Photo by Bengt Nyman, via Wikimedia Commons

While many of Baltimore’s urban spaces don’t have the proper soil conditions to support a newly planted orchard, the folks at the nonprofit Civic Works have come up with a solution: Make the orchards portable, and bring them to the communities that need them.

The inaugural “Moveable Orchard” will sprout on April 27 at the Baltimore Food Hub in Broadway East. Once 3.5-acre brownfield property, the redeveloped campus now hosts a culinary job development program and start-up food incubators. And soon, they’ll have their own fruit supply.

“Moveable orchards allows us to re-imagine urban settings, and really [are] the seed for a larger concept,” said Eric Sargent, a planting coordinator at the Baltimore Orchard Project.

Founded in 2012, the Baltimore Orchard Project‘s mission is to grow an “edible Baltimore” whose harvest can be shared with neighbors. The project, which is operated by Civic Works, has planted more than 100 orchards around town.

It begins by bringing in a portable plot, so that partners can get some fruit at the start, Sargent says. “Over the long term, portable orchards buy our partners some time for soil remediation and more gardens and orchards to be planted in the future.”

Of course, growing a fruit tree in Baltimore isn’t without its challenges. Sargent says staff met with plenty of community partners who were initially interested, but ran into obstacles in the ground.

“The problem that we found is that too many potential sites had poor quality, or even contaminated or compacted soil, that wouldn’t sustain orchard trees,” he says. “Remediating planting soil can be expensive and also take years to accomplish.”

Beyond optimal growing conditions, fruit trees require patience. Apple, pear and fig trees bear fruit between two to five years. Pawpaw trees, sometimes known as “hillbilly mangoes,” can take up to seven years until fruit harvests. But many of the prospective Baltimore Orchard Project sites were part of the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program, which did not guarantee the properties would be protected for the long term.

This Australian Micro Forest Garden inspired the Baltimore Orchard Project team.

Enter some out-of-the-planter-box thinking. The team began searching for portable planting options and found an Australian group had developed a moveable concept. The local team began experimenting with designs, and soon created a prototype that would work for Baltimore lots.

By design, each tree is planted in a four-by-four-foot box planter that can be moved with a hand-held forklift and then delivered onsite. Critical to a new plant’s growing success, the Moveable Orchard Project’s prototype includes a self-watering system so that new fruit trees are properly fed. Companion plants are grown at the base of the fruit trees, adding interest and more plant types.

Final construction on the inaugural Moveable Orchard.

Baltimore residents need better access to healthier food, especially fresh produce. Around  one in four city dwellers live in areas previously known as “food deserts”–now called “healthy food priority areas”–where families live in poverty and lack convenient access to a quality grocery store.

The hope is that having portable orchards will give communities a chance to start producing their own healthy options, namely fruit, on their home turf.  For community groups with short term land ownership agreements such as the Baltimore City Adopt-A-Lot program, Moveable Orchards provide a resource to begin investing in their spaces long term.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.