Edible landscaping as an employee perk at EpiCity

Andrea Richards trains the Natural Born Tillers landscape crew that creates an edible urban garden for EpiCity Real Estate Services in Atlanta. Here, she tends to the plants like fennel and rosemary that both produce food and attract pollinators.

Credit: Contributed by EpiCity Real Estate Services Atlanta

Credit: Contributed by EpiCity Real Estate Services Atlanta

Andrea Richards trains the Natural Born Tillers landscape crew that creates an edible urban garden for EpiCity Real Estate Services in Atlanta. Here, she tends to the plants like fennel and rosemary that both produce food and attract pollinators.

Okra is a good example of commercial landscaper Cory Mosser's approach to business. When the Natural Born Tillers owner was a self-taught farmer selling at the Peachtree Road Farmer's Market, he didn't just grow and sell okra.

"I blew people away just by having them try raw okra," he said. And then he got out a roaster, "kissed the okra on the flame first" and tossed it with Beautiful Briny Sea salt from a fellow vendor.

"People lined up for it, they were eating it for breakfast," he recalled gleefully.

Mosser brings that same "all in" attitude as NBT collaborates with EpiCity Real Estate Services. Not content with merely edible landscaping, or community or urban demonstration farming, he's working with companies to combine all three approaches.

EpiCity was the first area business to trial the edible landscaping at its Powers Ferry Business Park headquarters. It now has a curated space replete with organically grown edibles. The project lets employees disengage from the office to come dig in the dirt if they like, which Mosser describes as a workplace amenity.

The mainstay is three raised beds of seasonal produce, full of carrots, radishes, peppers and baby tomatoes. There are also bountiful fruit shrubs and trees, including blueberries, blackberries, Asian persimmons, figs, lavender, pineapple guava and a Nanking Cherry.

This raised bed is available to employees at EpiCity Real Estate Services as part of its urban garden and edible landscape at Atlanta's Powers Ferry Business Park. Cory Mosser (left) and Andrea Richards of Natural Born Tillers are harvesting one of four or five crops of seasonal vegetables produced each year at the corporate site.

Credit: Contributed by EpiCity Real Estate Services Atlanta

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Credit: Contributed by EpiCity Real Estate Services Atlanta

"When people pass by it looks like landscaping, and then they get a little closer and there are carrots, there are herbs," said NBT's operations and education manager, Andrea Richards. "It's fun watching their reactions."

Tenants and visitors to the office park who want to spend time in the garden can help with planting and picking. This "our edible landscape is your edible landscape" approach is just one way Mosser is intentionally unusual.

"We know people are really busy at work and we don't want to give them an extra job," he said. "It's completely opt in. People who want to be there every week when we're there can do that. If they just want to walk by and grab a carrot, that's also something they can do."

At EpiCity's Armour Junction at 400 Plasters Ave. NE in Atlanta, the collaboration has yielded a patio garden with service berries, blueberries, mint, guava, figs, rosemary and lavender. "Farmer office hours" at the office park site also give NBT employees a chance to share the random tips they have as experienced farmers.

Part of the goal is helping people realize they can be just like NBT and "grow weird things in weird places. We're trying harden to broaden people's understanding of what can grow in a landscape and what's usable," Mosser said. "Even if you don't ever grow things yourself, you can still benefit from understanding what's in season and what to do with it – even kohlrabi."

Since they are growing in urban spaces, they don't have to grow so much extra to accommodate bird, deer or squirrel pilfering. But they do fill the beds to the brim with four or five edibles each season, adding rich new soil as needed. Trellised pole beans are a favorite, along with a "ton of different cucumbers and a huge variety," Mosser said. He opens eyes still wider by presenting an end use. For the cucumbers, that means slicing, adding chopped Thai basil grown onsite and dressing them with a mix of a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar and a teaspoon of sugar.

Mostly, it's all been just like that okra: initial skepticism followed by high rates of enthusiastic participation.

As for what they do with the leftovers, well, "That has not been a problem," Mosser said. For example, Natural Born Tillers has expanded into Delta's corporate campus.

Vegetables like carrots and fruit like blackberries are shared with employees at EpiCity, where the produce grows in an urban farm-type edible landscape within Powers Ferry Business Park.

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"It's something like a small city," Mosser noted, "So it's more a matter of trying to decide who gets the produce and when."

Everyone, though, can look and smile.

"People are just able to go out and see something alive," he said. "Hundreds, maybe thousands of them walk past the raised beds when they park at Delta. I have watched and I would say 80 percent turn their heads to look. I feel like that's really important, the way we're acting like a little living billboard for sustainability."

Lawyer career averted

Mosser himself almost became one of the those corporate employees. He had started an undergrad degree at University of Georgia and graduated from West Georgia. He'd already been accepted to law school and was planning to go. Then he hiked the Appalachian trail.

"That thoroughly destroyed all my plans," he said without a trace of regret.

The new plan involved farming, sustainable living and eventually, three kids who "ran around barefoot, eating raw okra." He loved that lifestyle, and laughs when he describes moving his kids, now 13, 10 and 9, to Decatur.

"It was kind of like bringing wild animals to the zoo. They definitely climb trees in places most Atlanta kids don't. But we landed in the right place here."

Without the EpiCenter experience, there would be no Delta urban farm experience, Mosser emphasizes. EpiCity's president Tom Stokes refined the design and the business model.

"He has a critical eye as a corporate real estate manager and knows how he wants properties to look and the level of aesthetic appeal he wants to maintain. That allowed us to be ready to work with larger companies like Delta," Mosser said.

Mosser relishes Delta's enthusiasm, too.

"The talks took two years, but it took so long because there were a lot people involved – it didn't take a lot of convincing," Mosser said. "They embraced it. "

One of the go-tos at Delta is a Cory Mosser-Natural Born Tiller signature: blueberry plants. Delta has a patch of 70 blueberries and Mosser absolutely loves them.

"They're a native plant, and a host to more than 200 species of moths and butterflies. And they have bark to nest in."

This is not true of the corporate landscaping staple, crepe myrtles. Don't get Mosser started on crepe myrtles and their lack of bark and redeeming qualities: "They don't sustain any life.”

At Delta, NBT planted mostly three-year-old blueberry plants, but incorporated about 10 percent of five-year-olds that were already producing dramatically.

"Everyone focuses on 'how much food will it produce?' but initially the most important thing is to let people see that food can be produced, right next to a parking lot, to see the blueberry plant with blueberries on it."

Atlanta's cartoon-producing Adult Swim Studios was also an early adopter, right after EpiCity.

"They love weird things so we fit really well into their culture," Mosser said.

Their urban garden is right on Williams Street and features oddball sculptures from some of their cartoons such as  “Rick and Morty.”

“It's cool to see these folks who work in animation and look at a screen all day go outside and see the butterflies," Mosser said. "They tell me what birds have been coming in and feeding off the sunflowers."

While edible landscaping as an employee amenity is still in the realm of oddities, Mosser says it will become mainstream – because it has to.

"This type of experience is going to become more of a necessity in the workplace," he added. "Leadership has to be on the lookout for way to help people stay connected to humanity. The more time we spend engaging with inanimate objects, the less familiarity we have with people and the world around us. That deficit has to be made up."

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