WHEN MEL King ran for mayor of Boston in 1979, his platform included a pledge that all street trees planted by the city would be fruit or nut varieties, the better to nourish the people. Like many visionary ideas, King’s was largely greeted with skepticism at the time. Still, King was able to secure funding from the state in the 1980s for what was called the Fruition program, and scores of fruit trees were established in city parks, vacant lots, urban wilds, and school yards - a secret orchard of healthy, local produce free for all. “You could get a two-fer,’’ King said earlier this week. “You got the benefit of the trees, their beauty, and secondly, you got the food.’’
The orchards had their fat and lean seasons; funding and stewardship came and went. In the 1990s a Roxbury nonprofit called EarthWorks expanded on King’s idea and planted orchards on public lands in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury. Particularly well-suited to the urban sites was a variety of apple dubbed the Roxbury Russet - named after the potato because it stores well, but is best eaten cooked, as applesauce or cider.
EarthWorks dissolved last March, but it bequeathed 12 diverse orchard plots - from the South End to Mattapan - to the Boston Natural Areas Network for pruning, harvesting, and overall loving care. Last week, Jeremy Dick, the group’s director of property and horticulture, was out feeding the plants with his magic organic potion of neem oil, seaweed, and molasses. And the Roxbury Russets are just starting to bloom.
At the McLaughlin playground on Mission Hill, I met Allison and Dennis Pultinas, longtime neighborhood residents and volunteer stewards of the 11-acre McLaughlin woodlands and orchards. Abutting New England Baptist hospital and just a three-pointer from the basketball courts, we saw raspberry bushes, pear, plum, and chestnut trees, and several mature apple varieties. In the fall, the stewards will hold a free harvest and cider pressing.
“It’s the perfect interface between community and nature,’’ said Dennis, an arborist. The couple described their constant vigil against the off-campus student neighbors who cut through the woods with their dogs; the well-meaning volunteers who “landscape’’ the area with unnaturally dyed red mulch; and the city parks department, which wants to eradicate the medicinal stinging nettle plants. It’s a labor of love, sure, but also an exercise in a certain kind of urban philosophy. “It’s not just about ornamental trees and lawns,’’ Allison said, “and it’s not just about humans. It’s a give and take with birds and wildlife.’’
The McLaughlin urban wild is a true public orchard - foraging is encouraged. Other fruit trees on school property, or in community gardens, aren’t as accessible to the general public. But even these often have relationships with food pantries or social enterprises, such as the Haley House café in Roxbury. Some urban orchards started by EarthWorks, like the one at Edward Everett Square in Dorchester, are sorely in need of stewards. Others, like the one at Nira Rock in Jamaica Plain, are known only to locals (until now).
The Boston Natural Areas Network will bring new resources and robust programming to many of these properties. The group maintains an educational center in Mattapan where neighbors can learn gardening and nutrition techniques, from composting to cooking with healing foods. In the coming weeks it will be giving out small grants to community groups to plant trees, and 25 percent of the applications are for fruit species.
“Clearly the interest and desire for urban orchards as part of a neighborhood food network is strong,’’ said Valerie Burns, president of the Network. “The fruit is there for everyone to harvest.’’
Urban agriculture is all the rage; everyone wants food that’s local, human-scale, sustainable. Chickens are roosting in coops sold by Williams-Sonoma. The fruit from one urban orchard became a promotional ice cream flavor at JP Licks. But the impulse behind these orchards was less about sustainability than subsistence - that public lands should provide food for hungry people.
The urban orchards are part of what makes city living a joy: not just the serenity of a wooded lot but the committed promotion of the public realm - a radical alternative to the private parks in suburban backyards.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.