Planting an Urban Orchard

February 11, 2011

sites/default/files/urban_orchard_mei-ling_tree_planting.jpgIf you plant a tree and no one’s watching, will it grow? Mei Ling Hui, the Urban Forest Coordinator at SFEnvironment, is counting on it. Recently Hui and a small group of volunteers and urban agriculture advocates planted the first of what she hopes will be a number of urban fruit orchards around the city.

Hui bought a cluster of bareroot apple, pear, fig, and lemon trees at a good price and, after a morning of strenuous digging on a grassy hill, the group put the young trees in wire cages to protect them from gophers and placed them gently in the sandy earth. The kick-off planting took place in a so-far-undisclosed corner of Golden Gate Park, but the majority of the others are planned for low income, “food insecure” areas. The event wasn’t exactly a secret, but Hui is waiting to announce the orchard’s location until the trees have taken root and established themselves.

tree_planting“People kept saying they want more fruit trees in the city. So this project is really an instance of giving people what they’re looking for” said Hui, as she rode an electric cart through the park on her way to pick up pizzas for the volunteers. She said she’s been pushing for urban orchards in San Francisco for years because she sees this stripe of urban agriculture as an amazing way to reach multiple goals. “We want to grow the urban forest, ensure that it’s well cared for, and we want to support food production in the city.”

For Hui the first goal — expanding the urban forest — is a natural extension of the recent surge of excitement about growing food in cities ( it also complies with Mayor Newsom’s Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food in San Francisco, which explicitly asks for an increase in local food production on city-owned land). “I hope that people’s interest in fruit trees can spread to encompass an interest in caring for trees, generally, and learning how to prune, etc,” she says. Another side benefit is the opportunity for green jobs skills training; SFEnvironment has a green jobs training program and several participants have shown a strong interest in working with trees.

Through the Urban Orchard Program, trees will be made available to property owners, community organizations, and City agencies to plant on both private and public land.

Urban trees provide valuable environmental benefits. The project is partially funded by the SF Carbon Fund, a program that invests funds from city activities that produce greenhouse gas pollution (such as air travel) into local projects that reduce or absorb greenhouse gases and support local economic development. According SFEnvironment, trees planted through the project are expected to absorb and sequester upwards of 150 metric tons of CO2 over 15yrs. They will also increase shade and canopy cover, aid storm water retention, and improve local air quality.

apple_treeFruit trees are great for urban food production, says Hui, because they are adaptable and can be grown in sloping areas where it would be expensive to build raised beds for vegetables. Then there’s the work involved, or the lack thereof. Tree crops, once established, require annual pruning, fertilizing, and harvesting, but they tend to be much easier to care for than vegetables. Trees may also provide a crucial buffer between eaters and the kinds of toxic compounds that exist in urban soils. Hui points to a recent UC Davis study of almonds grown in soil known to have very high level of contaminants; “the nuts were found to be completely contaminant-free, safe for consumption,” she says.

The project will be maintained by the Housing Authority which will hire and train their residents to provide maintenance as well as to ultimately harvest and distribute the bounty provided by the orchard to residents and local schools. Hui says around a half dozen urban gardening groups and organizations have expressed interest in putting in orchards around San Francisco — organizations such as Quesada Gardens in the Bayview district, which hopes to offer the trees to backyard gardeners who have shown themselves to be especially committed. “It’s a kind of step-up program for their participants,” says Hui.

And while getting more fruit trees into individual back yards — especially in food insecure neighborhoods like the Bayview —  is key, Hui has the ultimate goal of building urban orchards that would be managed communally (rather than being plot-based, like most community gardens).

“People talk about urban food planning as a way to prepare for disasters by making sure there is more actual food in the city. I think the community building (and truly knowing your neighbor) that happens in gardens and orchards actually does more in the way of really preparing us for disaster.”

The first two photos above are by Nik Daum