Written by Susan Poizner, Photography credit: TRCA

Tree Care Students Revitalize Neighbourhood Fruit Trees

It’s May 14, 2015 and 14 fruit-tree care students from San Romanoway have flocked to the Roxanne Williams’ garden in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood in Toronto. Roxanne has five fruit trees in her backyard and they have not been thriving. Some of the trees were planted years ago by a previous homeowner. She planted the others herself. One aging apricot tree is clearly diseased and has black and flaky bark. One of the mature apple trees has had insect problems. Even the recently planted pear trees haven’t been producing well.

The San Romanoway students, aged nine to “sixty something” are all participating in the Orchard People Certificate Program in Beginner Fruit Tree Care, brought to the community as part of the San Romanoway Revival Project. The San Romanoway property, which has both low income rental and privately owned condos on site, houses thousands of people. And it’s also in the centre of a neighbourhood that has long been challenged by poverty and crime.

At this point, the certificate program participants have already received 12 hours of training in fruit tree pruning, pest and disease prevention, nutrition management and more.

Fruit tree care student at San Romanoway prunes a mature fruit tree in a nearby neighbourhood home. Many private homes in this Jane/Finch neighbourhood in Toronto have fruit trees on their properties. Most homeowners do not know how to care for their trees.

A fruit tree care student from the San Romanoway project prunes a mature fruit tree in a nearby neighbourhood home. Many private homes in this Jane/Finch neighbourhood in Toronto have fruit trees on their properties. Most homeowners do not know how to care for their trees.

Orchard People director instucts San Romanoway students in fruit tree pruning in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood of Toronto.

Orchard People director Susan Poizner instructs San Romanoway students in fruit tree pruning in the Jane/Finch neighbourhood of Toronto. Photo Credit: TRCA

As the instructor, I supervise the students as they evaluate the trees in Roxanne’s garden one by one. They look for evidence of pest and disease problems and call on their training to identify those problems (for instance fungal or bacterial canker or black knot) and discuss treatment and solutions.  Then I divide the students into groups and they get started pruning the trees using the skills they have developed in previous weeks. Their confidence, focus and excitement in putting their skills to use is palpable. Roxanne Williams, the homeowner, commented in an interview two months later.

“I really enjoyed the experience. It was very informative. The students took initiative with the pruning of the trees. They mulched around the trees with compost.  They were very willing to work and they were very knowledgable about what needed to be done.”

Not only did Roxanne enjoy learning from and working with the students, now she can already see the benefits.

“Afterwards my trees looked well pruned, well cared for and we can already see that their work has improved fruit production. Our trees look really full this year. They are producing way more than they did last year and I think that’s because of the care. “

Roxanne says that this is a service she would be willing to pay for.

“I don’t know the market rate for this kind of work. But I would definitely consider paying to have graduates of this program come back in years to come,” she says.

Fruit Tree Care Certificate Brings Confidence and Expertise

This hands-on pruning session was just one of nine classes that the students took as part of their Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care. Each class lasted two hours. The classes included both fruit tree care theory and hands-on practice.

Orchard being planted behind 10 San Romanoway in Jane/Finch neighbourhood in Toronto in April 2015 as part of a greening and revitalization project. Photo Credit: TRCA.

Orchard planting behind 10 San Romanoway in Jane/Finch neighbourhood in Toronto in April 2015 as part of a greening and revitalization project. In 2015 18 apple, Asian pear, cherry and apricot trees were planted. More fruit trees are to be planted in 2016. Photo Credit: TRCA.

The goal of the certificate program is to teach the students how to care for and maintain the new orchard that has been planted on the San Romanoway property as part of a larger plan to green the property and help make healthy food more accessible to local residents, said Holly Shaw-Lopez, a project coordinator for the Toronto and Region Conservation’s Black Creek SNAP program.

“The orchard at San Romanoway is part of a Sustainable Neighbourhood Retrofit Action Plan (known as SNAP) for the Black Creek Neighbourhood which among other goals is striving to increase the urban tree canopy and achieve food sustainability through urban agriculture,” she says.

“The icing on the cake is that Orchard People’s fruit tree care training program offers skills training for residents. This will ensure a long, healthy and sustainable future for Toronto’s newest urban orchard.”

Holly attended a number of the hands-on workshops throughout the course, and she was amazed to see how the students changed. In the first class, she felt the students had a noncommittal attitude and some were even slightly resistant to being involved in the program. It seemed they were not yet convinced that they wanted to take the leap from vegetable cultivation to tree tending.

But when she returned in class 5 and class 7, she saw a transformation.

“I attended the session mid-program and what I saw surprised and impressed me greatly. I saw such a keen desire for knowledge. With excitement they examined the trees and shot off technical terms for cuts while providing thoughtful rationale as to why they would choose each course of action.”

“Some youth that had previously been dragged to class by parent participants were now just as eager to join in, each one  practicing “thinning out” or “heading back” cuts under Susan’s watchful and encouraging eye.”

Isioma Fedjilawn, at 9-years-old, was the youngest graduate in the class.

Isioma Fedjilawn, at 9-years-old, was the youngest graduate in the class.Here she just planted one of the fruit tree whips, an Asian pear,  in San Romanoway’s new orchard. Photo credit: TRCA

A Transformative Experience for the Students

From the students’ perspectives, this has been a transformative and eye opening experience. Charity Fejokwu attended with her 9-year old daughter Isioma. Charity is passionate about bringing change to her community.

