By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor
Decatur, GA — Horticultural therapist Rachel Cochran discovered a passion for gardening when working on the farm-to-school movement in Decatur nearly 15 years ago. She was wrapping up the installation of a garden at Oakhurst Elementary School, when a teacher asked if her special education students could spend time in the space.
“No one ever thinks of people with disabilities in gardening,” Cochran said, getting choked up. “I took it to heart. There are lot of opportunities for people who can feely move their bodies. But there are not the same opportunities for people in wheelchairs to get into nature and enjoy it.”
With her business partner Wendy Battaglia, Cochran founded Trellis Horticulture Therapy Alliance (HTA) in 2017. Working out of Callanwolde Art Center, Trellis HTA holds educational workshops and classes for special education students from Inman Middle School, seniors, military veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, people living with diabetes and adults with spine and brain trauma.
“Plants are a reason to get out of bed. They require care. Once you get something growing, you have to maintain it,” Cochran said. “Plants require motivation and provide purpose.”
There must be something in the Decatur dirt that inspires gardeners.
Rita Gowler’s hobby slowly became a business as she started selling handmade cards and illustrated seed packets at festivals and meetings. Her son encouraged her to start web presence for her small company, Botany Yards, selling seeds suited for growing in Georgia.
With a degree in horticulture, she has worked in greenhouses and gardening centers. Gowler, originally from Illinois, is known for the butterfly garden she planted while teaching at Decatur Presbyterian Children’s Community.
When COVID-19 forced schools to close, Gowler spent more and more time turning her half-acre of land in Oak Grove into a landscape of grasses and perennials like milkweed, pale purple coneflower, goldenrod, river oats and pink muhly grass. Botany Yards offers 36 varieties of flowers and seven varieties of grasses.
Some seeds can go right into the ground with no fuss, Gowler said. First-time gardeners can try easy-to-grow flowers in the ground from seed including columbine, hibiscus, coreopsis and sunflowers.
Chelsea Townsend is another gardener with a seed habit. In 2016, she had so many seeds that she started growing seedlings at farmers markets to support her non-profit. The non-profit later dissolved, but selling seeds and seedlings grew into Strange and Co.
“Some women buy shoes, I buy seeds,” said Townsend, who uses a spreadsheet to keep track of 350 varieties of seeds.
She starts seeds in her small home office, and once sprouted, Townsend places the thousands of seedlings into a collapsible greenhouse outside. In April, she will begin selling plants online. Customers can use contactless pick up from her porch, but she’s happy to come out and chat about the plants, too.
In her East Point neighborhood, Townsend is teaching kids and adults to garden. Nano-farming, she calls it. She says gardeners can use any tiny amount of land to grow food. Her inspiration is a family in California who grows 7,000 pounds of food each year on a small plot of land.
While farming with kids at Main Street Academy, she empowered students to grow their own food. She enjoyed watching struggling students open up to gardening.
“Their eyes brighten, they ask questions, lose fear and realize they can take care of something and make it thrive,” she said.
Urban agriculture is also the focus of Atplanta, a company run by 2020 Emory University graduates Gabe Eisen and Azhar Khanmohamed. The guys encourage gardeners to think about the politics of food – how and why we have access to fruits and vegetables all year, the impact food makes on the environment and global exploitation of farmworkers.
“Grow your own food. Rethink the food on your plate. You don’t have to be as radical as Gabe and I are,” said Khanmohamed.
Atplanta’s business model is to hold a gardener’s hand throughout each season, educating while growing. Atplanta uses a sliding scale for customers, making gardening accessible to as many clients as possible. They install a garden, come back to check on the plants and stay in touch as much as the client needs by text or virtual meeting.
“The idea is to hedge against the steady decline I’ve observed in an ability to keep a garden going year-round,” said Eisen, who grew up in DeKalb County.
Khanmohamed’s yard in East Atlanta is the model for the business.
“We can’t grow food for other people unless we are doing it ourselves,” he said.
For summer, Atplanta suggests planting okra, peppers, tomatoes, squash, melons, beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, flowers, sweet potatoes and basil. And if a gardener is leaving town for a week or long weekend? Plants that can handle a little neglect are beans, okra and arugula.
Protect your plants from squirrels with bird netting, especially if the garden is near a tree canopy. Squirrels love tomatoes, but they’re not interested in cucumbers or peppers, Eisen and Khanmohamed suggested.
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