The Philadelphia Orchard Project promotes access to fresh-picked fruit in neighborhoods around the city.
By Sari Harrar | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Robyn Mello harvesting serviceberries.
Six young gardeners inspect a row of fruit trees—plum, fig, pear, pawpaw, almond, and persimmon—that are soaking up the sun on a grassy slope at the William T. Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. “It took, like, a thousand years to plant these in the spring,” recalls Ben, an eighth grader, perhaps exaggerating a bit about the time frame. “We weed them and water them; we check on them. Sometimes I’m amazed at how long it takes them to grow! I can’t wait till we can eat the fruit!” Ben’s eagerness to sample the sweet, tempting mix of natural goodies growing in this new urban orchard is easy to understand. The trees are on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Elmwood Avenue and the school’s blacktop parking lot, and raspberry bushes—which will come to a bearing age more quickly than the trees will—line a stone stairway nearby. “The idea is that students will be able to pick the berries as they come and go,” says Tilden Garden Club manager Cole Jadrosich, a literacy teacher and agricultural educator at the school.
But this project is about much more than a handful of juicy fruit. “The students are growing good food for their families and their neighborhood,” Jadrosich says. “While tending this orchard, along with the club’s vegetable garden, they are rejuvenating the spaces around us, making them healthier and more livable. Plus, the kids get out of the classroom and into nature so they can learn in new ways.”
Expertise, training, and plants come from POP, says Phil Forsyth.
The Tilden Garden Club is one of more than 100 groups that have received assistance with their fruit-growing endeavors by partnering with the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP). This innovative nonprofit has helped people design, plant, maintain, and sustain orchards, large and small, in every corner of the city. POP partners include schools, recreation centers, senior centers, and teen organizations, as well as the Ronald McDonald House, the Philadelphia Prison System, the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in Center City, and the Farm at Bartram’s Garden (see a story about this community farm on page 30). Most of the orchards are in neighborhoods without easy access to nutritious fresh fruit.
There’s something special about fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, and vines, says POP executive director Phil Forsyth. “They spark excitement in people. Groups seek us out because they want to add these plants to a vegetable garden or to their landscape. We provide expertise, training for volunteers, and plant materials, and we get a lot of phone calls and smartphone pictures all the time about pests and other fruit-growing challenges.” But the orchard partners are doing the most important work, he adds. “They’re transforming their neighborhoods and increasing access to food.”
Volunteers, like this group clearing and planting, handle the long-term care.
POP was founded in 2007 by a progressive entrepreneur, Paul Glover, who later ran for governor of Pennsylvania as the Green Party’s candidate in 2014. “I’d be riding on my bike throughout the city, and I saw vacant lots amidst all this hunger,” Glover told a reporter for the news website The Philadelphia Citizen. “I knew there was a way to bring those together.” Forsyth attended an early meeting of POP and was inspired to become involved. “I have a degree in horticulture,” he says, “but I was looking for a way to use my love of landscape design to help people. This was it.”
A vacant lot at Seventh Street and Snyder Avenue was the site for the group’s first orchard. In the 10 years since, POP partners have planted about 1,100 trees, more than 2,500 vines and shrubs, and nearly 17,000 perennials. Most of the plants come from POP’s nursery at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown.
Dan Reyes, a graduate student and Neighborhood Gardens Trust intern living in West Philadelphia, enjoys harvesting food in community.
Last year, orchard workdays drew 2,200 volunteers to help with digging, pruning, organic pest control, and other chores. They were rewarded later, when they were able to pick the fruits of their labor. Harvest time is cause for celebration. In 2016, POP orchards produced more than 5,000 pounds of fruit, a yield 28 percent higher than that in 2015. Most of this bounty was either picked by or distributed to neighborhood residents.
“Working in the orchards has many benefits,” says POP orchard director Robyn Mello. Among these, she says, are “delicious food, lessons in growing your own, learning about new plants and new ways to plant, and helping create beautiful gathering places in a city environment that’s mostly concrete, asphalt, and noise.”
These lovely green spaces are also wildly popular destinations, attracting 4,800 visitors to educational programs, and almost as many to tastings of everything from strawberry shortcake and juneberry salsa to exotic “I can’t believe that grows in Philly” goumi, jujube, and medlar fruits.
Persimmons at the Woodlands Cemetery are ready for harvest in November from the ground.
“Ugly little fruit, tastes great,” Forsyth says, pointing out a big, shaggy shrub by a fence at the Farm at Bartram’s Garden. It’s a che (Maclura tricuspidata), an exceptionally disease-resistant cross between a fig and a mulberry that produces lots of squashy, raspberry-like fruits.
The little-known che is emblematic of POP’s practical but creative approach to fruit tree success. “Everybody thinks of apples and peaches when they hear the word ‘orchard,’ but those are some of the hardest fruit trees to maintain,” Forsyth explains. “We’ll plant them, but since they’re vulnerable to so many pests and diseases, we also recommend growing fruits without a lot of hassle, like figs, pawpaws, Asian pears, goumi berries, and jujubes.”
The organization often selects varieties for a particular orchard based on the neighborhood’s cultural tastes. “We’ve planted Asian fruits for immigrants from that part of the world and get requests for peaches from people who grew up down South,” Forsyth says. “Some of our Latino partners ask about tropical fruits, so we’ll suggest pawpaw. It’s easy to grow in Zone 7, is North America’s biggest native fruit, and tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana.”
Persimmons at the Woodlands Cemetery are ready for harvest in November straight from the tree.
