How to grow a community orchard: ‘The real value is the connection to others and to nature’

How to grow a community orchard: ‘The real value is the connection to others and to nature’

Back in spring, I moved with my family to the village of Overton in Hampshire. It happened that our arrival coincided with a May Day celebration in the village orchard. It was the ideal initiation: the sun shone, introductions with new neighbours were dusted with apple blossom, and our toddler joined others on an organised bug hunt, spotting insects hidden in the trees.

Like many community orchards, Overton’s is situated on the edge of the village on council-managed land, an open patch bordering a housing estate. It was conceived in 2012 by members of Overton Biodiversity Society to promote seasonal, local food and provide an inviting space for people and wildlife. There was a consultation with neighbours, terms of maintenance were agreed with the council, and across two planting sessions 20 fruit trees were planted, staked and mulched by more than 50 volunteers.

A decade on, the trees are maturing and this autumn apples hang from laden branches: ripening russets, falstaffs and cooking costards, many ready to harvest. There are dessert pears, cherries and damsons, too, trees selected not only for the quality of their fruit but as sources of nectar for pollinators.

Not every village is as fortunate as Overton, however. Earlier this year, the National Trust reported that 80% of England and Wales’s small traditional orchards, regarded as particularly important for flora and fauna, have been lost since 1900. The decline is attributed to neglect, urban development and agricultural modernisation.

Unlike commercial fruit farms, traditional orchards are defined by their low-intensity management and typically feature a mix of tree types. Though small in scale, they are worth far more than the sum of their apples: they are community spaces, a marker of the seasons (from spring blossom through to autumn fruit) and, according to the Woodland Trust, provide the perfect habitat for a surprisingly diverse range of wildlife. Atraditional orchard can support 1,800 species of plant, fungi and animal.

Thankfully, there are signs of regrowth. In an age when locally sourced food and tree planting are increasingly valued, community orchards are making a comeback. The National Trust recently vowed to plant four million fruit trees across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is also establishing new traditional orchards across its sites. And the Orchard Project – a charity that assists in the establishment and restoration of community orchards – aims to have one within walking distance of every household in the UK’s towns and cities.

Since its formation in 2009, the charity has planted and cared for more than 540 such spaces. I signed up as an orchard volunteer and recently attended my first maintenance session, trimming overgrown hedges, clearing grass from the base of trees and raking cuttings. Against a backdrop of cheerful industry, volunteers chatted, odd litter was puzzled over, and volunteer Ken MacKenzie sharpened the Austrian scythe. Leading the group was orchard custodian Emma Young, who, with her husband, Steve, took on its management last year. “We have an allotment and we love gardening, so it made sense,” she says. “And it’s wonderful that our daughter can grow alongside the trees.” The orchard is designed for shared use: each tree carries a label noting when the fruit will be ready to harvest, incentivising public picking.

Looking into how community orchards might expand their utilityIn south-west Wales, I came across Philip James. In 2015, he volunteered to manage an orchard on the National Trust’s Dinefwr estate in the Tywi valley, as a hobby: “It snowballed from there!”, he told me. Thanks to a group made up of other volunteers, the orchard now presses and sells its apple juice in local shops (even hiring out its pressing equipment), runs orchard management courses and has developed a cider club, Eddie Grundy-style.

Thanks to its comparatively mild climate, the Tywi valley has a strong heritage of orchards. But with many neglected or in poor condition, once-prevalent local apple varieties could be lost. “We’re gathering a database of all the orchards so we know what varieties there are and where we can go for propagation material,” says James. Dedicated volunteers are essential, says Lewis McNeill, London manager for the Orchard Project. “When people come to us, we’ll have an initial chat to see if there are enough of them to take on a long-term project. We offer leader training, which covers key maintenance and aftercare tasks – new trees will really struggle otherwise.”

After checking land ownership, assessing site and soil, and working up an orchard design, the charity assists with a winter planting day, when the trees are leafless and dormant. However, because of the climate crisis, this dormancy period is changing. “Autumn is coming later and spring earlier,” McNeill says. To combat this, they are planting trees better able to cope with increasing heat and drought. “In London, with its microclimate, we’ve been successfully planting apricot and fig varieties for years and, more recently, pomegranates and persimmons,” he says.

The planting days are a celebration, with volunteers often bringing food and mulled apple juice to fortify them for the heavy lifting. “People think about the fruits first,” McNeill says, “but the real value comes from the connection to each other and to nature, at a time when we’ve got so much lack of wellbeing, so many mental health issues.”

In 2016, the Orchard Project assisted the people of Farsley in West Yorkshire in setting up their community orchard. “We started off with 30 fruit trees; now we’ve got 50, and an edible hedgerow,” says volunteer Catherine Cho. “It’s fulfilling. To me it’s giving something back in an age when everything is so immediate. This is something long term.”

Indeed, the element of longevity was significant among all the “orchardeers” I spoke to. Tracey Tomlin, who initiated an orchard at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses in south London, described her pleasure at seeing its trees mature and thriving 20 years on. “It’s a really well-cared-for little space,” she says. “I feel proud to have been part of it.”

As we packed away tools at Overton orchard shortly before sunset, Emma Young said she viewed the project as an investment. “Imagine what it’s going to look like in 50 years. Whatever developments there are in the future, this will still be here for everybody. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

An orchard can be made up of just five trees, so a large space is not essential; fruit can be grown vertically on walls, in pots or trained against a fence. With more than 2,500 apple varieties in the UK, however, narrowing the options can be difficult. Where possible, include varieties historically local to your area to help preserve genetic diversity. To support a wider range of wildlife, consider other trees too: try cherry, pear, damson and crab apple, all of which provide spring blossom.

Check pollination requirements, as many apple and pear varieties require compatible companions nearby to produce fruit. The vigour of a fruit tree depends on its rootstock: select to suit your plot size. The best time to plant new fruit trees, particularly bare root – which is a cheaper and more effective option – is in late autumn.

‘Howgate Wonder’ apple A self-fertile, large-fruited cooking apple and a good nectar source for bees.

Black mulberry An ancient orchard staple with bountiful blood-red fruit. Attractive to insects and birds.

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