In its first five years, the Bloomington Community Orchard has blossomed from a seed of an idea to a full-grown model of sustainable living and community building. Visitors to the orchard, located in Winslow Woods Park on South Highland Avenue, will find fresh, seasonal fruit for picking, a communal gathering space, and a setting that has inspired poets and artists alike — all part of the founders’ mission to dream, build, and share an orchard community.
Amy Roche, the orchard’s outreach chair and chair of the board of directors, explains that the idea for a community orchard was born out of Amy Countryman’s senior thesis on edible urban forests for Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. While looking at Bloomington’s tree canopy, Countryman noticed a very small percentage of the trees bore fruit, and she saw a community need that could be easily filled. With the help of Burnell Fischer, a clinical professor emeritus specializing in urban and community forestry, Countryman presented the idea to the Bloomington City Council, won approval for the project, and started planning for the first planting. Coincidentally, The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and Edy’s Fruit Bars were running a competition for organizations seeking to start a community orchard. The online voting was competitive, but the Bloomington Community Orchard emerged victorious, winning a grant for the plantings that would be cultivated in the new space. (Click here to read more about Countryman’s inspiration and process.)
Creating a working orchard doesn’t happen overnight, so the early days of the project were spent conditioning the soil and planning the site design. Local artist Jack Brubaker envisioned a series of looping paths reminiscent of European gardens, with a center circle to serve as a focal point and gathering space. Much deliberation was given to what was planted in the orchard as well, Roche says. “The cultivar selection committee considered historical significance and even literary elements,” she explains. “They wanted to give the orchard a sense of community and meaning.” Roche also associates the orchard’s mission with the late IU professor and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s studies examining common spaces and resources governed by those who use them. “[The orchard] is a physical public commons for people to gather, and we’re doing commons governance, drawing on the rich knowledge pool of our community to do it,” Roche says. “It feels good to be joining forces with other community members and joining with a municipality to create this public service. It’s not just about fruit production — it’s about community building.”
One way to get involved with the orchard is through weekly Work and Learn days, which are open year-round to members of the public of all ages. Throughout the growing season, from April to November, these work days are planned based on the orchard’s maintenance calendar. Fall tasks, for example, are likely to relate to shutting down the orchard post-harvest: removing diseased or damaged plants and mulching tree roots to protect and insulate them from cold weather. The orchard has kid-sized equipment, including shovels, wheelbarrows, and watering cans, and activities like digging and spreading mulch speak to many kids’ natural inclination to get closer to nature (i.e., dirt). Water and snacks are provided, and fruit tasting is encouraged.
Seasonal festivals provide another entry point to the orchard. Over the winter, the Hibernation Celebration serves as both an annual meeting for the group and an opportunity to enjoy fruit pies and hot cocoa. The Spring Planting Day uses a rotating schedule to keep cultivars robust — in 2015, volunteers planted herbs and filled shady areas with fungi. The Harvest Festival, usually near the end of July, targets the time when plums, peaches, and blackberries are ripe for the picking. Finally, Cider Fest, the biggest festival of the year, is a day to savor the apple harvest and learn more about the orchard. Open to the public and free of charge, the family-friendly event will do double-duty this year as a fifth anniversary celebration for the orchard. Roche recommends sampling some fresh-pressed apple cider. “You can come use the hand press,” she says. “There’s nothing like cider that you’ve pressed yourself.” Commemorative Mason jar mugs will be for sale at Cider Fest, but with only 75 mugs available and more than 800 Facebook RSVPs to the event, Roche says it would be wise to bring a mug from home. Kids can enjoy face painting, live music by Hoosier Hotcakes, and a scavenger hunt through the orchard. The annual fall fruit tree giveaway will send dozens of trees home with community members, and the orchard provides many opportunities for free tree planting demonstrations.
In its brief existence, the orchard has already made an impact on several artists, including Bloomington-born fiber artist Carrie Weaver, who created a sculpture especially for Cider Fest. Roche explains, “The form was inspired by mycorrhizal fungi, a key player in a healthy orchard ecosystem.” This fungi lives underground and carries soil nutrients to tree roots. At 3 p.m., Indiana Review, a literary magazine published in conjunction with Indiana University, will host a poetry reading at the orchard. Among the poets featured is Ross Gay, associate professor in the department of English at Indiana University and a Bloomington Community Orchard board member. His poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” was inspired by his experience bringing fig tree cuttings from his hometown of Philadelphia and nurturing them in the orchard.
Five years in, the community has responded with overwhelming support for the orchard. A core group of 50 volunteers consults, provides research, runs events, and generally keeps the orchard functioning, as well as provides free fruit to any and all who stop in for a visit. They also work with neighborhood associations and student groups to help facilitate tree plantings throughout the city and on IU’s campus. “People fall in love with it,” Roche says. “It’s a beautiful model of civic engagement, a group of citizens aligned around core values, aligning themselves with the city.”