Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

The Pendleton Heights Community Orchard at Lexington and Montgall avenues has new additions as the spring growing season comes to an end. Stewarded by Whitney Barnardo and her neighbors, the orchard was officially started in April of 2016, but its roots stretch back even further.

“The neighborhood had entered into a memorandum of understanding with Parks and Rec because this was just kind of abandoned and a dumping ground and not great,” Barnado said.

Around 2013, some residents had planted a few plums and peaches, but the orchard really started to bloom when local partners came together. The Giving Grove, Kansas City University (KCU), and the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association (PHNA) have since cared for and planted over 30 diverse fruit trees.

“We have a row of peaches that were brought over from the Italians that originally came to this neighborhood from Sicily,” Barnado said. “They were this variety, which is great, but everything loves peaches, like the lesser peachtree borer and the greater peachtree borer, so we lost one.”

The orchard lost another peachtree in 2017 to a sinkhole caused by the demolition of the abandoned warehouse that once occupied the site. When the building was demolished, it collapsed in on itself and the lot was leveled, eventually forming a sinkhole.

On Monday, May 10, they planted three new trees, one dedicated to lives lost in the pandemic, one to victims of police brutality, and one to immigrants searching for a better life.

The group planned to have help from Crossroads Academy high school students, led by one of their teachers who lives in the neighborhood, but when bus trouble kept them away, the neighbors picked up the shovels and got to work digging holes. They planted two cherry trees and a fig tree.

“It’s called a Really Delightful Fig, its legitimate name, but it is also an Italian variety from the immigrants who came to Kansas City,” Barnado said. “We thought that was like a nice nod to the neighborhood, what we’re trying to do here and everything else.”

Barnado, who moved to Pendleton Heights in 2014, began serving on the PHNA board in 2015 and started stewarding the orchard around the same time. She also helps with the Pendleton Heights Community Garden.

“This is something that I’ve kind of had in the back of my mind, wanting to replace trees that we lost,” Barnado said. “I just thought, what a nice way to honor what’s been going on in the last year. A lot of what we want to start doing is just talking about why we volunteer doing this and why we have these fruit trees and what they’re capable of, and community and everything else.”

The orchard’s stewards are trying to be more intentional with their mission moving forward. For the past five years, they’ve been pushing to keep the trees and plants they had alive, managing the space, and learning what they didn’t know.

“Now we want to do a lot more outreach and talk about what an orchard does, and building community and healthy spaces in the urban core,” Barnado said.

This will be the first season when many of the trees are mature enough for substantial production. The orchard is open to the community, and anyone who comes by and wants to pick is welcome. If there is a lot of fruit on the trees, they’ll notify the community to come harvest themselves or will even drop it off.

“Now that we’re kind of in a more fruit producing era, I guess you could say, we’ll look into partnering with organizations to help, but we have Global FC come through, we have Kansas City University, we’ve had churches,” Barnado said. “We’re trying to get the neighborhood to just come by. My husband and I have been out here early in the morning and have seen people literally come out from under the bridge and pick some fruit and that’s what it’s here for. It’s for everybody, and so it’s really hard to say exactly where it goes.”

The newly planted cherry trees should be mature enough to fruit within two years. Most trees they plant are already two years old, so once they’re in the ground they grow until they’re sturdy enough to bear fruit.

The neighborhood recently purchased an orchard ladder, and the neighbor who is restoring the house to the west of the orchard donated an unused shed – which they moved onto the property with a little planning and a lot of maneuvering.

Scarritt Renaissance residents Owen and Caitlyn Cox and his wife Caitlyn helped plant the newest trees.

“We’ve actually volunteered at some other Giving Grove orchards across town before we actually volunteered at this one, but then came out to this one obviously since it’s right here in the Northeast and we like to come on over and help whenever we can,” Owen said. “It just shows a nice area of the neighborhood to have some sort of active participation in it, right, so it’s always nice when you can see neighbors out there doing work, especially when it comes to putting together things like an orchard that can benefit the whole neighborhood.”

Caitlyn demonstrated for the other volunteers how to start digging a hole, going at it sideways with a shovel so as not to compress the dirt on the sides, and setting aside the turf layer to use later.

“The Giving Grove, they’ve been amazing partners, they obviously teach people about trees, but they did some really great classes on mapping the assets in your neighborhood – and assets not necessarily being tangible things… organizations, different sites, different partners,” Barnado said. “That was really something that was eye-opening for me.”

Barnado has worked for a public health organization, and she has carried their mission of health as a human right forward into her new work in the community gardens and orchard.

“People have to have access to quality health care – and everybody deserves quality health care, not just the richest or whatever – but then that also means access to quality food, and affordably and close by, and then access to healthy spaces, like green spaces,” Barnado said.

The orchard fulfils a couple of those things for the neighborhoods surrounding it. Around 2008, the lot was occupied by an abandoned warehouse, broken windows and all, attracting negative activity to the corner. The lot is at a prominent entrance to the neighborhood as cars cross the Lexington Avenue bridge, across the street from Kessler Park.

In 2014 Montgall Avenue, which borders the orchard to the east, was the last holdout in Pendleton Heights where there were abandoned houses and people dumping mattresses and tires. The then-empty lot wasn’t getting mowed enough and those factors really lent to blight, Barnado said.

“The neighborhood and Jessica Ray, president at time, was just a really incredible force – she had this very DIY attitude, she was working for Habitat for Humanity – and she said, ‘Look, City, I will meet you more than halfway. We will mow it, we will plant it, just help us help you,’ and they did,” Barnado said. “The neighborhood at the time did all these cleanups, they planted, they bought a ride-on mower – which is not cheap – and they got all these volunteers, which we still use volunteers to mow, and just really made it kind of parklike.”

Now, they’re working to maintain the trees and keep weeds and poison ivy at bay. The new trees are bordered by stones with messages honoring the different memorials, which will help mowers avoid the trees, mulch and marigold seeds to keep away pests.

Representatives from the City’s water department were on site to evaluate the runoff issue across Montgall from the orchard. The street is missing a curb, which causes water running down the hill to wash out down the hill under the bridge and into North Terrace Lake.

“The neighborhood association wrote a grant to help terrace this [hill] and KCU donated infill and the stone, and then Parks and Rec had a whole big personnel shakeup,” Barnado said. “They were supposed to volunteer some of the site work and that went away, and then pandemic and budgeting and all of that.”

There are major signs of erosion, Barnado pointed out to the department’s representatives. The neighborhood is now working with different organizations on boxes to terrace the steep slope. Once the hillside is terraced, they can plant trees and native plants, budget allowing. They’re working with young Pendleton Heights resident Jack Murphy and his partners who are working to restore North Terrace Lake.

“It’s definitely been exercising patience and perseverance, but it’s also not getting any better while it sits there,” Barnado said. “We also thought it would help with kind of unwanted activities underneath the bridge, that was also the goal.”

The Pendleton Heights Community Orchard stewards are focused on community health in many forms.