“While we are called POP, we plant more than just trees,” Mello says. “We’re trying to create mini ‘food forests,’ in which we grow not just orchard-variety trees but also berry bushes, shrubs, fruiting vines, groundcovers, lots and lots of pollinator plants, and medicinal and culinary herbs. The idea is to create an ecosystem that sustains itself.”
At Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia, a food forest grows at the edges of the school playground. Under a canopy of pawpaws, juneberries, figs, Asian pears, and chokeberries grow edible and pollinator-friendly plants and herbs, including gooseberries, alpine strawberries, chamomile, and dwarf peppermint. There’s even a clove currant bush, with spicy berries. This orchard—a partnership between the neighborhood group Greening Lea, the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the Philadelphia Water Department, and POP—is sustained by rain channeled from the school’s paved areas into the beds.
A garden princess shows off her treasure of just-picked ruby-red serviceberries.
It takes more than a hankering for sun-ripened blueberries in your morning yogurt to become a POP partner. Interested groups need to have long-term legal access to the land, as well as access to water. They must test the soil, clear debris, and protect the site from vandals. Twenty-five community members must sign a petition supporting the orchard, and at least two from the group must attend a workday and a workshop at an established POP location.
Orchards are now so popular that the approval process is competitive and takes about nine months. POP assists with funds provided by a large array of donors. “We don’t turn anyone away for financial reasons,” Forsyth says. “We’ll help pay for design, planting, and maintenance on a sliding scale.”
Teaching effective horticultural skills to orchard volunteers is an important part of POP’s work. In addition to specific days focused on jobs like pruning, the group now offers an intensive urban orchardist certification course. Volunteers also learn new techniques in less formal ways. For instance, a day of sheet mulching in a new orchard at West Philadelphia’s Monumental Baptist Church created rich beds for a planned fall planting of hundreds of perennials. This technique layers compostable organic material on top of cardboard, killing weeds as it builds soil.
Neighbors come together to harvest goumi berries from the food forest in Germantown’s Awbury Arboretum.
“Growing fruit is different from raising vegetables,” says Tanya Grinblat, POP’s development associate. “It takes an ongoing commitment over many years. Food forests, with quicker-fruiting bushes and vines, are great for allowing orchard members to enjoy edibles as fruit trees mature. And we make sure our partners know we support them for the long term.”
Back at Tilden Orchard, students gleefully recount their own days as orchard keepers in training. “We rode the train and the trolley to lots of gardens to help out,” says Sam, a student at Tilden. “We planted and weeded. It was hard work.” Accompanied by Jadrosich, they attended POP workdays around the city as preparation for tending to their own orchard. “We went to a garden beside Strawberry Mansion,” says Lianna, a fifth grader. “We pulled weeds so the strawberries could grow.”
“Working in a garden and with the trees gives us the raw material for all sorts of learning,” Jadrosich says. “It’s not just more worksheets, more math drills. If we find a caterpillar, students can look it up in the library. We’ve turned food from the garden into smoothies and sandwiches, trying new things. We’re learning from nature as we bring it into our neighborhood.”
Sari Harrar, a frequent contributor to Grow, has written for Better Homes and Gardens; O, the Oprah Magazine; and many other publications. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Orchards with a Purpose
Each Philadelphia Orchard Project site has its own character, purpose, and collection of plants. The following locations are bearing many kinds of fruit for their communities. Learn more at phillyorchards.org.
Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House Orchard in North Philadelphia includes a food forest orchard and herb garden, which helps feed families whose children are seeking medical treatment at area hospitals. Kids with disabilities visit from Shriners Hospitals for Children–Philadelphia to practice picking fruit.
Tertulias Herb Garden in West Kensington is a gathering point for neighbors and a center for practicing Puerto Rican herbal traditions. The garden includes serviceberries, cherries, apples, pears, plums, and some of the earliest-producing pawpaws in the city.
At Bartram’s Garden, one of POP’s largest partners, a ‘Lady Petre’ pear grows from a cutting of the original tree raised by botanist John Bartram in the 1700s. “The first cutting had grown into a towering tree in a Germantown backyard,” says POP executive director Phil Forsyth. “The owner was a beekeeper we knew, and so we were fortunate to get a cutting from that specimen to bring back to Bartram’s.”
KleinLife Orchard in Northeast Philadelphia produces fruit for the KleinLife community center’s vital meal delivery program, which serves seniors who cannot shop or cook for themselves.
The Philadelphia Prison System complex hosts the city’s largest orchard. Inmates participating
in the PHS Roots to Re-Entry job-training program tend the plants and harvest the crops, which are distributed to local food pantries.
The PHS Pop Up Garden at uCity Square (36th and Filbert streets) isn’t a Philadelphia Orchard Project site, but it is giving city dwellers a taste of urban fruit-growing with an orchard of potted dwarf apple trees. The garden is open through September. Get details at phsonline.org.
Uncommon Fruits for Home Gardeners
Red currant (Ribes rubrum) tolerates partial shade.
Berries of American elder (Sambucus canadensis) make tasty jam or wine.
Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) fruits ripen in midsummer.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) produces blueberry-like fruits.
Edible fig (Ficus carica) trees survive winter with a little protection.
Mulberry (Morus alba) is found everywhere in our region.
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) fruits sweeten as they ripen.
Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) begins bearing in two or three years.
Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) fruit is very popular in China.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees grow only about 25 feet tall.
Hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) fruits taste like the tropical variety.