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Mounds of benefits: Hugelkultur in Atlanta’s West End

The Good Shepherd Agro Ecology team. From left: Eugene Cooke, Tanisha Nicholson, Nicole Bluh, Imran Battla, and Teena Myers.

The Good Shepherd Agro Ecology team. From left: Eugene Cooke, Tanisha Nicholson, Nicole Bluh, Imran Battla, and Teena Myers.

On many levels, organic farms are works of art. Using processes perfected by nature to grow environmentally responsible – and delicious – food takes skill, hard work, and a touch of artistry, and that’s all on display at the Good Shepherd Agro Ecology Center in Atlanta’s West End, which is as lovely from the sky as it is on the ground.  (And from nearby I-20!)

Eugene Cooke is a farmer and a trained artist, and that’s evident in the design of the farm, which sits behind the Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church. Cooke and farmer Nicole Bluh designed the site, and utilized a farming method called hugelkultur:

Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany,hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

It’s a technique that’s seen increased interest as permaculture and agro ecology principles enter the gardening mainstream (yay for that!), and in addition to looking cool it’s also an ancient, ingenious, and effective way to maintain nutrient cycling. Essentially, you’re building in your compost by mounding soil atop it. File under: work WITH nature, not against it. 

In his book “Grow Where You Are: A Introduction to Urban Agriculture for the Conscious Urban Dweller,” Cooke describes the site at the outset:

The soil structure of the growing site was compacted from years of mechanical tilling and flooding. It was also overgrown with weeds and invasive plants due to lack of diverse vegetable production and soil building techniques. These issues of soil fertility encouraged the designers to think about developing mounds for growing above the problem soil and sheet mulching the area to suppress weeds and increase microbial and fungal health.

For Cooke and Bluh, hugelkultur was a good solution for some site-specific challenges. The four-acre plot had been farmed before, as a garden intended to grow fresh produce for the surrounding community, but it was low-lying and prone to flooding.  Another challenge: two trees, a tulip poplar and a oak, were dying. “We had to look at resources in an innovative way,” Cooke said.

Hugelkultur mounds solved both problems. During a marathon workday, GSAEC volunteers, Urban Growers Trainees from the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, and members of the surrounding neighborhood came together to roll the cut-up trunks into three three-pronged triskelion mounds, which were then covered with branches and twigs from shrubs around property that were woven around the logs like a net with twine. They finished off the mounds with straw, leaves, and finally, soil.

Farmer Nicole Bluh atop one of the mounds at the Good Shepherd Agro Ecology Center.

Farmer Nicole Bluh atop one of the mounds at the Good Shepherd Agro Ecology Center.

This shared activity built two things – mounds, and a collective stake and sense of accomplishment. “When people build mounds together, they want to touch them, eat from them,” Cooke said.

“When people learn about feeding this giant living organism that feeds us, it’s really powerful,” Bluh added. “We have to put something in to get something out.”

At their tallest point, the mounds are about three feet high, another important part of why Cooke and Bluh wanted them for this space – the mounds are tall enough that children (and elderly residents) don’t have to stoop over to tend to them. It’s an ergonomic consideration, but one rooted (pardon the pun) in their longterm goals of providing agri-parks as restorative, green playspaces for their community. “The added element of the mounds serves to create a playground effect to attract the children in the area, and merge with the public park across the street,” Cooke writes in “Grow Where You Are.”

As the mention of Agro Ecology in the farm’s name implies, it also has positive affects for natural environment within and around the site.  The farm is restoring the lot through ecologically responsible methods; GSAEC sits atop the headwaters of Proctor Creek, so they’re growing food AND restoring a watershed. Here’s what the gang at GSAEC has to say about the process on their Facebook page:

As part of our restoration efforts within the “impaired” watershed of Proctor Creek, Good Shepherd Agro Ecology center helps reduce sediment and phosphorous losses to local waterways by acting as a vegetative buffer to slow down surface erosion and increase water infiltration. By using cover crops, we are providing urban waterway ecological benefits while also providing other on-farm benefits, including increased soil health, improved water retention, and increased yield.

Certain plants can also pull up toxins and heavy metals from the soil—enter sunflowers, and native plants like yellow dock and golden rod. The funguses in the soil that have been propagated through this process also assist with bio-remediation. Cooke, Bluh, and their volunteers laid down layers of weed-suppressing cardboard from the West End Mall up the street, and the mulch that’s on top of the cardboard filters rainwater and helps retain moisture.

In the year and a half since the farm’s current iteration was installed, the GSAEC has built up six inches of topsoil. A soil test last year confirmed that soil health is improving, and Cooke says they’ve seen faster seed germination, increased disease resistance among crops, and increased yields.

Future plans for the farm include an on-site market, medicinal herb garden, and large-scale composting operation. When we were at the farm last week, the hugelkultur mounds built by an entire community were sprouting turnips, which were headed for the kitchens at Empire State South and the Shed at Glenwood. Tulips were blooming too. And as a group of volunteers got back to work after showing me around for a couple hours, it was clear those flowers aren’t the only thing growing.

The Good Shepherd Agro Ecology Center will be at the West End Farmers and Artisans Market at the Wren’s Nest when it kicks off this Sunday (during Atlanta Streets Alive, no less!) Their produce is on the menu at The Shed at Glenwood, Empire State South, and H. Harper Station, and an on-farm market is also in the works—follow them on Facebook for more details!

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