Baltimore Orchard Project volunteers collect fruit with a harvesting basket.

Baltimore Orchard Project volunteers collect fruit with a harvesting basket.

Volunteers for the Baltimore Orchard Project (BOP) inspect the baby pears growing in a long-abandoned orchard that contains over 100 trees, and they’re looking forward to a good harvest this year. They’ve done a lot of work in this orchard – they have already cut out the dead trees, removed poison ivy, and mulched, but there are still challenges – the Baltimore Orchard Project is dealing with a space that was left to whither about fifteen years ago.

How did they even come by an orchard that had been neglected for such a long time? Maryland once was rich with urban agriculture. In the city of Baltimore alone, 100 orchards have been documented that thrived a century ago. Not only did people grow fruit trees in their home gardens, but Maryland also had many commercial orchards. Over the last three decades, it’s been harder to make money selling urban fruit. So, during the 1970s and 1980s, many orchards were abandoned and some were cut down completely.

The apple harvest (photo credit: Baltimore Orchard Project).

The apple harvest (photo credit: Baltimore Orchard Project).

A few years ago, Curt Sherrer from MillStone Cellars, a handcrafted cider company, discovered an abandoned orchard that had one thousand overgrown apple trees. Curt got to work cleaning up the orchard, and over the years MillStone Cellars has used the apples to create specialty ciders. But, along with these apple trees, there were also 100 pear trees. Sherrer contacted BOP to see if they wanted a pear orchard to take care of.

The Baltimore Orchard Project is the creation of Nina Beth Cardin, who launched the organization as a way of harvesting urban fruit trees where the fruit has been left to rot. Located in the city of Baltimore, her group’s goal is to help others plant and care for fruit trees. They look for partners who can offer three key things:

  • People who will show up each year.
  • Property with space to plant the trees.
  • Passion to continue caring for the trees over time.

Of the pear orchard, Cardin says, “It’s a lab for us, a volunteer outreach opportunity, and a way to excite people’s imagination. We are just facilitators for all the rest of the orchards that we work with.” Usually, the organization helps schools, congregations, neighbourhoods, and private residences plant new fruit trees. So far, they have worked in 56 locations. Baltimore’s city arborist Erik Dihle helped the group find funding so they could provide residents with free trees. Dihle, who supports the planting of fruit trees in the right places, can supply about 300 trees per year.

With so much to look after, it was important that volunteers learned how to care for fruit trees properly. Members of the Master Gardener Program (who receive extensive training about gardening and horticulture) have to volunteer a certain number of hours per year to achieve their certification – so, Cardin thought getting them to train her and the volunteers would be easy. The problem? “I found out that Master Gardeners aren’t being trained in fruit tree care,” Cardin says. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s not what I expected.’” Luckily, the organization was able to find a few people to help. The team includes Eric Kelly, founder of Charm City Farms and their go-to guy for teaching and technical information.

Harvesting apples using a fruit picking basket (photo credit: Baltimore Orchard Project).

Harvesting apples using a fruit picking basket (photo credit: Baltimore Orchard Project).

BOP has various ways of obtaining funds. One inspired initiative was the social media campaign that helped them raise $2500 to pay for a trained orchard manager, which was done through an online fundraising program called GiveCorps. They also have access to the Baltimore Tool Bank, a tool-lending organization that they make use of for big stewardship days. It has lots of equipment available at inexpensive rates, such as wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes, clippers, and loppers. Tree companies and the city donate mulch to the project, which allows them to save money.

Each year, about 400 volunteers come to harvest trees across the city, and BOP donates the produce to soup kitchens, food banks, and others who can’t afford good, healthy fruit. The fruit is also sold or given away to corner stores, food trucks, and local markets where this kind of food is not easily accessible.

With regards to BOP’s pear trees, the members have to play a waiting game. At this stage, they are watching and taking basic care of the trees, without spraying them. So far, they don’t have issues with pests or disease – however, they do have an issue with height. Some of the trees are over 30 feet tall, and even most of the trees, which rest between 15 and 20 feet, are too tall for easy harvesting.

It can take up to four years to slowly and gently prune a neglected tree into a smaller, more productive shape. Each year, the members of BOP will do their bit to revitalize the trees. Considering what they’ve already done so far, we can only wait and look forward to what’s in store for the pear trees and for the Baltimore Orchard Project in the coming years.