One of the biggest problems she sees is that people here suffer from health problems – often because of poor food choices. Junk food is cheap and easily accessible. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be expensive. She believes growing local fruit trees will help change this.

She also felt that the program changed her in an unexpected way:

“I used to walk by trees and not notice them at all,” Charity explains. “Now having taken this course I look at trees and see them so differently. I keep thinking about the different ways I could prune them and how I could help them to be healthy and productive.”

Phyllis Brown, who worked as an administrative assistant in the banking sector was another participant. While she is an experienced gardener, she signed up for the course to educate herself in fruit tree care.

“What I liked about the program was the enthusiasm and delivery of detailed information by our instructor Susan,” she wrote in a course evaluation questionnaire. She enjoyed it so much that she hopes an intermediate level will be available for the graduates from this year’s course.

“More – another level of program please,” she writes.

Bringing Employment to Young People

Patience Anazia and her son Daniel paint the stakes supporting the newly planted fruit tree whips. Photo credit: TRCA

Patience Anazia and her son Daniel paint the stakes supporting the newly planted fruit tree whips. Photo credit: TRCA

One of the goals of the workshop series was to give local youth a skill that they could use to earn money. In the Jane/Finch neighbourhood, most homes have fruit trees and many of those trees are neglected. The idea is that after earning their certificate, graduates can find work for $20 an hour pruning and caring for local fruit trees.

It was challenging to find participants in this age group. Participants this year were people who had already been involved in growing vegetables on plots on San Romanoway. The hope is that next year there will be a wider circle of participants signing up due to word of mouth. The TRCA will also make a more concerted effort to reach out to youth ages 16-25 in 2016.

But a handful of younger teenagers who were on the course this year were amongst the most enthusiastic of the graduates. They were keen to take responsibility in pruning the trees and excited about preparing presentations to make up for any missed classes.

Looking back on the 2015 Certificate program, there are a number of improvements I would suggest for next year.

Kabishan was one of the teenage graduates of the Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care. Photo Credit: TRCA

Kabishan was one of the teenage graduates of the Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care. Photo Credit: TRCA

  • We were often short of time and so we weren’t able to cover some of the material. I would suggest that next year we have 10 classes instead of 9 to ensure all topics are fully covered.
  • This year’s graduates should be invited to audit part of next year’s course as a refresher on topics including soil and pest and disease prevention.
  • It would be ideal if we could offer an intermediate level course in which the graduates will have three to five working sessions with myself to work on local fruit trees to help prepare them for independent work as fruit tree stewards.
  • We could also consider running some of the classes later in the season, rather than all of them in the early spring, in order to see the trees at different times of year when they face different problems. This would be ideal for the intermediate level course.

Incentives of Certificate and Free Tools

One thing that did work well was the incentive of a certificate program. The students were beaming when they were given their certificate of completion and a free hand pruner donated by Fiskars Tools on graduation day. Getting the certificate wasn’t easy. There were many requirements in order to graduate:

  • Students were required to attend 7 out of the 9 workshops.
  • If they missed a class, they had to make up for it by giving a presentation on a key topic covered in class, ranging from fruit tree pollination requirements to the link between dehydration and malnutrition in fruit trees.
  • They needed to have hands-on experience pruning both younger and older trees and had to show me that they knew what they were doing when developing a pruning strategy.
  • They all took a written test at the end of the course which we reviewed together to remind them of key concepts covered during the nine weeks of training.

A number of the students are looking forward to finding work in the community helping local homeowners care for their fruit trees. The TRCA is linking the graduates up with homeowners and recommending the students work in teams so that they can discuss and plan their pruning strategies. The students will charge $20 per hour per person. Some may agree to work for free in exchange for a share of the homeowners harvest. Other graduates are not looking for extra work but they are keen to use their skills to care for the Orchard on San Romanoway for years to come.

Charity Fedjilawn was one of the 14 graduates of Orchard People's Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care at San Romanoway in Toronto.

Charity Fejokwu was one of the 14 graduates of Orchard People’s Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care at San Romanoway in Toronto and she shows off her new Fiskars hand pruners and her hard earned Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care.

Opening a Floodgate of Potential and Gaining Confidence in a New Skill

For me, it was a pleasure to teach the residents of San Romanoway. Their insatiable curiosity and passion for nature was wonderful and they picked up the skills very quickly. This was something Holly Shaw-Lopez noticed as well.

“The students really displayed a use of strategy when approaching each tree during the hands-on sessions and it proved to me that they were grasping not only course content but were really developing a love for what they do and a desire to do it with excellence. It is like Susan seemed to open the floodgate of potential in these students and gave them the space and tools to gain confidence in a new skill. Good work Susan and great work San Romanoway Tree Care Program Graduates! “

The San Romanoway Revival Project was brought to the community by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s SNAP program (Sustainable Neighbourhood Retrofit Action Plan) and was made possible thanks to sponsors including Metcalf Foundation, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Trillium Foundation, Boise Project UP and Fiskar’s Tools and partners including property owners and managers,  San Romanoway Revitalization Association, the City of Toronto, Orchard People Fruit Tree Care Education and FoodShare.

Susan Poizner is the Director of fruit tree consulting and education company Orchard People. She is the creator of the award-winning fruit tree care training website orchardpeople.com online and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards.