The 12th of January 2020 saw us plant The Orchard Project’s first community orchard of the planting season, and the first of the new decade! That marks around 420 new community orchards planted across the UK since the inception of the project back in 2009.
This orchard was planted with the Friends of Fishponds Park, in Surbiton and consisted of 12 fruit trees on semi-vigorous and vigorous stock, including eating and cooking apples, plums, quince, a plumcot (plum – apricot hybrid) and two pears. The latter should hopefully become veteran trees, perhaps living to see 2220 and beyond.
It was heartening to see such a great turn out on the day from the local community, many of whom had found out about the planting through the posters that the Friends had put up in the local area. Indeed, we are seeing a notable increase in the number of people turning up to our planting days this winter. This is largely due to a much needed/timely recent shift in the public consciousness around the urgency of the climate crisis, helped in part by the tandem force of Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunburg-inspired school strikes. Both of these catalysts slammed climate breakdown into the headlines where it rightly belongs, having being absent for too long. This has resulted in much talk of tree planting as a response, with politicians from all ilks tripping over themselves to outdo each other with their planting proposals.
Tree-Planting to the Rescue
A study last summer concluded that, “gasp”, low and behold, we don’t need to fast-track to grandiose corporate-lead geo-engineering schemes to save the biosphere! We have something tried and tested that effectively sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequesters it safely away as carbon, benignly stored as trunk, branch, leaf and soil. They’re called trees! And they’ve been doing this vital work silently, unpraised for millennia, making life as we know it possible on earth.
Of course no solution negates the need for us to rapidy decarbonise our economies and slash emissions immediately; we can’t reforest the globe and expect to be able to carry on with ‘business as usual’ as the neoliberals would have us believe. The proposed plantings are on a massive scale, and throw up their own challenges; monoculture timber plantations are no replacement for old growth woodland. But on a smaller, community level, we can plant trees too. Right now, tree planting is in Vogue! This is great…but only if it is done with careful consideration, planning and with a solid aftercare programme to boot! Nobody likes to see stands of young, dead trees, but this is all too often the outcome for poorly thought out plantings. There are many reasons newly planted trees die; wrong tree in the wrong place, poor soil, vandalism, lack of an aftercare programme in the crucial few years after planting (including, very commonly, mortality due to insufficient watering). The city presents its own challenges, exacerbating many of the risk factors that lead to mortality. But with some thought and planning, these can be overcome with the help of the local community.
Since 2009, The Orchard Project have sought to improve our model year on year, honing our Orchard Leader Training so that each community group we plant with is trained and equipped with the skills and knowledge required to care for their trees. This is part of the reason we have such a high success rate with getting trees established. The beauty of fruit trees is the relative low human input required each year to reward us with large yields (and here we’re talking about much more than the fruit). But, we must understand that there is an upfront cost in terms of effort in the first few years after planting if we want our trees to thrive; in the form of guarding, staking, mulching and watering. These vital years of establishment are all too often an after-thought to the planting process, and are easily forgotten after the heady days of preparing for executing the big planting day.
But a tree is not just for Christmas! Or National Tree Week!
Nor is a tree planting just for the ‘feel good’, ‘check-my-green-credentials’ photo opportunity!
The challenge is to maintain interest in the trees during the fruitless period in which we are aiming for the development of strong root and canopy (not allowing the trees to divert their energy into resource-hungry fruits). Providing multiple points of interest in the orchard ecosystem to keep people engaged with it throughout the seasons is key, as all too often interest nose-dives after the trees have been planted. Soft fruit and herbs that will crop in the first summer, creating habitat that will encourage fascinating new life to colonise the space, and a programme of regular practical, seasonal tasks and skill-shares sessions are all proven ways of keeping people interacting with the trees.
At The Orchard Project, we also encourage our groups to think of the orchard as a social space, an ‘events venue’ even. We are constantly asking: what can we do to bring a wide range of people into the orchard? How can the orchard meet the needs of the whole community? Of course there are the obvious events such as Apple day in October, Wassailing in January and blossom days in the spring. But what about Orchard Yoga? Or Orchard Bathing? (We trialled this last year, following the example set by the Japanese in using forests for wellbeing). What about juicing, cooking & preserving workshops, making the most of the skills and knowledge present in our diverse communities? Forest schools, chi gong, plays, musical jams, story-telling, fires, poetry and rap workshops have all taken place in community orchards; all such activity can result in a well-used and cherished space.
Orchards have always been a human-made habitat, arising from a partnership between people and the rest of nature, perhaps sitting somewhere in the middle of the scale between natural woodland and intensively managed arable land. So, surely community orchards and the activities which occur within them should reflect the needs and interests of those that use them, particularly in our cities where, more than ever, we need access to stimulating natural spaces. And all this engagement hopefully leads to the trees being cared for and looked after in the long term, as being around the trees frequently allows us to observe them growing with us, spotting any problems as they arise. Indeed, more than ever, we need to carefully plant many more trees, as well as care for and protect the ones we already share our world with.