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Over a decade has passed since I co-founded the first community orchard in a public park here in Toronto, Canada. When I first started the project, I spent a lot of time learning about other community orchard projects across North America.
My goal was to learn how community orchardists cared for their fruit trees. I also wanted to learn the secret of long-term community orchard success. That's important because in order to thrive, fruit trees need hands-on care - and they can live for 50 or even 100 years.
A community orchard is a collection of fruit trees in a public space (like a park, churchyard or schoolyard) planted with the goal of providing the community with fresh, locally-grown organic fruit. But community orchards are established for a range of reasons:
If you are reading this post, you may be inspired by some of the wonderful community orchard projects in this list. I'd encourage you to read more about them or, better yet, go and visit them on a stewardship day when you can meet the volunteers and ask questions.
What I learned from these community orchards was so important. I learned that fruit trees need hands-on care. Without proper fruit tree care, your community orchard project will not be a success. I also learned that with a little education, time and effort, community orchards can transform communities.
I hope that you'll enjoy learning about these projects and that one day you will start your own community orchard, so that you can see and enjoy the benefits too.
So let's get started with our community orchard list!
Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard
People who visit this website, OrchardPeople.com, may think about me as an expert in fruit tree care. But I think about myself as a community orchardist who learned to grow fruit trees the hard way - by making mistakes!
So, I'll start off this list by telling you about the orchard that my neighbour Sherry Firing and I co-founded in 2009. We live close to a park that had long been neglected. Our dream was to plant fruit trees there and transform it into a vibrant community space where volunteers could work together, enjoy harvests and festivals, and build community.Our journey took a while and we learned a lot of lessons about fruit tree care along the way. I documented what I learned in my award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. A decade later, the benefits of the project are clear.
Our park is now a totally different place. The once neglected green space is now buzzing with activity during the growing season. There are stewardship days, festivals, and harvest days. And the park attracts visitors from far and wide who want to see first-hand how community orchards can change local parks.
Strathcona Community Garden, Vancouver
The one fear I had when planting our community orchard was what would happen if the project was not successful? What if we could not find enough volunteers to care for the trees? When fruit trees are neglected, they can be vectors for serious pest and disease problems that can and will spread to neighbouring fruit trees.
The Strathcona Community Garden is an example of a community orchard that has thrived for a long, long time. The first fruit trees were planted way back in the 1970s and over the decades these trees have been cared for by the members of the community garden who pay just $15 each year to rent one of the garden's 200 garden plots.
When you rent a garden plot, you also agree to attend and participate in a certain number of work party days. During these events, which take place on the last Sunday of every month, members take care of the garden's communal assets. They weed and maintain pathways, turn the compost pile, and care for the communal fruit trees.
One of the highlights of this orchard are the incredible espaliered fruit trees. Espaliered fruit trees are grown up against fences. This is a great way to squeeze many different types of fruit trees in a small space. You can learn how to grow espaliered fruit trees in my Fruit Tree Pruning Masterclass (LINK).
Copley Community Orchard, Vancouver, B.C.
Some community orchards are totally volunteer-led initiatives. Others are managed by non-profit organizations. Copley community orchard in Vancouver was founded in 2012 as a joint project between the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) and community members but now it's totally run by volunteers.
The people who worked to create this orchard on a 1.2 acre property in East Vancouver, gave the project a great start by spending a lot of time planning. They carefully chose fruit tree varieties that would thrive on the site including apples, cherries, plums, walnuts and figs as well as raspberries, blueberries, currants, honeyberry, jujubes and kiwi vines.
But before they started to plant, the orchard's design team wanted to ensure the site was appropriate for an orchard planting. After doing some research, they realized that the soil on the site was not well drained, and that swampy, wet soil would lead to problems including fruit tree root rot and common fruit tree fungal diseases.
So, the designer team created a swale to direct water away from the fruit trees and into a rain garden. You can see how they did this in the video below. The lesson? Make sure you do lots of research and site preparation before you plant your trees if you want your community orchard to be a long-term success!
You can learn more about how they corrected the problem (and see the beautiful orchard) in the video below.
One problem that I've seen with many community orchards is the issue of continuity. Volunteers do move on but fruit trees are forever - or at least they can live and thrive for decades. Some think that if the orchard is abandoned, it's not a big deal. Fruit trees, they think, can take care of themselves.
But that is far from the truth. Neglected fruit trees will produce poor quality fruit. But worse than that, they attract pests and diseases that can spread through neighbourhoods and affect other fruit trees. These problems can even spread to nearby commercial orchards.
In order to avoid these problems, ecologist Ken Lehman, who coordinates the city of Red Deer's flourishing community gardens, decided to have his team of arborists and gardeners trained in fruit tree care so that they could oversee key activities in the city's newly planted community orchards.
Ken registered his crew for OrchardPeople.com's Certificate in Fruit Tree Care where they learned correct fruit tree pruning, pest and disease prevention, fertility management, and even how to design an orchard that is easier to maintain.
