SOLID ROCK united methodist church (SOLID ROCK) is an oasis in North Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood, which is known as a haven for residents from all walks of life. The church is a true community anchor, located on over an acre of lush greenspace. Although the membership is small, the congregation has an outsized impact. Realizing the importance of community connections, SOLID ROCK’s pastor, Margret Powell, has drawn in residents, neighborhood groups, and businesses of all ages through her welcoming demeanor and openness to new partnerships.

Partners began working with SOLID ROCK the fall of 2012, through a program known as Strategic Investment in Sacred Places, a method of evaluating a congregation’s assets and helping it to capitalize on them. Partners realized that SOLID ROCK, with its large greenspace, was well positioned to act as a model for youth urban farming in Philadelphia. On the church’s behalf, Partners’ staff reached out to the area’s food-justice community at large and one organization in particular, the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP).  Out of these invitations for collaboration, two candidates emerged — Amanda Johnson, a seasoned urban farm manager at Greensgrow Farm in Fishtown, and POP, an organization with a citywide mission to plant orchards “that grow healthy food, green spaces, and community food security.”

Early in 2013, Reverend Powell met with Johnson, POP’s Executive Director, Phil Forsyth, and Partners staff. Together, the groups devised a multi-phase implementation plan for SOLID ROCK’s greenspace to ensure both the short-term mobilization of resources and the long-term sustainability of an urban greening initiative.

As a first step, Partners proposed working directly with SOLID ROCK, utilizing Johnson’s farming expertise to build a series of raised beds on the church’s campus. Forsyth suggested the creation of a partnership between POP and SOLID ROCK that would yield an “edible forest garden and orchard” for children’s education in the long term. POP plans to plant over thirty trees and hundreds of berry bushes around the perimeter of the church cemetery and in a concentrated area of lawn in front of the parsonage.

In the spring of 2013, Partners staff and SOLID ROCK volunteers gathered under the direction of Johnson to undertake the first step, constructing five raised beds. Reverend Powell reflects, “Building the beds was a lot of fun! I didn’t realize that I would get involved, but I did.” At the end of several workdays, and with a substantial amount of help from the eager students of Olney Elementary, the SOLID ROCK Garden was born. In early summer, second grade students from Olney Elementary collaborated with campers from the SOLID ROCK Summer Camp to sow onions, squash, tomatoes, cilantro, nasturtium, and a cornucopia of other vegetables.

Over the summer, the garden began to yield its bounty, touching all aspects of SOLID ROCK’s ministries, including the SHARE Food and Clothing Hour, the WorkReady program, and the Summer Camp. Reverend Powell marveled at the overwhelming harvest from the garden, pointing out its capacity to help those in need and its ability to educate. As she recounts, “We work with families than often run out of food. And our mission through our food program aims to help those living in poverty. During the summer and fall, once a week, after our packaged food distribution was over, we would take those families outside and offer them the contents of our garden. They would take what they wanted, and it was awesome.”

In the church gymnasium and kitchen, SOLID ROCK’s summer campers sampled freshly harvested squash and made salads with the greens, while proudly exclaiming, “This is what we grew outside!” Campers, both members and non-members of the church, participated in education demonstrations at the garden, played plant classification games with Johnson, and received nutrition lessons from Amber Badeau, a nutritionist from the local ShopRite. Out on the grounds of the church, two teenagers were hired to tend to the landscaping and monitor the raised beds. Reverend Powell noted that entrepreneurship is a large part of what SOLID ROCK hopes to achieve through their urban greening and food program, remarking, “Churches have property! We can create jobs and teach work ethic.”

The verdant success and compelling impact of the environmental transformation that summer had multiple ramifications. SOLID ROCK congregants and clergy felt energized about continuing the project, and dove into the orchard planning with enthusiasm, while the Philadelphia Orchard Project was able to see that SOLID ROCK was capable of tending an edible landscape.

Throughout the fall and winter of 2013, SOLID ROCK prepared for the arrival of spring and the SOLID ROCK Orchard, designating an orchard manager and program coordinator, testing the soil, and circulating a community petition to confirm interest. Meanwhile, POP collaborated with Anna Wik, a landscape architect from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to plan the orchard design. Based upon SOLID ROCK’s preferences and POP’s strategies for sustaining healthy orchards, the pair designed a stunning urban forest garden that features eight types of trees and over ten types of perennials and groundcovers. Wik designed the Orchard while keeping SOLID ROCK’s specifications in mind, clustering berry bushes as a natural barrier in an area where a neighbor’s dog often barks at children, and adding trees near the sidewalk to provide shade for those waiting for the bus. Outside of her PHS duties, Wik has signed on as Orchard Liaison, ensuring continuous technical knowledge and professional support.

When the fruit trees are mature, their 2,000- to 3,000-pound yield will be an immense supplement to the congregation’s SHARE Food Hour. At the same time, the orchard will be a beautiful addition to the civic landscape, a nourishing respite for the community, a learning garden for children, and an entrepreneurship site for teens. Considering it all, Reverend Powell declared, “Starting the garden has taken our food ministry to the next level. It was working with Partners for Sacred Places that allowed us to connect the dots and bring multiple organizations in the community out to participate. I don’t think we could have done it without their partnership.”