Just when you think the fast-paced, industrialized, city life is dry and desolate, the Philadelphia Orchard Project brings nature’s beauties to brighten up Philly’s urban neighborhoods.
As a nonprofit, community-based organization, the Philadelphia Orchard Project transforms vacant lots, schoolyards, community gardens and areas in low-wealth neighborhoods into green spaces to harvest useful and edible plants for the public. With a focus on perennial food-growing plants, POP harvests everything from fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, vines and flowers to perennial herbs and more. Each orchard also includes a pollinated garden to protect against insects and produce pollination for the fruits.
POP’s original mission was to create green spaces to harvest foods for people in low-wealth neighborhoods with limited access to fresh agriculture but Executive Director Phil Forsyth said it has grown into much more than that.
“We really see these community orchards as multifunctional green infrastructure for neighborhoods,” Forsyth said. “We’re creating functioning ecologies in these neighborhoods that produce fruit, support nature and get people exposed to nature in their own neighborhoods.”
He said POP’s green spaces have created “community gathering spaces” for all people. Throughout the summer, POP hosts events like festivals, workshops, day-camps, as well as weekly planting and harvesting.
“You can also look at the ecological benefits for neighborhoods,” Forsyth said. “The trees provide shade for cooling, help produce storm water runoff, they bring back the birds and butterflies and other native wildlife.”
“Other reasons are educational opportunities,” he continued. “We do a survey every year and our partners always report back the most important thing to them and it’s the opportunity to teach people in the neighborhoods about nature and the fruit system. There’s a real value there besides just the fruit.”
Forsyth believes microenterprise is one of the most important things POP provides for the communities. They aim to fill empty spaces like vacant lots to transform low-wealth or unused areas into harvesting grounds and environmental sanctuaries.
“Some of our partners sell the fruit as a part of their urban farm programs and farm stand, so they’re getting food out to the neighborhood and also teaching youth in their neighborhood how to grow and sell produce,” he said.
Forsyth said POP’s flagship site is the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, but most of the orchards are located in low-wealth and neglected neighborhoods including areas of Strawberry Mansion and Hunting Park in North Philly.
Bartram’s Garden, located at 5400 Lindbergh Blvd. in Southwest Philly, is POP’s largest orchard, as well as the oldest surviving botanical garden in the United States.
So far this summer, the organization has hosted a number of events, including the 8th annual Strawberry Fest held on June 4 at historic Strawberry Mansion in East Fairmount Park, as well as several POPLuck events, where volunteers come together to plant orchard trees and shrubs, work on soiling projects, share food and celebrate with music, poetry, dance and various art forms.
In 2014, POP launched a gleaning program, POPHarvest, where they collaborate with grassroots organizations and institutions to harvest fruits from underutilized trees throughout the city. These areas include both residential trees in parks and historic sites, as well as abandoned or neglected orchards in community lots and open spaces.
This month, POP began their first-ever Juneberry Joy campaign, where volunteers harvest, gather, learn about, taste and take home the berries that grow natively on the tress in those areas.
“We were actually inspired by the Baltimore Orchard Project, which does a Mulberry Madness event every year,” Forsyth said. “We’re partnering with five or six businesses around the city that are taking some of the juneberries we harvest and making things like juneberry muffins, juneberry jam.”
Robyn Mello (pictured below), program director and long-time volunteer, was hired in 2014 to help develop the new gleaning program, as well as assist in POP’s expansion of community outreach and education.
Mello leads POP’s team of volunteers on educational harvesting journeys in various areas. As its first collaborator for the gleaning initiative, POP partnered with University of Pennsylvania’s Facilities and Real Estate Services to allow harvesting fruits throughout various spots on campus.
Mello not only guides volunteers and random passersby to harvest and gather fruits during events, she also educates attendees with beneficial information, history conservation and ecological knowledge and advice.
Earlier this month, she led a group of 16 people at a POPHarvest held at the University of Pennsylvania, where dozens of native juneberry trees grow around campus.
“Because they’re so easy to take care of, they’re planted as landscape plants,” Mello said. “They have really beautiful flowers and they are some of the first trees and shrubs to flower in the early spring so they’re just really nice to have around.”
Education and outreach intern Alyssa Schimmel (pictured above) has been involved with POP for about two years and also works as a gardener and community herbalist throughout Philadelphia. She hosted a recent POPHarvest at Clark Park in West Philly, which provides a helpful tree map directory at the park entrance.
“It’s been really nice to see the impact on these different communities and how it really draws people from across the board,” Schimmel said. “It’s intergenerational, interracial. It’s a wonderful way to get involved and connect with a sense of place here in Philly.”
Kristen Jas Vietty, got involved with POP within the past three months through the harvesting events and is now the new orchard liaison for the Awbury Arboretum site.
“I really love spending time with plants and people who love plants, food and being outside, so I like the ability to gather with others” Jas Vietty said. “I’m a grower and growing by yourself can be pretty isolating. This is a cool way for people to come together.”
In the past Philly, which has more than 40,000 vacant lots throughout the city, has been ranked as one of the most polluted cities with one of the worst poverty rates of the ten largest U.S cities. This means, families who live below the poverty line don’t have the opportunities to access resources like fresh fruit and flowers or be involved in harvesting programs to learn about sustainable and healthy living.
POP aims to challenge those disparities and bring null and neglected spaces to life, advocate healthy and sustainable living to communities, and overall, replace poverty with prosperity through nature’s wonders.
-Text and images by Alexa Zizzi.