2023 was a fruitful time at the POP Learning Orchard! As the fourth season comes to an end, we take this time to reflect on this year’s journey of growth, community engagement and challenges while optimistically dreaming and planning for the future. This annual summary serves as a testament to the collective efforts that have continued to transform a budding orchard into a thriving food forest that supports curiosity, community and experiential learning. 

POP staff and volunteers thin the peach and plum trees during a Learning Orchard workday.

Spanning across one acre at the historic Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia, the Learning Orchard contains a diverse variety of plant life including 90 fruit and nut trees and over 150 berry bushes, shrubs, and fruiting vines. The evolving landscape witnessed transformative moments throughout the season, shaped by the care of POP staff, Lead Orchard Volunteers and some favorable weather conditions. 

With milder winter temperatures and the absence of late freezes in 2023, the orchard experienced an unprecedented bounty. Beloved stone fruits, such as peaches and cherries, made their debut at the orchard with their inaugural harvests.

Pome fruit trees, such as apples and Asian Pears, continued their maturation, yielding enough fruit for POP staff to experiment with orchard techniques, such as fruit bagging, as an integrated pest and disease management tactic. 

New additions were added to the perennial fruit yields, offering up the first harvests of Catawba grapes, Che fruit, and maypops. However, stealing the spotlight was the newly planted crowd favorite – the cucamelon! Planted in early spring, these uncommonly known but darling fruits took off with vigor, becoming a sensation by late summer and early fall. This herbaceous vine is supposedly perennial in our climate, so we look forward to their return next year! 

A variety of berries including red raspberries, strawberries, red, pink, clove and yellow currants and gooseberries- all orchard jewels!

More fruit harvest highlights included:

124 pounds of figs
46 pounds of blackcap, red and yellow raspberries
42 pounds of asian pears
29 pounds of apples
28 pounds of cucamelon
25 pounds of chokeberries
25 pounds of strawberries
24 pounds of grapes
20 pounds of nanking cherries
22 pounds of persimmons
11 pounds of goumi berries
10 pounds of maypops
9 pounds of red, clove and white currants
3 pounds of elderberries
3 pounds of gooseberries
…and more!

Annual production alley-cropping continued to be a key element of the orchard space in-between the established tree rows.  While alley-cropping has been practiced on the orchard since its beginnings, this season came with its share of challenges such as decreasing light density and root competition as the orchard trees continued to mature. Groundhogs, squirrels, and even goldfinches added a surprising twist by munching on the leafy green starts of annual crops that were typically left alone during previous growing seasons.

Despite the obstacles and changes, the 2023 season saw an assortment of favorable harvest from our annual production which included a variety of vegetables and herbs:

163 pounds of sungold tomatoes
143 pounds of collard greens
142 pounds of eggplant
92 pounds of scallions
88 pounds of swiss chard
88 pounds of sweet peppers
75 pounds of summer squash
40 pounds of garlic
29 pounds of sorrel
26 pounds of spinach
21 pounds of mustard greens
18 pounds of bok choy
16 pounds of arugula
14 pounds of fennel
10 pounds of oregano
8 pounds of basil
8 pounds of parsley
6 pounds of garlic scapes
3 pounds of thyme
…just to name a few! 

100% of the harvest was donated to POP’s ongoing partners, Get Fresh Daily, Food Not Bombs West Philly and towards the end of the season, The People’s Fridge on 52nd St. which just reopened and is now hosted at the Blackwell Regional Library. These organizations provide free, freshly picked or prepared local food in West Philadelphia. Additionally, portions of the harvest were often shared among our dedicated volunteers, allowing them to enjoy the literal fruits of their labor. 

If the abundance of fruits, vegetables and herbs weren’t enough, POP had a bee-utiful honey harvest! Thanks to the ongoing partnership with the Philadelphia Beekeeper’s Guild, the hives at The Learning Orchard produced a generous yield of 216 pounds of honey; 24 pounds of the honey went to Get Fresh Daily, an additional 48 pounds were donated to a new herb collective that Orchard Assistant and herbalist Caro Torres is a part of and POP was able to debut a portion of the honey to the public during the annual Orchard Celebration as a part of fundraising efforts. Bee on the lookout for more POP merchandise in the future!

Orchard Assistant Caro, pictured with newly planted murta, (Chilean guava)

The Learning Orchard expanded its plantings this year with new perennial plants including pomegranate, murta (Chilean guava), tea camellia, the aforementioned cucamelon, more sorrel and asparagus, winecap mushrooms and nitrogen fixing scotch broom. We also created an interactive POP Treefinder map of what’s planted and began sharing blog posts featuring the cultivars of the POP Learning Orchard.

The heart of The Learning Orchard is not just the yield or beauty it offers, but the hands and supporters that plant, weed, thin, maintain, harvest, activate and gather community into the space. This year, POP’s team grew with three new members: Deja Morgan as our new Community Outreach Coordinator, Carolina ‘Caro’ Torres as our new Orchard Assistant and Indrayudh ‘Indy’ Shome as our new Communications Director. 

Alongside our expanding team, this season saw 256 volunteers who came to the Woodlands to work and learn with us, including 6 Lead Orchard Volunteers that helped on a weekly or monthly basis!

The learning experience extended beyond volunteers, as 108 students from local schools and youth programs immersed themselves in the orchard’s ecosystem. Developed and led by Education Director Corrie Spelman-Lopez and Program Coordinator Erika D’Andrea, these student visits went beyond traditional learning, featuring an immersive self-guided scavenger hunt and conversation about the benefits of orchards in our communities. 

Complementing these educational efforts were workshops that delved into various topics, including pawpaw and top grafting. The Learning Orchard hosted open orchard hours during Woodlands events, including Bat Night and Pollinator Night and opportunities for celebration with partners and supporters during our annual Learning Orchard celebration which featured free food, drinks, live music, an orchard tour and a silent auction.

This season we saw: 
256 volunteers
108 students
36 workshop participants
27 POP Harvest attendees
706 event attendees at Nature Nights, Plant Sales, and Orchard Celebration

Breaking ground inside new high tunnels!

This year also saw the long anticipated construction of 2 high tunnels adjacent to POP’s nursery!  This project was completed in fall 2023 with the help of SunWorks and a dedicated group of volunteers.  One of the high tunnels will serve for propagation and overwintering of tender plants, thus enhancing the capacity of POP’s edible plant nursery. The other high tunnel is being used to create a zone 8 food forest, with the first plantings this season including loquat, olive, murta, pineapple guava, and hardy citrus (yuzu, kumquat, and citrumelo). All are heated only by the sun’s energy and with automated ventilation powered by our solar array.  

The newly expanded POP Team! From left to right and top to bottom – Phil Forsyth, Erika D’Andrea, Indy Shome, Caro Torres, Kim Jordan, Deja Morgan, Cortina Mallozzi, Sharon Appiah, Simone Shemshedini and Corrie Spellman-Lopez

With a larger team and new infrastructure, we are looking forward to a season of more opportunities to learn, expanded programming, and the ability to continue adapting to all the unexpected challenges and delightful changes that come with an ever-changing food forest.

This blog post was prepared by POP Orchard Director Sharon Appiah.

SUPPORT US!  If you found this entry useful, informative, or inspiring, please consider a donation of any size to help POP in planting and supporting community orchards in Philadelphia: phillyorchards.org/donate.