Today Red Deer is home to 6 thriving community orchard projects. City staff lead community groups in orchard activities. And while volunteers may come and go, the city can ensure that the fruit trees will be well cared for in the decades to come.
City Fruit Seattle
Portland Fruit Tree Project
Baltimore Orchard Project
Philadelphia Orchard Project
Some of the projects that I learned about and visited impressed me with their creativity, their focus on fruit tree care education, and their dedication to expanding their projects city wide. One of those projects is City Fruit Seattle established in 2008.
City Fruit Seattle today has fruit harvesting activities but they also look after the health of the trees that produce the fruit. Their projects are wide ranging. In one project volunteers renovated old, neglected orchards, nurturing the trees back to health (LINK). In another, a local volunteer grafted branches of new fruit varieties on older trees as a way of expanding the life and productivity of the trees as you can see in the video below.
The Portland Fruit Tree Project is another example of a community orchard project with a city-wide mandate. I loved how they intensively trained a group of volunteers to prune fruit trees in private homes around the city to increase those trees' productivity and improve tree health as you can see in the following video.
Other examples of fruit tree projects that have expanded citywide also include The Baltimore Orchard Project and the Philadelphia Orchard Project. The latter has become so successful that it has established more than 50 thriving orchards around the city in low income neighbourhoods.
San Romanoway Orchard
Low income neighbourhoods benefit from increased access to fresh fruit, but they also benefit from new employment opportunities. Here in Toronto, a project at the San Romanoway site in the Jane Finch community has led to volunteers getting jobs in urban agriculture and it has been a great success.
The Jane and Finch community has long been challenged by poverty, youth unemployment and crime. The San Romanoway program was organized by the Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA) as part of their Sustainable Neighbourhood Retrofit Action Plan (SNAP) initiative and a primary goal was to plant fruit trees as part of a community orchard project that would supply local residents with fresh, locally grown, organic fruit.
But the TRCA knew they also needed to provide training to the volunteers to teach them how to take care of their trees. They invited me to come in and take the volunteers through my certificate in fruit tree care program. The hope was that the volunteers would be able to take care of their new orchard. They also hoped the newly trained volunteers would then be able to find employment in the field of urban agriculture.
The course consisted of 10 classes and 40 hours of training including lots of hands-on opporunities to prune trees of all ages and sizes. The program was a great success. Of the 28 course graduates, 4 later found full time jobs in urban agriculture projects in Toronto and another 4 started their own social enterprise in caring for local neighbourhood fruit trees.
Years after planting, the fruit trees in the San Romanoway community orchard are big, beautiful, healthy and productive and the community is thrilled to enjoy the fresh harvest. I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to participate in that wonderful project.
ReTree US, Durham, ME
Schoolyards are another ideal location for fruit tree plantings and increasingly schools across North America are taking the plunge. But in many cases, schools need to reinvent the wheel. They have to research and figure out which trees are the best to plant and the easiest to care for. And they also have to figure out what type of care those fruit trees will need.
ReTreeUS is a charity in Maine, in North Eastern United States, which is making things much easier for local schools. ReTreeUS helps schools design and plant orchards free of charge. They provide the fruit trees and the fruit tree care education that goes with them. The charity also offers online resources and curriculum materials that schools can use to teach young people about fruit trees and how to grow them.
And one really lovely bonus is that ReTreeUS also provides schools with educational signage that teaches children about local food production and the environment, the benefits of trees, and the role of pollinators in food production.
TreeMobile, Ontario, Canada
Still, there are lots of groups that already have community gardens that may also want to plant fruit trees. And they may not have access to resources. Here in Ontario a group called TreeMobile has jumped in to help.
Organized by the dedicated team behind Transition Guelph and Transition Toronto, TreeMobile is a service that revs up its engines once a year to deliver fruit trees to urbanites in Ontario, Canada, wanting to live a more sustainable life.
Homeowners have to pay for their trees, but any profits made by this totally volunteer run project go towards helping community groups install community orchards. Organizer
Virginie Gysel's philosophy is simple. She says:
“I stood up in the meeting and said ‘Let’s not talk about food security, let’s plant it!"
Today TreeMobile distributes fruiting plants and trees in the the Ontario municipalities of Toronto, Guelph, Richmond Hill and Cambridge. And community gardens can apply for a grant so that they can get free trees and free fruit tree care education from OrchardPeople.com.
There are so many more wonderful community orchard projects, and you can read about more of them in my fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. But the main lesson I learned in researching community orchards around North America is that they are only successful when the fruit trees receive hands-on care.
Sadly, I do know about quite a few projects that did not succeed in the long term. After a few years the volunteers faded away and left the trees uncared for. Today these sites can be messy. The fruit is often infested or rotting and trees may be sickly and weak.
So I'd say if you want to plant a community orchard, be sure to do your research first. Make sure you have a long-term plan. If possible work with your city parks organization or a local non-profit that will support the project over the years.
Then you can enjoy the process. Growing fruit trees is wonderful. I hope you get a chance to enjoy the benefits these trees bring to our communities!
Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast. She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..
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