Most of the children who attend Lakeland Elementary School don’t have apple trees in their backyards. They live in city row houses in West Baltimore, and they see a lot of asphalt, strip malls and chain-link fences.
Recently, the view at their school changed. Lakeland is one of three Baltimore schools that have gotten an orchard — dozens of apple and pear trees that will soon bear fruit. The trees came courtesy of the Baltimore Orchard Project, an organization founded three years ago to glean and distribute fruit already growing and going to waste and to plant fruit trees in vacant and used city spaces.
“A lot of communities with low access to food also have a lot of vacant land,” said Ben Howard, the orchard project’s program coordinator. “We thought, ‘maybe these fields could actually produce food.’ We started helping to design these orchards, and the communities take them over and distribute the food where it needs to go.” The organization also helps to deliver fresh produce to communities that have a dearth of it.
So far, Howard said, the orchard project has planted nearly 1,000 trees, which is helping the city reach its urban tree canopy goal. A city rule changing the permission for planting has helped that goal along, as environmental groups no longer need a homeowner’s permission to plant trees on public streets.
Other watershed cities, including Washington, DC, are also trying to increase their trees, with a goal set in the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to increase urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres throughout the Bay watershed by 2025,.
The Orchard Project is making use of the fruit from the trees long forgotten. Cromwell Valley Park, for example, was once a farm, and beautiful apple trees grow deep within it. Much of that fruit was wasted, Howard said, as people didn’t know how to get it or that even it existed. The same is true in Carroll Park, in South Baltimore near the Ravens Stadium, which is connected to the Gwynns Falls Trail. Residential sites, condo associations and other places in the city also had trees where the fruit went to waste. Howard’s group, which is part of Baltimore’s Civic Works, organized community gleanings so that the fresh produce went to neighborhoods that needed it.
Howard, a recent graduate of Brown University, majored in physics. But his first post-college job was at a therapeutic farm. There, he said, he saw firsthand how being in the outdoors and among trees improved the moods of staff and patients. It solidified his desire to move back to Baltimore, the town where he grew up and become involved in greening efforts. He is the project’s only full-time staff. Nina Beth Cardin, its founder, is its executive director, and volunteers and fellows help coordinate plantings.
A year or so ago, Howard said, the orchard project realized it could do more to educate students about where the food came from and teach urban students horticulture skills, which would come in handy once their schools’ orchards started bearing fruit. So the project partnered with Great Kids Farm in Catonsville to bring students from Lakeland and two other schools that have orchards to teach them some tree husbandry techniques.
Students learned how to “train” the trees, using twine, so that they would grow out instead of up. The technique also shifts the trees’ hormones so the tree focuses on the business of growing fruit instead of more vegetation. They also learned to “thin” the trees so the more desirable fruit had the best chance to grow.
Students like Joshua Moore, 13, loved the experience.
“I like being outside, just being in the woods,” said Moore, who said he helps his mother with a lot of the household cooking and wants to be a chef when he grows up.
With the ground wet from a spring rain, Great Kids Farm smelled fresh and clean — like onions, one student said. No, like nature, another answered. Throughout the day, they trimmed twine and pulled on branches, then ended the day with a fruit-tasting session.
Great Kids Farm provides all of the produce grown on its 31 acres to the Baltimore City Schools, which recently committed to giving every student a free lunch and breakfast. And though many students are familiar with urban agriculture, some are still getting their hands in the dirt for the first time, said farm educator Bethany Mattie.
“We have students who are seeing tomatoes and onions growing for the first time,” she said.
Howard also likes the way fruit trees help students connect with the seasons, with maintenance and work in the spring, blooming in the summer and a harvest in the fall. It brings city kids into a rhythm of nature they might not follow in a culture of grocery stores and time indoors.
Chuck Navyac, a music teacher at Windsor Hills Elementary and Middle School in West Baltimore, said he brings many students to Great Kids Farm. As the greening specialist at the school, he lobbied for and helped plant the school’s orchard. The students at his school live largely in single-family homes, he said, but there is “a lot of blight” around their neighborhood.
As his seventh graders practiced thinning the trees, Navyac said his efforts to make students aware of green spaces were opening their eyes to new possibilities.
“Being on a farm like this, I don’t think a lot of them get this sort of opportunity too often,” he said.