In December of last year, Amy Countryman submitted her undergraduate thesis for an open-access community orchard to the City of Bloomington. It was a school project, and she thought nothing more would come of it. But about a month later, Lee Huss from the Bloomington Tree Commission called and said the city was interested in her idea.
Since then the project received approval from the city, along with an offer for an orchard location. A plant selection committee was created, along with a board of directors. Plans have been laid out for around 80 trees, and with the help of Bloomington residents, the project won a grant for at least 20 trees from The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF). And last Saturday the orchard had its first community work day.
"Bloomington was ready for this project," said Countryman. "People are really excited about it. And it just took some folks getting together and organizing."
The Bloomington Community Orchard is meant to be more than just a place to pick fruit straight from the trees for free -- which in itself is a pretty novel idea. It is also a place that teaches sustainable agriculture and stimulates community engagement, according to the project's Web site.
"My vision is to bring lots of different people together around a commonality of food," said Countryman.
The orchard will offer courses like the Grow Organic Educator Series, which teaches organic farming practices, and a Master Orcharding class to teach the proper planting and cultivation of fruit trees, according to board member Erin Wright.
Huss, the city's urban forester, who advised Countryman on her thesis, said her proposal was not the first to suggest planting fruit trees in Bloomington. "The stars literally aligned for this," he said.
"My vision is to bring lots of different people together around a commonality of food." - Amy Countryman, Bloomington Community Orchard
When Huss met with Countryman about her proposal for the orchard he came prepared. "He actually came with a map of the orchard site and said, 'We want to give you $2,000, and we want you to go for it,'" she said.
The site the city chose is at Winslow Woods Park, 2120 S. Highland Ave., across from the YMCA and near the Willie Streeter Community Garden. The plan is to plant a wide variety of different fruit trees, including, paw-paws, plums, cherries, pears and figs, as well as less conventional fruits, like medlar and quince.
At least 20 of those trees will be provided by FTPF, along with materials and educational opportunities.
The FTPF and Edy's Fruit Bars teamed up to create the Communities Take Root foundation, which donates orchards to communities all over the country. Every month until August they host online voting for communities that have submitted proposals. According to Wright, almost 100,000 votes were tallied for Bloomington in April, which earned it second place in that month's competition, along with the free fruit trees.
What makes the Bloomington Community Orchard unique is its strong community involvement. "A lot of the other communities are just going to plant the trees and walk away," said Huss, "but we are looking at a long-term project."
The orchard's board of directors, which includes Countryman, Jack Brubaker, Erin Wright, Amy Roche, Burhan Elturan, Jami Scholl, Ross Gay, Amanda Wanlass and Shaun Ziegler, is composed of elected community members. It can create sub-committees to tackle individual issues, such as investigating soil conditions and irrigation options.
The details of such an operation can be tricky and costly. To be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the orchard will use more costly small crushed gravel for the walking paths. And to keep the slew of deer and woodland animals residing in the nearby Winslow woods at bay, a 10- to 14-foot tall fence will surround the orchard, according to Countryman.
The orchard's layout is unorthodox, abandoning the straight rows associated with orchards for a gardenlike feel. The plan, which was drawn up by board member Brubaker, features a central circle lined with trees and wide walking paths with easy access to the entire orchard.
"A lot of the other communities are just going to plant the trees and walk away. But we are looking at a long-term project." - Lee Huss, City of Bloomington
The notion that all the fruit in the orchard is free to anyone seems simple; however, it is an idea many are not accustomed to. "People still ask me how does it work, how do you monitor who gets what, what about people that just wander in?" said Wright, "And I'm like, 'That's the point.'"
The Bloomington Community Orchard and its premise of an orchard on municipal land, with fruit available to anyone, is unique. "I didn't find any other publicly owned gardens when I was researching this," said Countryman. "In a lot a ways this is a pretty new idea."
The project is as much about the people and the Bloomington community as it is about fruit trees. Its success or failure depends on the people. The first work day was Saturday, May 22, when about 30 volunteers started composting and marking off trails, according to Wright.
"People plant trees," said Huss, "but what happens to them down the road is really the measure of success."
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For More Information
Contributions to the Bloomington Community Orchard can be sent to Barb Dunbar, Operations Coordinator, Bloomington Tree Fund, P.O. Box 848, Bloomington, IN, 47402, with a note stating the money is for the “Community Orchard.”