Urban Trees

A wonderful quote from Shirley Trier of the Davey Resource Group:

"Trees are not just landscaping placed on top of city infrastructure, they are city infrastructure."

That is, they should not be seen as discretionary or marginal or decorative. Trees - including fruit trees - should be seen as integral to cityscapes as streets, sidewalks, buildings and water mains!

This means that they should be incorporated into plans, designs, budgets and imaginations of cities every bit as much as building skylines.

 

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Orchards as Theaters of Grace

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian, wrote that nature was a theater of grace, and encountering it in the proper way was necessary for the sanity of the mind, the preservation health of the body, the uplift of the spirit.

We agree. We see our orchards as more than food-production sites (as essential as that is), but also as neighborhood theaters, patches of Eden, where the dangers of the world are still present and swirling about but are kept at bay and good things happen. 

We see neighborhood orchards are theaters of refuge, camaraderie, discovery and goodness for those who enter, and a hint of delight for those who peek in while passing by. They provide a stage and arena for some of the most intimate and life-giving encounters. They are places to meet others in quiet and peace, places to sit and rest, places to play, places to encounter nature - especially in the city - where it thrives in deep and welcome company with humanity.

Two wonderful BOP events happened over the past seven days that remind us of this. We were honored to help dedicate an historic orchard at the Homewood Museum at Johns Hopkins University, one of the more-than-100 orchards that graced Baltimore City 140 years ago. This orchard - with its interpretive sign - helps mark the role of orchards both in the history of JHU and Baltimore.

And with the help of 20 volunteers from the energetic and committed Repair the World Jewish service learning corps, we cleaned up and repaired an unkempt orchard, on the way to replanting it with fruit-bearing trees that will feed thousands of people for decades to come.  

We are heading into the closing weeks of the harvest season, readying for the fall planting, and continue to be awed and amazed at the gifts of urban orchards.

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The Blessing and Necessity of Public Parks... and Orchards

In his last masterpiece, Wild Fruits, Thoreau gives us an intimate tour of the vegetative life in his New England neck of the woods across the span of the year. He was a dedicated note-taker with a keen eye for observing the flow of nature's rhythms. Over the course of years, he tracked the budding, blossoming, ripening and end times of hundreds of varieties of plants, many of them edible. 

What a gift it would be to have such a guide for Baltimore, unique to our region and to the climate variability we are now experiencing. The BOP is hoping to begin recording all these times for the fruits we harvest, both to help us better plan our yearly harvest schedules and to anticipate yields and their timing. But also to serve as records for comparison five, ten and twenty years from now so we can track how climate change is affecting our work. 

If you are doing this - or interested in helping us keep such logs regarding your fruit trees and berry bushes, or those in your neighborhood - do let us know.

Meanwhile - here is another insight from our fellow-traveller Thoreau (also from Wild Fruits) that we also whole-heartedly endorse:

"I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several, where a stick should never be cut for fuel...a common possession forever, or instruction and recreation..."

We agree: which is why we speak of a virtual orchard in Baltimore, and a virtual food forest - for we imagine them to be comprised of hundreds of lots and backyards and community gardens and campuses cast across the metropolitan region.

And we would add food and foraging to the gifts that such places offer us all.

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The next generation

Last week, Ben (our BOP Program Coordinator) and I were approaching an overgrown lot which once had aspirations of becoming a neighborhood orchard. We were checking it out, hoping to help realize its dreams. The weeds were as tall as I - a towering 5 feet or so - and as thick as molasses. To fight our way in, we needed to clip away some hops that were vining up and around the gate, and then to clear something of a path to check on the young trees that were somewhere inside. I went to my car to get a pair of loppers, and as I approached the gate a second time, this time armed with a sharp instrument, a small boy, about 5 or so, came tooling down on his scooter. He stopped a stranger-appropriate distance from me and plaintively, so plaintively it could break your heart, said, "Please don't chop down the apple tree."

I assured him we were there to help the tree, not chop it down. We were going to figure out how to help clear the lot. He immediately disappeared, and came back with a shovel! 

I sadly had to tell him it would take more than a shovel to help clear the lot and that we weren't going to be working on it now - but that when we did, we would very much welcome his help. 

