Volunteers clear the fence adjacent to the new orchard. Many hands make light work!

Over the last five years, Monumental Baptist Church in West Philadelphia has been steadily greening its churchyard. What started out as a large unused garden plot behind the church and two neighboring row homes has now become the Community Garden Project (CGP), a prolific teaching garden and orchard, serving the congregation’s 300 members and its surrounding community by not only providing healthy food but also teaching children and adults the nutritional value of growing fruits and vegetables, preparing healthy meals, recycling and reusing water and natural fertilizers. CGP also uses its program to teach service-learning skills and foster accountability and teamwork. 

The first year, Mecky Pohlschroder, a 19-year member of the church, and a few volunteers began on their own, removing debris, pulling up overgrown weeds, and sowing seeds for what would become plentiful harvests and Sunday morning distribution by the youth tending the space. The second year, the church joined PHS’ City Harvest program – one year, growing over 500 pounds of produce! 

In November 2016, MBC welcomed POP and volunteers for the first planting of fruit trees and shrubs at the site, including blueberries, cherries, peaches, and more.  On July 15th, 2017, POP will help MBC sheetmulch the orchard space in preparation for additional understory plantings.  Hundreds of perennial herbs, flowers, and groundcovers will be planted in the fall to complete the food forest.

Children ready the ground for planting fruit trees in fall 2016.

“It was one of my absolute most cherished days when POP came to start the orchard,” Pohlschroder recalled. “It was just after the election and there was so much sadness, so many emotions, but all these volunteers came out and it was just an awesome day of everyone working so beautifully together. It was filled with love.”

In addition to working with the MBC youth, CGP was extended to the community through after-school programs bringing together immigrant and local students teaching them social and academic skills through gardening. Pohlschroder describes the garden as a place where students’ wonder is cultivated. “The kids really love it,” she said. “They learn it all – from A to Z. They pull out the carrots, wash them, and eat them right there. They’re amazed. Our seniors love it, too. Many of them grew up in the South and had lived on farms, so it’s something that brings back a lot of memories.”

The site houses four garden beds in the church’s front yard, and five in the back, which produce crops such as kale, collard greens, peas, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, and okra. Since planting the orchard, Pohlschroder says she’s hopeful that it will encourage more church members to spend time in the backyard connecting with community, now that there’s nice trees, with ample shade and room for the kids to play.

As a church, the garden and orchard are also a place where the Bible comes alive — a huge part of it being about working together and sharing the harvest, she says. “Jesus uses many parables in the Bible, from the story of cultivating faith as small as a mustard seed to references of fig trees. It really makes a lot of sense if you can actually see things grow.”

Monica Morgan (pictured here) and church members greet the new trees with joy and anticipation of future harvests!

More than anything, the garden and orchard at MBC is a place of inspiration. It’s a space where children learn to grow, where cookouts unite community members through shared food and cultural connection, and a place that nurtures the visioning of future gardens. One grandmother and granddaughter have begun planting their garden after seeing the church’s – learning about building beds and collecting compost from the Fairmount Park Recycling Center. “It’s amazing to see what sparks are ignited.”

This POP Partner Feature written by Education Director Alyssa Schimmel.

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