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An Urban Farm Becomes A Learning Lab

Aquatic ecosystems that feed food production, compost, and animal ecosystems.

In spring 2014, PAST Foundation undertook the development of a new program: STEM Outdoor Innovation Labs (SOIL). SOIL labs were created to connect students with nature, growing plants, studying ecosystems, and creating outdoor learning labs. Students in middle and high school had the opportunity to explore learning from nature while solving real-world problems. Jim Bruner, a PAST project manager, was charged with overseeing the development of the SOIL labs at the participating schools, and it became a personal passion for Jim.

As the home owner of two vacant plots in an urban setting in Columbus, Ohio, Jim wanted to implement some of the same systems and techniques used in SOIL, and to take them even further. First step – use chemistry and compost to convert the dead urban soil into rich garden soil. Next, conduct a thorough research of city codes and health department guidelines.

From there, the expansion of Jim’s urban farm, named Mezzacello (an homage to Monticello), moved rapidly. Mezzacello is now part of PAST’s Growth Learning Lab, a place where students and teachers can learn and experience gardens and farms through a STEM focused lens.

Jim has documented through journals and videos all his experiments, CAD models and implementation processes, as well as results realized at his urban farm. This documentation and his insights are shared with teachers and schools to support their own Growth projects.

The strategies, technologies, and processes at Mezzacello are constantly evolving! Here are some of the highlights from this ongoing experience.

  1. Designed a formal garden to create a visual barrier between the urban farm and the busy city street.

  2. Added a greenhouse to grow all the plants needed for the garden.

  3. Two cold frame structures were built to extend the growing season well into winter.

  4. An outdoor classroom area was added so students could use this space as a learning center.

  5. Chickens came to roost, creating a real urban farm! They help the ecosystem of the farm, managing the grubs and bugs that plagues the overgrown lot.

  6. The original 55 gallon rain barrel was not able to keep up with demand, so three 300 gallon IBC tanks were installed.

  7. An aquaponics system was added as an experiment in growing tilapia through the winter.

  8. Rabbits and ducks joined the farm, along with two duck ponds, expanding the ecosystem and diversifying the farm.

  9. Fruit trees were planted and grown on a vertical steel support structure to maximize the space.

  10. Fruits and vegetables are processed through a solar dehydrator built on the farm.

Innovations To Come

Mezzacello, like all ecosystems is ever-changing and dynamic. Future plans include:

  1. To completely power the pumps, lights, computers, and timers on the farm, four 250 watt solar panel arrays will be installed on a new shed.

  2. Garden beds will be converted into no dig raised beds. Named hugelkultur, these beds create a permaculture system where biomass is buried and water swales are created to mimic the processes nature uses to water plants.

Community and Sharing

Creating awareness about urban farming is part of Jim’s mission. To that point, he created a Community Compost area in an alley behind his home. Neighbors are assured that all deposits will be properly composted and used on the farm.

There is no better way to build support than to invite visitors to see the possibilities. Recently Jim’s home and urban farm were featured in a Home & Garden Tour, with over 1000 people visiting Mezzacello. While many may not take on an urban farm (or even suburban farm) that rivals Jim’s, each took away an idea that could help transform their own garden, whether it is in their backyard or on their patio.

PAST is very proud of Jim and his Mezzacello urban farm, and we are excited to share this Growth Learning Lab with students, teachers, and schools. For more information about the farm and the techniques and processes shared here, contact Jim Bruner.







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