like fat bumble bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies to the food crops that grow here.
Fistful of fresh snap peas
You've no doubt heard the term "farm-to-table". This popular movement has been a boon to the restaurant industry in several cities around the country and has positively impacted the way many Americans choose to eat these days, highlighting the health and taste benefits of eating fresh, local, and organic food.
But that movement isn't just in restaurants; a steadily-growing cadre of city dwellers are recognizing (and reaping) the benefits of growing their own food, setting up herb gardens or produce gardens on their property to save a trip to the grocery store.
The benefits are easy to see -- not only are you getting high-quality food (there's nothing like eating a tomato or squash in-season), the produce costs less and has had a much smaller environmental impact than produce that is shipped cross country (or across oceans) to grocery stores. Also, with your own garden, you can control pesticide use, which is a big consideration for many families.
Meet Eugene Cooke, a man committed to building you a garden that is well established from the start so that it keeps producing good food for you, your family, and your community for years in the future.
On Saturday, he was kind enough to show me around the latest urban farm his team at Truly Living Well has envisioned, coordinated, and installed, along with the assistance of a young geologist and grower named Nicole Bluh.
Visible from I-20, this garden attracts interested passersby who stop in to ask what is brewing (and growing) over at the Good Shepherd Church.
Swing around the back of this church and you'll find an innovative urban farm. You've heard of smart phones, right? This might be considered smart farm design.
The site was not in the best of shape when this project began. The soil was depleted, weeds and invasive plants grew rampant, and some innovative thinking would be necessary to turn this site into a thriving growing area.
The method used to install this farm is termed hugelkultur, a type of design that composts organic woody material to create the main elements of the farm.
Woody plants (or whole tree trunks) are positioned on the ground in the garden design, and then layered with materials such as dirt, leaves, and hummus before planting the crops:
Eugene told me that two dead trees on the site were cut down, and the TLW team arranged the massive chunks of tree trunk and branches into large spiral configurations to create elevated growing surfaces. Here are some pictures of this large-scale installation from the past eighteen months:
In this way, the crops benefit from the decomposing materials available beneath the soil.
Not only that, this method helped Eugene and his team tackle the problem of poor drainage at this site; with water sitting on top of the ground due to thick Georgia clay, it was advantageous to create raised beds that can store and utilize the water in different ways.
And the result? This summer they have a bounty of produce to choose from. Okra, bean, eggplant, mustard greens, sorrel, squash, even a pumpkin patch, and much more!
Tall sorghum shade us as we share slices of cucumber on one of the mounds. Vines of sweet potato and winter squash surrounds the sorghum, growing in tandem.
Fruit trees! Question: how many of you living in Atlanta have actually seen a peachtree, live and in person?? (For my non-Atlanta readers, this question is significant because Metro Atlanta has more than 70 different streets that include the word "Peachtree" in some way, shape, or form. Yet one hardly ever sees any peach trees, nor are they particularly native to this area.)
Logs are placed around the garden to propagate useful fungi, for decoration, and for habitat for helpful insects.
As my visit wound down, Eugene picked up an empty bag and began filling it with different vegetables that he thought I'll enjoy.
The one below is Thai basil, which is not only flavorful, its flower is among the most pleasant natural scents I've smelled.
Care for some fresh local produce, straight from the farm? If so, pop over to the urban farm at 445 Lawton Street; produce is now available for purchase. And guess what: orchards and vineyards are coming soon, too!