Campus orchard grows, with help from the community

Now five years old, the expanding Penn Park Orchard demonstrates the possibility of sustainably growing fruits and vegetables in an urban environment.

Five years ago, staff and volunteers from the Penn community began to transform a stretch of Penn Park into an orchard. With initial plantings of fig, plum, and pear trees and blueberry, quince, and elderberry shrubs, the vision was to create a productive and sustainable edible landscape out of a formerly unused swathe along the train tracks.

Now, that space is replete with dozens of species of food plants, from the Concord grape to the champagne raspberry, from native pawpaw and persimmon trees to an array of medicinal and culinary herbs, including hyssop, catmint, and chives. 

shoveling dirt at the penn park orchard with patient pavilion in the background
penn park orchard from high perspective
emptying dirt from wheelbarrow with city in the background
shoveling dirt from a wheelbarrow at the penn park orchard
Olivia Bridges (above left) helped organize the workday. Together with Phil Forsyth (bottom right), executive director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, and students and staff who took time from their lunch break to volunteer, they used logs recovered from a tree removed on campus to form the perimeter of a new raised blueberry bed, also adding perennial plants around previously planted cherry trees.

Supported by the Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), the orchard represents a “functioning food forest,” with layers of edible plants that support insects, birds, people—and an occasional pesky groundhog. By raising awareness of the importance of local foods and sustainable landscape-management practices, its existence supports the tenets of the new Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0. Those responsible for its planning and care, such as Olivia Bridges, a senior from Highland Park, New Jersey, who is this year’s Penn Park Orchard outreach intern, see its effects rippling out into the broader community. 

“We want to engage the community at Penn and people beyond Penn so they see that growing food in a city can be a sustainable, feasible thing,” says Bridges. To that end, she has been working to develop partnerships with organizations citywide that promote healthy eating and urban agriculture. And joining with campus organizations, she and FRES staff have also coordinated a number of events to bring more people to the orchard to contribute their efforts to its success—and maybe enjoy a little nibble of fig or raspberry as they work.

A workday under the brilliant October sun brought together staff from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, undergraduate and graduate students, and staff from the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the organization that plans and maintains the Penn Park Orchard, as well as dozens more around the city.

Person digs with shovel in garden bed next to railroad tracks, with the Philadelphia skyline in the background
Chris Flounders, an intern with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, digs a hole for new beach plum trees in the sandier soil along the train lines. The orchard has added a formidable amount of biodiversity to the site, which was formerly the unused edge of a turf field. 
Kneeling person puts a label next to a newly planted plant. Two other gardeners work in the background.
Corey Wills, a student in the Master of Environmental Studies program, tucks an Asclepias incarnata plant, commonly known as swamp milkweed, into the soil near the new blueberry bed. “This will be great to get some pollinators on the blueberries,” she says.
Medical buildings, power lines, and train tracks loom over an orchard where several people are working.
For (from left) Tiara Campbell, Amanda Bloomfield, and Alanna Wittet, all staff from the Weitzman School of Design, the workday was their first time at the orchard. For others, such as Kate Donohue of the Penn Center for Innovation (kneeling in black shirt next to Flounders), visiting the orchard is more of a regular practice.
Close-up of hands firming a new planting into the soil
Workdays, harvest events, and educational workshops held at the site enable the Penn community to have a hand in ensuring the campus orchard flourishes.