At Atlanta’s first food forest, you can forage for mushrooms and pick medicinal herbs

From a government-designated food desert to a community-driven food forest

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The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
A squash grows at the new Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill

Photograph by The Sintoses

In southeast Atlanta, a newly designated city park is set to become the nation’s largest food forest—a place where volunteers tend crops of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs, much of which is available to the public for free. The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill occupies a seven-acre plot where husband and wife Willie and Ruby Morgan once kept a farm; the couple often left surplus produce in bags on neighbors’ fence posts.

In the mid-2000s, developers bought the Morgan property—but the planned townhouses never materialized. Instead, the Conservation Fund purchased the plot in 2016 to preserve the greenspace and pass it on to the city’s parks department, which will help with the group effort to transform the land into a space to feed, educate, and engage the community.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill

Photograph by The Sintoses

The surrounding Browns Mill Park and Lakewood neighborhoods are U.S. Department of Agriculture–designated food deserts (places with limited access to affordable and nutritious food), and southeast Atlanta as a whole has seen little of the recent investment in the city’s urban core, says Soisette Lumpkin, who leads the Friends of the Forest community group. “The Food Forest not only brings food but brings life to the area,” Lumpkin says.

Below is a glimpse of the crops, plants, and people who form the crux of the forest and its mission.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
Mullein and cardoon

Photograph by The Sintoses

Mullein and cardoon

. . . or how to heal with herbs

Celeste Lomax, the park’s community organizer, oversees the forest’s medicinal herb garden. “There’s healing in herbs,” she says; her favorite is mullein, thought by herbalists to ease respiratory conditions like asthma, which disproportionately affects south Atlanta residents. Lumpkin says that offering access to the plants used in ancestral healing practices sends a message to the community about the park’s purpose: “The Food Forest is not just a garden,” she says. “It’s a holistic approach to health.”

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
Figs, nectarines, plums, and pawpaws

Photograph by The Sintoses

Figs, nectarines, plums, and pawpaws

. . . or how to teach others to grow

Some of the Food Forest’s hundreds of fruit trees were planted in the past year by students from nearby elementary schools. It will be several years before the trees bear fruit, but eventually, they will yield thousands of pounds of figs, nectarines, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates, cherries, and native pawpaws, which taste like banana custard with hints of mango and cantaloupe. The forest also houses beehives and newly sown mushroom beds, which provide additional educational opportunities. “For many of these kids, it’s their first time interacting with a fruit or vegetable in the ground,” says Michael McCord, the food forest’s ranger and a staff member at Trees Atlanta.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
Corn and collards

Photograph by The Sintoses

Corn and collards

. . . or how to feed the neighbors

Corn, collard greens, and other vegetables are already growing in the community garden, where Doug Hardeman and Rosemary Griffin, who live nearby, volunteer nearly every day. For now, the harvest is distributed among volunteers and neighbors. Later, produce may be distributed to neighborhood food pantries.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
Pecans and black walnuts

Photograph by The Sintoses

Pecans and black walnuts

. . . or how to honor the original farmers

“The piece of the Morgans we’re trying to replicate is that willingness to share with your neighbor,” says Shannon Lee, the Conservation Fund’s urban conservation manager. The family’s legacy lives on in more than one way; there are dozens of mature pecan, black walnut, and mulberry trees across the property that date back at least to the Morgans’ ownership, including four giant pecan trees near what’s now the picnic table area.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill
Butterfly milkweed and echinacea

Photograph by The Sintoses

Butterfly milkweed and echinacea

. . . or how to engage the community

Designing the greenspace was a group effort driven largely by the Browns Mill Community Association. Lead designer Lindsey Mann’s job, she says, was to “distill what it was the community wanted and then draw it up into a plan.” Among the community’s desires was a garden to memorialize ancestors, to be planted near the park’s East Rhinehill Road border. It will bloom with wildflowers and pollinators, including milkweed, echinacea, and other flowers, that attract insects such as bees and butterflies, which help propagate future generations of plants. “Flowers are good medicine for the emotional heart,” Mann says.

This article appears in our August 2019 issue.

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