He went away, somewhat disappointed - he was hoping for an adventure and to be helpful - but came back now and again over the next little while to check on us. Just before we left, Ben braved the thicket and discovered the two apple trees that had been planted there two years ago. One had one lone but lovely apple on it. That was the entire harvest.

Ben picked it, and we gave it to the boy.

Here's to a whole bushel of apples next year.

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Figs

The winter of 2013-2014 was devastating for local figs. Most varieties suffered, their leaves and branches dying back to a small portion of their prior selves.

This is being reported on several websites and confirmed here in Baltimore by our hardy group of Fig Tree Buddies. These are BOP volunteers who adopt a fig tree to check on and monitor.

The good news, however, is that figs are hardy plants and are taking this year to recover. Some have put on several feet of new growth already. If your fig tree is one of these, folks at Edible Landscaping recommend selecting 3-5 of the larger, healthier trunks to save and weeding out the smaller new growth. This should strengthen the tree and help it survive this coming winter in tact and enable it to produce figs next summer.

In the long run, this may provide healthier and more productive trees.

If you know of fig trees in the area - or any other fruit trees - please do let us know. We have 245 fruit trees registered on our Tree Registry (not including the trees we plant with schools and organizations), and we would love to double (and eventually triple and quadruple and more!) that figure. 

And remember the fall planting season is fast approaching. Fruit trees make beautiful, enchanting neighbors.

Happy planting!

 

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On gleaning

We are sometimes asked what gleaning means, or how gleaning differs from harvesting.

Indeed, we often use the two words interchangeably - both referring to the act of gathering foods from managed fields (as opposed to foraging, which is gathering foods from the wild).

But there is a big difference between the two.

Gleaning is biblical concept which refers to the act of gathering foods (grains, vegetables, fruits) from a managed field that is not your own. In the biblical period, the poor and needy were permitted to go onto neighboring fields and collect enough food for their own consumption. Not enough to sell and do commerce with, not enough to stockpile their pantry, but enough for a day or two so that they and their families wouldn't go hungry.

The field owners did this not as an act of magnanimity or philanthropy but as their obligation. The poor, in the biblical world, held a partial claim against the goods and wealth that come from the land. Thus, the community as a whole had an obligation to feed the poor, and those with land were obliged to allow the poor to come and gather for themselves.

This was neither gift nor handout. The poor were not given this food; no one else harvested it for them. They had to work for their food by gleaning - which provided an element of dignity, a sense of ownership and a sense of earning what they got.

Even more, through this modest expression of shared ownership, the landowner was reminded that he in fact did not fully possess his property or even the produce upon it; that in a sense, he is beholden to powers greater than he, powers he does not control or possess (like earth, soil, water, air as well as people who help create the safe society and economy in which he functions) that are responsible for his success. His work and his land are part of a great economy of the commons that he is temporarily using. And in return, he has the obligation to share its abundance and its yield with those less fortunate in his community.

Harvesting, by contrast, is when an owner gathers the produce of his or her own field, or when someone is hired to gather it for them. 

The BOP is somewhere in between. We glean, in the sense that we gather fruits from trees that others own, but we then give the fruit to those in need. And while this is good, we hope to move to real gleaning, by planting fruit trees and food forests in the midst of food deserts, close enough so that those in need can gather for themslves. But even more, we want to create harvesters, so those now in need may plant their own orchards and food forests on lots of land close by them, and gather their produce for themselves. As well as remember the obligation to share it with others.

 

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Wild Fruits

The last, unfinished work, of Henry David Thoreau was a magnum opus of the wild fruits that populated the woods in his beloved New England.

He takes the reader through a season-worth of ripening, in order of appearance, from elm and dandelion in May to birches and pitch pine in November. 

I have just begun accompanying him on this journey - and am delighted that it is just the right season to join this leisurely sauntering.

How wonderful if there were a comparable calendar of ripenings for the mid-Atlantic region. Then, perhaps, with guidebook in hand, folks like me - whose discerning eye is strained at anything beyond serrated vs smooth edges - might stand a chance at discovering the ever-blossoming, changing world of plants around us.

But I write to share a quote that captures a sense of why I am compelled by the work of the BOP: 

"My profession," Thoreau writes, "is to be always on the alert to find God in nature -- to know his lurking places."  

