Saturday, 9/27 9:30am — Solid Rock United Methodist Church
RSVP-ing for Philadelphia Orchard Project was something that I did with no reservations; when I discovered the POP opportunity, it got me excited because it stood out to me as something that sounded like it really gave back directly to a community, and did so in a way that would be sustainable for the locals who end up maintaining the orchards POP helps set up. When we found Solid Rock United Methodist Church, we crept around the building in search of POP’s newly established orchard and met Phil Forsyth, Executive Director of Philadelphia Orchard Project. Donned in shorts and t-shirts primed for sweating on this 80-something-degree day, we followed him around the back of the parsonage to find tools, wheelbarrows and tons of plants: trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruits…
We started the day off by weeding a front section of the orchard, clearing the ground and exposing fresh earth to prime the spot for the fruits and groundcovers we’d soon plant. It was a lot of work but once we established a rhythm when planting the perennials and groundcovers, things picked up and more volunteers poured in. When I checked the volunteer numbers on POP’s website, about 14 volunteers had RSVP’d but at the orchard it seemed like a larger group of us turned out from all ages and everyone was eager to get planting and converse under the hot sun (and complain about the heat together!). We got to talk with community members and see their kids, share some snacks, and hear some planting wisdom; it was a cool experience to work with and be around people that reside in the area — people who would directly benefit from the space that we were helping to create.
At the orchard I got to accomplish a few of my stewardship goals: learn to properly handle the planting of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and become an educated gardener. Phil taught us briefly how to place the medium and small plants into the ground, first brushing aside the wood chips and then digging a hole that allowed the soil of the potted plant to sit level with the earth. Then all that was next was filling the hole with the soil you dug up and packing gently around it, making sure that the plant was not lower than earth-level, and creating a rim of slightly raised soil so that water during rainfall could sink down toward the plant. Phil also warned us not to suffocate the plants with the wood chip mulch that had created the previously prepared top layer of the soil. Doing so would inhibit healthy development for the trees, shrubs and flowers. While digging our holes and clearing rocks, several times we unearthed pieces of half-decomposed cardboard, and, puzzled how they got so deep, we tossed them aside. Later Phil revealed that the cardboard was used to prep the soil for today’s planting: last year POP dug a few feet below the soil and put down layers of cardboard — all mostly decomposed now — to wipe out the existing plants and weeds and appease worms that freshen the soil.
After a few hours, all the volunteers and POP leaders gathered around Phil, who wanted to say a few words about our accomplishments. He told us that around 500 plants now covered the front and side of the orchard, each with their own purpose, and he gave us a quick tour of our handiwork, rattling off names of the small bright green shrubs, fruits and trees and their functions. There were berries (blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, cherry berries, blueberries, and next year — strawberries), edible roses (although I’ve heard that many roses are edible, as long as pesticides aren’t involved), persimmons, pears, papas (which are native to Pennsylvania though not sold in many stores because of their short shelf life — says Phil), fig trees, plums, pomegranates… We also planted various ground covers (like echinacea, golden star, and sage) that bloom in different time frames so that insects are present year-round to pollinate surrounding plants and eat invading insects. Comfrey was also planted, which is a nutrient accumulator when used as a companion plant for other perennials; it enriches the soil and allows surrounding plants to absorb more nutrients. False indigo, also present in the garden, had another important function as a nitrogen fixing plant. It pulls nitrogen out of the air and fixes it into the earth to fertilize itself and surrounding species.
Phil was an invaluable book of knowledge as the supervisor of the day’s planting site. I was able to ask him a few questions about the needs of the plants we took care of and he made the experience comfortable, very educational, and fun. I think it’s extremely important for leaders of such events to be really interested and invested in their work, and to serve as personable, friendly supervisors — Phil definitely fit this image and it was easy for volunteers to approach him with questions and comments about the day’s work.
