THE TIME IS RIPE
BY SUSAN POIZNER
It was February 2007, the weather was fine, and I was wandering around Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood when I encountered what looked like a little traffic island with three or four young trees and a baffling sign: “Community Orchard,” it read. I stopped for a moment and wondered: Who planted those trees? Who’s caring for them? When will they be old enough to fruit? And why would someone plant fruit trees in the heart of the city? This was a short visit to B.C. so I didn’t have time to further investigate. I went home a few days later, but the image of this little “orchard” remained in my head.
Back in Toronto, I started researching more about community orchards. They’ve existed in the United Kingdom for over thirty years. And like a community garden, volunteers pitch in to care for the trees by watering, mulching, pruning and harvesting. They then share the resulting produce, often giving a large portion to community agencies like local food banks. Orchards have also popped up in the United States. A well-established orchard project in Boston called EarthWorks has helped establish more than sixty city orchards. And in Philadelphia, abandoned inner-city lots have been converted to peach orchards to create a healthy environment in which young people can learn about where their food comes from. They also ensure that low-income local families have plenty of fresh fruit to eat.
I live just steps from the Eglinton West subway station. Across from the station, on my street, is a little park that you might not even notice as you walk by. There’s a playground there. Some trees. Some dog walkers. It’s a place but not really a destination. One day I wondered what it would be like if we could turn that park into Toronto’s first community orchard. In my imagination, I saw dozens of fruit trees in the northwest side of the park. I felt the excitement of the harvest and the joy of blossom and fruit festivals. I could suddenly see how a joint project like this could knit our community together while taking a step towards increasing food security in Toronto. It was a great vision, I must say. But I did nothing about it and filed the idea away at the back of my mind.
I work as a journalist, filmmaker and gardener and I’m also the founder and coordinator of an educational gardening group called Growing For Green. In 2008, our group decided to launch an adopt-a-tree campaign to ensure that the dozens of new trees the city planted in our community that year would be cared for if the summer were dry. And yet we wondered how our members would be able to water the many new trees in Ben Nobleman Park without lugging heavy buckets of water from home. So my colleague, painter and gardener Sherry Firing, and I booked an appointment with Chris Martin, horticulturist from Parks Forestry and Recreation to ask him to install an irrigation system in the park for the sake of the new trees. Chris was great, and mentioned he might have a small budget to make some improvements in the park if our group would be willing to do some of the work. He wondered what we thought the community might want planted. Another ornamental bed perhaps? I hesitated for a moment, feeling that what I was about to say was probably crazy but, what the heck, I’d say it anyways. “What about a community orchard?” I blurted out.
Now, I know that the city has lots of regulations. And when it comes to change, if it happens at all, it often happens slowly. It takes a lot for a city employee to stick his or her neck out and suggest change. But Christopher Martin is one of those people. Having grown up in the West Indies, he’s passionate about fruit trees and grows a number of them in his own backyard. “Well, the city might have concerns about children climbing the trees but if your group can guarantee that you’ll care for the orchard, you can give it a try. Apply to the city as if you’re applying to establish a community garden. Let’s see what happens.”
From there it’s been a whirlwind of meetings, brainstorming, grant and other applications. Growing for Green, which will be taking on day-to-day orchard care and irrigation, has partnered with Not Far From The Tree, the super successful fruit-picking project whose volunteers will harvest the fruit when the time comes. We’ve had so much encouragement from our local city councillor, Joe Mihevc, who called two community meetings so that we could present the idea to our neighbours. The Upper Village BIA is helping us apply for funding. We’ve received a seed-money grant from Carrot Cache. And we’re in talks with Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests to find a way to hold pruning workshops in our little orchard.
So what’s it going to look like? Fantastic, thanks to Jane Hutton, a landscape-architectural designer who has volunteered to design the orchard for us. It will have fourteen fruit trees including pears, plums and cherries, four serviceberries (which are great at attracting pollinators), two hickory nut trees, and two native paw paws. At the orchard’s heart, there will be an extra-long orchard table seating up to twenty people for fruit sorting, picnics and workshops. We’ll have a concrete shed for hoses and other equipment, and have received money from the City of Toronto’s Mural Program to paint a mural on the shed inspired by the designs of local children. And we have plenty of plans to bring artistic projects, such as mosaics and murals, to the park over the years. For the key organizers involved in this project, the sky is the limit.
I’ve returned a number of times to Vancouver since that initial visit. And I’ve made it a point to visit and photograph other orchards, interviewing their stewards to learn how they work and the best operating practices. I’ve met some fantastic people, such as Mary Gazetas, chair of the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project where they planted 140 fruit trees last year to supply fruit to their local food bank. But while I’ve wandered quite a lot in Vancouver, I never again found that little grouping of trees that initially inspired me. Sometimes I wonder if it actually existed, or if it was my imagination. Either way, those three little trees sent me on an interesting journey and have spawned a revolution in the way we think about our public spaces in Toronto. And perhaps our fourteen little fruit trees in Ben Nobleman Park will one day inspire other communities, too.
Growing for Green:
Ben Nobleman Park Orchard Project:
Not Far From The Tree:
Susan Poizner (www.susanpoizner.com ) is a journalist and filmmaker and the coordinator of the eco-gardening group Growing for Green.
© Edible Toronto, Summer 2009
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