Growing Penn Park orchard to become ‘fully functional food forest’

At the southernmost edge of Penn Park, beyond the tennis courts and alongside the railroad tracks, an orchard grows. The first plantings—including fig, plum, pear, blueberry, quince, and elderberry—went in during the fall of 2014. By this coming fall, the orchard will be planted as “a fully functional food forest,” a layered approach using perennials, groundcover, vines, shrubs and trees, according to Chloe Cerwinka, landscape planner in Penn’s Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES).

“The idea behind the orchard,” she says, “was to take advantage of a space that wasn’t being used and turn it into a productive landscape, increase biodiversity, and showcase the many different types of fruits that can be grown in an urban environment.”

On Thursday, March 31, at 1 p.m., the orchard is set to expand farther in each direction along the edge of Penn Park. FRES is seeking volunteers to help plant more than two-dozen varieties of fruits and other plants. No experience is necessary; guidance will be provided by experts from Penn and the Philadelphia Orchard Project, an organization that has helped plant and support more than 40 orchards around the city, including Penn’s.

Adjacent to the orchard plantings, a new leaf-composting bin will almost double the composting capacity currently on campus. Trellises constructed along the bin’s side will support hardy kiwi and grape vines. The orchard is also repurposing cardboard collected by University Housekeeping and Urban Park staff, using it to create new planting beds by covering existing grass and then layering compost on top.

Looking ahead, FRES staff is planning to work together with student groups on campus, both to help with plant maintenance and to install and care for beehives that will be kept near the orchard.

The orchard, along with new rain gardens, meadows, and other green spaces, is part of an ongoing transformation of Penn’s campus into a richer landscape, says Bob Lundgren, the University’s landscape architect.

“We’re trying to build this notion of our campus as a more productive forest or urban canopy,” he says. “When we choose trees, we’re not just considering their ornamental value, but whether they’re providing food or contributing to a healthy ecosystem.”

Adds University Architect David Hollenberg, “Once they realize it’s here, I think the orchard will be treasured by many different constituencies of the campus community.”

Volunteers must register for the planting event on the Philadelphia Orchard Project website.

Penn Park Orchard