The establishment of Solid Rock’s Orchard was a success and I learned a lot about designing an orchard and selecting specific species to plant that balance the garden and serve certain beneficial functions — I also learned how to properly set a plant into the ground (without killing it!). It seems that creating an orchard like the one at Solid Rock truly transforms a well-known public place into a space that draws in locals who come eager to learn about gardening and eager to simply help out their own community: make it brighter, healthier, and more useful. Planting the orchard highlighted urban greening in the area and spoke volumes about the benefits of collaboration in such relatively large projects; the planting today took the combined efforts of the church, POP, and Partners for Sacred Places, and their efforts put together with that of the volunteers lead to a space that will produce food for the church’s youth programming and food that will go back into the community’s “food cupboard” (“POP Orchards”). I got to accomplish more than just my educational goals: I had the chance to plant for beautification and harvest, and I was able to analyze the short term (and hypothesize about the long term) effects on a community that is able to have and participate in an urban greening space in their residential area. Though it was a hot day, everyone got along well and it was nice to see that neighbors brought their kids to help plant, and that people from outside the town, like us, traveled in to help out as well — all of our forces meshed really well and we got so much work done in a small time slot. This orchard project showed me that harvest and beautification really go hand-in-hand in a space like this. With the plants right in the front of the parsonage, the orchard will grow to cast shade over the sidewalk’s stone wall, displaying its harvest in a way that will change the appearance of the church and street space. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in the years to come!
If you look at the map (toward the top of the post) you’ll see that before the space was dug up and mulched for our plants, it was a simple green lawn, with a small path cutting through toward the parsonage. When this photo was taken, the green you see was mostly weeds and invasive, unwanted plant species — nothing particularly special or useful — but now that it has been cleared, this relatively small front lawn can have a very big impact on the church-goers and their neighbors. I wouldn’t have guessed that a small lawn like this could be used to grow all sorts of food-bearing plants but if more landmark areas like Solid Rock UMC have empty underutilized spaces like this, they too could be transformed into very useful green spaces. It’s a shame that there are so many empty lots — especially in Philadelphia — that are just waiting to be taken care of and shaped into something new. Planting today gave me a hands-on view of these empty places, something real and physical that I could combine with my knowledge of the vacant lots in the city. Solid Rock Orchard didn’t seem to require as much effort as other spaces might in clearing and preparing an area to be planted in, but it did take up a lot of time and a lot of hands; I can only imagine how much effort it would take to do the same to an actual vacant lot along a street in Philadelphia, or anywhere for that matter…
To my understanding, this type of urban greening and related events don’t see a massive turn out, but I hope that writing about volunteer work and personal future environmental endeavors will urge the small number of viewers that see my blog to reach out in their own communities — whether tiny towns, large urban spaces, or already somewhat green suburbs — to continue to beautify and shape the green (or empty brown!) spaces they pass by everyday. Spreading the word through media is one of the best ways to gain a larger following and it seems that many greening advocates and organizations are beginning to recognize and utilize the power of media to change the way they attract volunteers and supporters of their cause. One of the most satisfying aspects of doing events like this is that I get the chance to step back, see the effects I have had on a space and a group of people, and react: I can think about it, analyze it, and discuss the results on my blog or with my friends and family. Starting this stewardship project has not only begun to change the way I view environments around me, but it has also triggered an effect in the people I surround myself with daily. It makes them want to try new things, get more involved, and think hard about their environmental footprint.
Here are some more photos of the space at Solid Rock: a view of the gorgeous rustic short stone wall that frames the orchard, and some shots of the differing types and sizes of plants we handled. Variety seems to be key in creating a garden that can utilize combined elements to reach its full potential — beauty, harvest, health (of the area’s people and animals)… etc. After our work it looked like a beautifully altered space already, even without the plants fully grown.
“Solid Rock United Methodist Church.” Google Maps. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <https://www.google.com/maps/place/Solid+Rock+United+Methodist+Churchfirstname.lastname@example.org,-75.120333,657m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x89c6b7a632f6eb49:0x7c5bfc30be3286c>.