A Tu B’Shevat tradition is the planting of a tree, but for DeKalb County Park Ranger Robby Astrove, planting a tree is just another day in his life.
Dubbed the “Jewish Johnny Appleseed” by his friends, Astrove is on a mission to plant as many fruit trees in Georgia as he can. The past five years he has coordinated the Atlanta Local Food Initiative’s Orchard Project, which plants community fruit tree orchards at schools, parks and other public spaces.
Since 2007, the man known as Ranger Robby estimates he has planted more than 1,000 trees in metro Atlanta.
“No one was growing fruit as a mission,” Astrove said. “Fruit trees are going to be the most productive, longest-lived trees with the least amount of maintenance. It’s sustainable, and it’s what we need to be planting in cities.”
He added, “The power of trees is strong.”
The easygoing Astrove came from South Florida eight years ago to work for the nonprofit Trees Atlanta (which is doing its annual Tu B’Shevat planting in the Kirkwood neighborhood Sunday morning, Jan. 24, the day before Tu B’Shevat). In 2009 he was volunteering as a surveyor at a county park when he heard about a park ranger position at Arabia Mountain.
He was unsure about the move but ultimately interviewed for and was offered the job.
“Park ranger wasn’t exactly in my professional trajectory,” Astrove said. “But I was really excited about it. All the stuff I do as park ranger I’d already been doing, and it just brought a lot of things together. Not only that, but this place is truly special. I don’t know how many people come to work and are inspired every day.”
Most days, Ranger Robby can be found at his post at the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. He leads hikes on Fridays and Sundays, teaches classes, and watches over the dozens of fruit trees he has planted in the 25-acre preserve.
An accomplished forager, he also volunteers with Concrete Jungle, an urban fruit-picking group that donates around 8,000 pounds of fruit each year to homeless shelters and food banks in Atlanta.
On Sunday, Jan. 24, in observance of Tu B’Shevat, Astrove will oversee the planting of 15 fruit trees outside the Marcus Jewish Community Center teen house. Although admittedly more spiritual than observant these days, Astrove said he draws on his Reform Jewish upbringing for inspiration in day-to-day endeavors.
“My sanctuary has become the outdoors,” he said. “Now this is my religion. There are certain things I do every day, like waking up to see the sunrise. That becomes the new ritual. Planting trees I got from the Jewish playbook. Every Tu B’Shevat I’m reminded of that.”
Tu B’Shevat in Israel is the celebration of the beginning of the fruit crop and marks a new year for trees. In Atlanta, however, the only fruit that could bloom before the end of January is the Japanese apricot. Most other trees in Georgia don’t produce fruit until February or March at the earliest.
Despite the lack of tree-grown fruit in Atlanta at Tu B’Shevat, Astrove said the holiday at the end of January is the perfect time for planting.
“Tu B’Shevat will be a great time for the planting of trees here in Atlanta,” he said. “Harvesting fresh fruits for the seder? Maybe not. But every great Jewish holiday is accompanied by a great feast.”
If you have a yard with room for a few fruit trees, let Ranger Robby give you some advice: “Stop mowing, and start growing.”
Take a Walk
Ranger Robby hosts hikes through the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve on Friday and Sunday mornings from 8 to 10. Visit arabiaalliance.org for more information.
Photos by David R. Cohen