That complex rooty smell in the evening and that creeping park mist in the morning give us a hint that it might be time to admit the inevitable – autumn is upon us. But what happened to summer?
An unpredictable summer has presented challenges for many orcharding tasks and kept us all in Shakespearian angst: ‘to water or not to water’, ‘to prune or not to prune’ and even ‘to harvest or not to harvest’. Lulled into false security by a wet June, many of us left our trees gasping when that hot, dry spell hit later in the month. Expecting halcyon days for pruning our prunus’s (prunae? prunusses?) in late-July, some instead spent hours in the rain weighing up the risk of Silver Leaf infection against the advantages of decongesting our plums and damsons. Then in August, we were hearing reports of ‘late-season’ cookers dropping not only ripe, but past their prime!
A New Crop
Yet, despite these seasonal uncertainties there is one crop that we have been able to depend on – our marvellous Orchard Mentors. Our Mentors are a team of volunteers, funded by our Helping Britain Blossom programme and trained to provide tree and orchard care support to community orchard groups in London. This year we have recruited six new volunteer Mentors to spread their enthusiasm and skills amongst community orchards like a rich, woody mulch.
Carole, Cat, Samantha, Michelle, Maria and Janet are all keen learners, currently studying for our Level 3 Certificate in Community Orcharding and carrying between them a depth of experience from professional gardening to ecotherapy to teaching.
Prunus Pruning in Tooting
In July, having invited myself to a summer-pruning day on the certificate course – where pruning sensei Tom Adams initiated us into the mysteries of blade care – we were keen to send our new Mentors out to sharpen their senses in the field. Looking for somewhere with enough unruly stone-fruits to keep us occupied for half a day we were grateful to be called on by Transition Town Tooting who invited us down to help breathe air and light into an overgrown cluster of unknown plum trees. Their beautiful walled community garden behind a former children’s home held many surprises, not least that their description of the plums as a “mighty thicket” was much more accurate than we had expected!
Our sturdy hand-secateurs began to feel like nail-clippers against the dense jungle of thick plum-suckers. A change of strategy was needed and thus ensued a great team effort to thin out the rootstock-suckers with loppers and larger saws. No one there knew the exact provenance of the trees, but from what we could tell, there were three or four original trees in the children’s home gardens. These had been felled by someone naive enough to think that – as with Jedis – simply “striking down” a plum would in any way deter it from growing back (clearly more vigorously than they could imagine). As the thicket had now become a new habitat in the gardens, the rules of restorative pruning did not really apply. Much of the morning was therefore spent in earnest debate about the fate of each separate sucker and their role in the balance between wildlife, tree health, fruit production, aesthetics and community accessibility. In some ways a more valuable lesson than discussing the (relatively) simple mechanics of pruning (though we did a bit of that too).
Thanks to Barbara and her team for hosting us, we’ll be back!
Alona Wins An Acorn
Whilst our budding new Mentors develop, we have also been immensely proud to see one of our existing Mentors, Alona (centre in pic below), have her significant contribution to community orcharding recognised by receiving an ‘Acorn Award’ in this year’s London Tree & Woodland Awards (known to tree lovers as the ‘Oscars’). An ex-teacher herself, and passionate ‘Friend’ of her local park, Alona stepped easily into the role of mentor in winter 2015. Since then, Alona’s energy, quiet confidence and reassuring presence has taught us the real potential of Orchard Mentors for nurturing community orchard groups and enthusing others to set up their own.
An Early Harvest Approaches.
So what’s up next for our plucky troop? Well, due to the launch of our Juicing and Cider enterprise, harvesting will take a more central place in our autumn activities than ever before. Our target of nine tonnes of apples from community orchards around London will be needing all the harvesters we can find. It will also be a great opportunity for our Mentors to meet orchard groups and help them make use of the fruits of their efforts (pun intended). So, expect to see a Mentor in an orchard near you very soon.
Merton Fruit Festival
Finally, this year the Orchard Project will be organising the first Merton Fruit Festival on 21st October in Mitcham Community Orchard to celebrate fruit growing in London past, present and future. The Orchard Mentors will be there taking part in a range of apple related (well, it is Apple Day after all) events and activities far too extensive and exciting to list here. For more details and updates visit the festival web-page or sign-up to the Facebook event page.