To me, our orchards are such places. And perhaps more than just lurking there, God - or however we speak of the power of nature that calls forth life and works and celebrates and struggles for its existence - resides in our orchards.

 

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New neighborhoods need old trees

"Urbanist Jane Jacobs ... famously said “New ideas need old buildings”, pointing out so definitively how dependent a vibrant city economy is on connecting the new with the old. Businesses grow incrementally, with old work being converted into newer work, and older, more affordable workspaces make that kind of creative morphing possible.... There is something ethereal, not quantitatively measurable, about older buildings that appeal to entrepreneurs. Maybe its because they see the possibilities in adapting an older space to their newer use, and that just feels better than the pristine floorplates of new construction. Or maybe they just like them because they’re cheap. But old spaces are most often where today’s entrepreneur wants to work. A dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem needs a mix: of old and new, of small suppliers working in make-shift spaces, and larger corporate services."  church_renovation.jpg

( and  in "The Nature of a City Economy: Towards an Ecology of Entrepreneurship")

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Iowa City Food Forest

The edible food forest movement is growing. Planted on public lands, tended by volunteers and neighbors, created with the blessings and assistance of city park systems, food forests are growing up in communities across the country. In Iowa City, "The goal of the Wetherby Park Edible Forest is to design, plant, and grow an edible urban forest garden that inspires our community to gather together, grow our own food, and rehabilitate our local ecosystem."

In Baltimore, 20% of our population are unable to obtain and anticipate on a regular basis sufficient , healthy, desirable foods. That translates in 120,000 people. Imagine if thousands of them could walk out their front doors, down the street and help manage and then harvest varieties of fresh foods for nine months out of the year: perennial vegetables, varieties of fruits, healthy nuts. Some of this food would be eaten right away. The rest could either be stored for later consumption or "put up" - canned, jellied, dried, frozen - for consumption over the winter months. 

We can do this - Baltimore has an enormous resource in unused, poorly used and under-utilized land throughout the city.

We can do this on private property, but that might limit access.  We could also do this on public lands - vacant lots that can be secured for 25 years, parkland that can be dedicated to building strong, healthy communities in body and spirit for generations.

But we need your help - to encourage the city to use the parks in this way, and to build the social capital, ie, the people and passion, to care for these food forests over the years.

Sign up on our Meet Up page to join us.

 

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What I told the USDA

I had the amazing privilege of speaking to members of the USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum today. They asked me to talk about the state of the field of urban agroforestry. Which was both humbling and difficult because urban agroforestry (efforts like ours to plant and harvest fruit and nut trees, and establish food forests in urban environments) does not really see itself as a movement yet. But it is and it should be seen this way. And this invitation may be an indication that it is happening.

I post here my opening comments, which address my take on the motivation that is animating this movement. Specifics about what the movement is, what it does, and what it needs will follow in a subsequent post. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Urban_fruit_tree.jpg

Cities have always seemed a bit unnatural – alluring and vibrant but artificial and decadent, a bit unhealthy and far from the land. So throughout history there have been cyclical efforts for city folk to return to the land. We are in one of those cycles now. The 20th century witnessed several – motivated largely by political strife, and social, moral and economic insecurities.

These efforts were largely predicated on the belief that working the land, and in particular, producing food, would intensify society’s moral, physical and social well-being. Today’s return-to-the-land movement is motivated a bit by these impulses, but by three new ones as well:

1)    The clear and present impact of climate change (especially on the food chain)

2)    The degradation of our lands and waters (in part due to modern agricultural techniques)

3)    An urge to change the ways we feed the world, and to heal the wrongs we have laid upon it.

So whereas in earlier iterations of these cycles, the idea seemed to be that through returning to (and working the land), the land would redeem the people, today the idea seems to be that through returning to and working the land, people will redeem the land.

Food therefore and its new ways of production and distribution are seen as a leading edge to saving the world. There is a deep passion here, a sense of grand purpose, urgency, redemption, rightness all mixed up with joy and hope. A sense even of salvation, of righting a great wrong for this generation and generations to come. There folks in urban agroforestry are in it body and soul, and what they lack in technical knowledge and experience, they make up for in dedication, eagerness and hard work.

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