Atop a steep, shrubbery-spotted embankment in a Buckhead office park, where I-85’s traffic roars by just behind a low concrete wall, is one of Morgan Carswell’s favorite places to go for a work-break snack.
In that unlikely locale, many of those shrubs are blueberry bushes, and Carswell says she and her coworkers at EpiCity Real Estate Services have gleefully picked “two to three large Tupperware bowls” of ripe berries in recent weeks.
It’s no coincidence of nature that the plants are there. EpiCity has partnered with a Decatur-based company called Natural Born Tillers to turn its Buckhead headquarters into a pioneering experiment in “edible landscaping,” an effort that has borne fruit and expanded to the Atlanta corporate campuses of Delta Air Lines and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Employees scrambling eagerly over the grounds of the Armour Junction office park on Plasters Avenue, searching for fruits and vegetables and beauty, is exactly what Cory Mosser, the farmer-founder of Natural Born Tillers, had in mind with the concept of edible landscaping on commercial sites.
“I started looking at people in traffic and seeing how sad they were,” says Mosser. “I saw a lot of boring, placeholder landscaping.”
He figured edible, rather than purely decorative, landscaping could be a feature that “breaks people’s bubbles” between cars and the landscape, between the natural environment and the office environment. It’s a concept that already has some popularity in residential areas – including the recently opened Urban Food Forest in southeast Atlanta, where Natural Born Tillers is a contractor – but the commercial side is a new field.
About three years ago, Mosser got the chance to try the concept through a chance introduction to EpiCity president Tom Stokes via a mutual friend who operates an organic farm at Emory University’s Oxford College in Oxford, Ga. Stokes and EpiCity’s architecture firm partner, Sizemore Group, agreed to help plant the seeds of the idea at the real estate company’s five-building complex on Plasters Avenue.
Today, instead of generic evergreen shrubs under the office windows, EpiCity has lavender plants and pineapple guava, which bears edible flowers. Trellises on an exterior wall will soon hold vines of muscadine grapes. On a closer look, landscape plants turn out to be the aromatic herb rosemary or the fruit-bearing serviceberry. Coming soon are “cocktail herbs” and tea plants for a new bar that will open in the complex.
On a recent morning, Mosser strolled across the visitor parking lot, hopped onto the curb, stuck his hand into the foliage of a small tree, and produced some figs, which the Reporter can confirm were yummy.
“When was the last time you stopped and looked at a plant?” Mosser said. “I think it changes your relationship to the landscape when you get something from it.”
The edible landscaping was a hit. Now several EpiCity-managed properties have edible landscaping and garden beds, including another office park on Powers Ferry Road in Cobb County. “We are really enjoying this collaboration with Natural Born Tillers and the ability to offer our community members more amenities and a chance to get outside and to be a part of God’s beautiful creation,” said Stokes in a press release highlighting the Cobb project.
And bigger clients have followed, among them Adult Swim, which brought Natural Born Tillers in to plant a corporate landscape garden at its Midtown headquarters in 2017.
Matt Harrigan, Adult Swim’s vice president of digital operations and one of its top writers and hosts, also oversees the company garden. He says the taste of nature is a nice alternative to the company’s largely electronic work. And the harvest every week or two includes not only staples like tomatoes and blueberries, but “a few surprises” Mosser and the team planted, such as “tiny Mexican sour cucumbers, Carolina Reaper peppers, edible nasturtiums [flowers].”
“Our garden is a fun, parallel organic universe populated with bees, butterflies and the occasional rabbit, and part of the fun of this garden is that it’s in a perpetual state of change,” Harrigan said. “The employee reaction to it has been overwhelmingly positive.”
That kind of ecosystem-building is another benefit of edible landscaping, especially in the pesticide-free method Natural Born Tillers does it, Mosser says. He said 210 native species of moths can live on blueberry bushes, and Carswell said she has noticed more honeybees on the property as they come to pollinate the variety of plants. Attracting a full range of creatures is a way the landscaping can solve one issue that often worries property-owners – vermin that might like to eat the plants as much as people do.
“One of the biggest concerns I get when meeting with new clients is, ‘What about pests?’” Mosser said. “If you have predators, it’s not an issue.”
Natural Born Tillers not only plants edible landscaping but also offers ongoing maintenance, replanting and programming. The pricing depends on the size and complexity. Planting can run anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000, Mosser said, and monthly maintenance could be $500 to $2,000.
“It’s more expensive than traditional landscaping,” he acknowledged, but offers many benefits, and can come with such additional programming as presentations from guest chefs or local farmers. “It’s not just about, ‘Oh, we’ve got a fig tree out here,’” he said.
For corporate clients, “It’s a great team-building exercise,” he said. And for employees, there’s always the big plus: “having excuses to go outside.”