A Free, Pick-Your-Own Orchard Takes Root in Los Angeles

Before Seattle developed plans for its one-of-a-kind food forest, before Guerilla Grafters took their pruning knives to the flowering trees on the sidewalks of San Francisco, there was Fallen Fruit.

The Los Angeles-based artist collective has been exploring the interrelationship of public space, urban planning and food through various fruit-related performances, installations and actions since 2004. And now, members David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young are bringing California’s first-ever publicly funded community orchard to Los Angeles County.

Twenty-seven trees have been planted in Del Aire park, which sits in an unincorporated area of L.A.’s South Bay, each chosen to be “fruitful and abundant” in the particular climate that exists west of Interstate 405 (it’s more than a cultural divider, apparently). Burns tells TakePark that they tended predominately toward “things that you don’t typically buy,” like persimmons and pomegranates.

Lemons, limes, various hybrid stone fruit, and a few different types of figs are also among the trees included in the orchard. The group plans to provide fruit pickers and maps of the trees, but beyond that general guidance, Burns says that as far as Fallen Fruit is concerned, the fate of the orchard in in the community’s hands.

Fallen Fruit was initially born as a cartography project: The group charted the publicly accessible fruit trees in various neighborhoods around Los Angeles, distributing the maps online. The artwork helped residents interact with their communities, showing people that they could turn to local resources like the Meyer lemon tree that’s branches reach over an alley rather than a taking a trip to the grocery store. This on-going mapping effort, which has since expanded across Los Angeles and around globe (curious to know where all of the guanábana trees are in Cali, Colombia? There’s a map for that), was followed by fruit-tree adoption events, community jam-making parties, and eventually public orchards like the one at Del Aire.

When there are plans to rehab a public park, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission is often involved with bringing artworks to the space. When considering a new vision for Del Aire in 2008, the Commission’s Project Manager for the park, Letitia Fernandez, tells TakePart that the Victory Garden installations by Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers, done in collaboration with the city of San Francisco, inspired the Commission to pursue a food-related artwork. “I pulled together a list of artist that were working at the intersection of food and art and put out a call to those folks to apply for what was essentially a year long residency,” Fernandez says of the Commission’s initial outreach. “The idea was to do civic engagement activities to gauge the interest in the community of having some kind of public gardening project in the area,” with the hope of following those one-off events with a permanent installation of some sort.

Fallen Fruit was on that list, and the group’s idea for a public orchard beat out the other food-art proposals, earning the trio $40,000, funded by the Public Percent for Art program, to bring the plan to fuition. As means of introducting themselves and the idea to the neighborhood, Fallen Fruit brought their signature tree-adoption and public-fruit jam events to Del Aire—engagements that both pulled in the community and expanded the boundaries of the orchard beyond its 27-tree heart. The area residents who walked off with one or more of the 50-some adopted saplings were asked to plant them in publicly accessible areas, and the trees will be included in Fallen Fruit’s map of the orchard.

While chance brought Fallen Fruit to this specific park, the symbolism that’s wrapped up in the location is such that I can’t think of a more appropriate place. An office building owned by the aerospace giant Northrop Grumman and the Los Angeles Air Fore Base are just blocks away, signs of the military-industrial- and manufacturing-driven economy the South Bay has depended on (along with oil refining) since World War II.  But prior to the war, the surrounding area was integral to the County’s agriculture-based economy. So while a publicly owned orchard is a new model for growing food in Los Angeles, it also represents a return to a lost, largely forgotten history.

More recently, Jerry Brown’s Governor-Moonbeam-era signing of the Direct Marketing Act, which allowed farmers to sell directly to consumers, led to the first Southern California farmers’ market to open in nearby Gardena in 1979. The success of the market, which still takes place every Saturday, helped popularize the then-novel idea of buying produce directly from growers.

Could planting public parks with communal fruit trees be as commonplace as farmers’ markets in thirty years? Only time will tell, of course, but Burns tells TakePart that Fallen Fruit has received a number of inquires from other cities interested in bringing the public-orchard concept to their own parks—New York City among them.

The intention of the orchard is not only to help feed a neighborhood, but to draw the surrounding communities together, and as Fernandez sees it, the creation of the park was infused with that attitude on the administrative level too. “I think that that’s what’s at the core of this work, and that trickled into the approval process,” she tells TakePart. “From the beginning we had the spirit of breaking new ground, of being open and flexible, of experimentation. And I think that’s a really beautiful thing for a government agency.”

The two years of planning and development the Del Aire orchard required didn’t just involve the Arts Commission, but the office of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (the supervisor’s deputy, Karly Katona, in particular), the Parks and Recreation Department and other agencies too. The fact that the project managed to navigate L.A. County’s rather notorious bureaucracy, happily bringing together disparate departments, has made other city planners optimistic about making a Del Aire-like park fly elsewhere.

The orchard, which will have its official grand opening in the New Year, doesn’t resemble an urban Eden just yet. Unlike popular backyard plants like salad greens or tomatoes, tree-fruit crops require a bit more patience in the beginning, but with decades-long lifespans, the wait pays off in the long run. “We do imagine that in the first few years it won’t be perceived as being abundant,” Burns says regarding the initial harvests. “But I can tell you that after this project is out of memory, the trees will be abundant and people will forget. And that’s part of the goal: to have the trees remain and the trapping of the project disappear.”

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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOODLA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com

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