West Philadelphia is an urban landscape, not what one might call bucolic. While green spaces and soaring trees abound on the University of Pennsylvania campus—it is an official arboretum, after all—it’s a bustling place, with a decidedly big-city feel.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not also a place to grow food.
Across campus, from the Penn Student Garden in the west, to the Penn Park Orchard in the east, and many places in between, edible plants dot the landscape. Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) staff, charged with designing and managing the campus grounds, are working to augment and increase awareness of these spaces, which benefit the community on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods in a variety of ways, from promoting good nutrition to encouraging sustainability and wellness.
“There is so much research showing that being in nature is good for your health, so that’s one aspect,” says Chloe Cerwinka, Penn’s landscape planner. “Then there’s nutrition, being able to access fresh fruit and produce right where you are. And there’s also the demonstration aspect of the garden and orchard, helping to teach people about how they can grow produce in their own yards and containers.”
As they raise awareness, FRES staff members are also increasing the footprint of their growing spaces, carving out new beds and tucking in edible and medicinal plants amid more traditional ornamental plantings.
“We want to create these pockets of food and medicine forests everywhere around campus,” says Cole Jadrosich, an intern for the Penn Park Orchard who earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education this year. “We want to make people passionate and aware enough so they themselves will start to access and help maintain the spaces we have.”
Not everyone feels comfortable identifying plants, much less foraging and consuming them “in the wild.” This summer, FRES intern Elena Juodisius took steps to make it easier to locate food plants around campus. Using the Penn Plant Explorer website, she developed a color-coded map of edible plants, from the expected, like vegetables and herbs in the Student Garden, to the unusual, like spicebush tucked along Locust Walk and near the Quad (the leaves can be used to brew tea), and white oak (the acorns can be eaten raw or processed). (FRES cautions against sampling unidentified plants without the input of a horticultural professional.)
The resulting map underscores how pervasive edible plants are on Penn’s campus. And while certain spaces were designed intentionally for that purpose—the Student Garden, at roughly nine years old, and the Penn Park Orchard, planted four years ago in a partnership with the Philadelphia Orchard Project—others arose serendipitously, a byproduct of other priorities.
“Juneberries are a good example,” says Cerwinka of the graceful trees that can be found in a variety of locations on campus. “They are very beautiful, ornamental trees and have been a popular choice in landscape architecture for a long time. But their berries also happen to be delicious and nutritious.”
Using this broader lens to consider edible landscapes, FRES team members including Cerwinka, Jadrosich, and Lila Bhide, Student Garden coordinator, wish to dispel the notion that produce must come from rural areas far from urban cores. With their work engaging the community on campus, they aim to foster a “culture of cultivation.”
For students, there’s no time like the very start of their Penn journey to get involved. Just before the fall semester began, Bhide organized a garden-focused preceptorial, a one-day experience for freshmen and transfer students to get acquainted with an aspect of campus life before starting their full class schedules.
A dozen students signed up for “Intro to Urban Food: The Penn Garden.” Participants shared their stories about an interest in gardening and farming. “The group had really diverse interests,” Bhide says. “Some had personally worked on a farm or had family who were farm workers.”
The students then got their hands dirty, weeding and planting salad greens for a fall harvest, and learning more about one another as they worked. “You know how when you’re on a road trip and sitting next to each other, things come up that you wouldn’t talk about if you were sitting face-to-face?” Bhide asks. “I think gardening is like that, too. There’s something about working with your hands that makes it easier to talk and get to know each other.”
Bhide wants students and other community members to have a voice in how the Student Garden evolves. To ensure a continued sense of ownership and engagement, she’s assembling a student advisory board for the garden; the members will have input into future planning and partnerships. Chief among those collaborations are relationships with Penn's Netter Center for Community Partnership, particularly its Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative (AUNI). During the last year, produce from the garden and orchard has been donated to AUNI to be distributed through low-income community-supported agriculture shares. Produce was also donated to be sold at summertime markets run by students at Philadelphia’s Sayre and Robeson high schools.
For students, staff, faculty, and campus visitors who wish to take part in Penn’s “cultivation culture,” there are a variety of ways to do so. The first, and perhaps most enticing, is to simply sample the harvest. “That’s why it’s there,” Cerwinka says, “but take only what you need and leave some for the next person.”
For those in the community interested in taking their involvement up a notch, regular work days and planting events at the Penn Park Orchard, organized in concert with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, provide the opportunity to help tend and nourish trees and other plants that will one day bear fruit. Similar work days are scheduled this fall at the Student Garden.
In addition, Penn campus organizations and faculty members can use the campus landscapes as a resource for events and even academic courses. Bhide has hosted events for groups such as the Student Sustainability Association at Penn and the Penn Women’s Center in the Student Garden, providing programming on a variety of garden-related topics. Cerwinka has arranged for a class to visit the Orchard for a lesson on archaeobotany, and is in discussions to create academic partnerships around air quality and storm-water management. This semester, Frank Pellicone, the house dean at Harrison College House, will be taking students in one of his Italian-language courses to the Student Garden, where they will harvest crops that Bhide planted, such as tomatoes, eggplant, and basil, to create an Italian-themed meal.
FRES staff members have even bigger plans for engagement at the Orchard, drawing ideas from Rebecca Barber, a recent graduate of Penn’s Master of Public Health program. For Barber’s capstone, she compiled and analyzed results from a survey of more than 200 people across Penn about how engaging with the Orchard could improve wellness. Based on the responses, she designed programming that delved into such topics as cooking with local and seasonal ingredients, small-scale gardening, tea-making, and yoga.
Such offerings mesh well with Penn’s increasing emphasis on wellness and sustainability. Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé has already paid a visit to the Student Garden, discussing with Bhide ways to tie together time in the garden with wellness initiatives. And a focus on local, urban, organic agriculture upholds the tenets of the Climate Action Plan 2.0, which includes goals of reducing waste and managing the campus grounds with more attention to ecological health.
As the campus landscape incorporates a more diverse collection of plants—and in turn, a growing number of community members become aware of the shift—FRES staffers hope that Penn’s edible landscapes will serve as beautiful, tangible, approachable means of enhancing the quality of life on campus.
“I think these spaces provide people with a good way in to start interacting with their landscape,” says Cerwinka. “It’s one thing to look up at a tree but to pick something off of it and eat it is a whole different experience.”