Cara McKenna/Metro Mayor Gregor Robertson, left, and SOLEfood co-founder Michael Abelman plant a lemon tree to commemorate the opening of North America’s largest urban orchard in Vancouver on Sunday.

Mayor Gregor Robertson got his hands dirty to open the biggest urban orchard in North America on Sunday.

The orchard, located on a former gas station lot at the corner of Main and Terminal, is run by SOLEfood Street Farms — an urban farming company that has three other urban farm sites in Vancouver.

Robertson and SOLEfood co-founder Michael Abelman planted a lemon tree together to launch the project, which will sell to local businesses and employ residents of the Downtown Eastside.

The lot consists of 800 portable containers that home roughly 400 specialty fruit trees, which are currently saplings, as well as up to 60 culinary herbs.

Fruit won’t be ready for commercial production for three to five years, but herbs will be ready for sale in coming months.

Robertson said the city-owned plot is being leased to SOLEfood for next to nothing because the land is unusable for typical purposes.

“This specific piece of land with an urban orchard is a breakthrough,” he said.

“Vancouver is happy to be leading on urban farming and setting an example for other cities.”

Abelman said he doesn’t want to try to compete with large, open-field production orchards, which is why he chose to focus on specialty crops like figs and persimmons.

“A perennial tree crop system for an urban environment is, in many ways, more sensible than vegetable production,” said Abelman.

“It takes advantage of vertical space, because these trees at their peak will be 15, 20, 25 feet high.”

Abelman added that, while he hopes to turn a profit with his urban farms, helping the community by employing those struggling with drug addiction, mental illness and poverty is also important.

“If you took the social values and what we’ve achieved and added that to our bottom line, we would have an extremely successful organization,” he said.

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