What is a community orchard?

Community Orchards
The Community Orchards Handbook by Sue Clifford & Angela King is an inspiring and informative reference
The pioneers behind Apple Day - Sue Clifford & Angela King of Common Ground - have recently published a handbook on community-owned fruit orchards. Here they give the Ecologist their top tips and advice on getting started

Briefly, what are community orchards?

In 1992 Common Ground suggested the idea of creating or conserving orchards by and for local people. There are now hundreds up and down the country, some completely owned and run by the community, some by local authorities with local people. Increasingly schools and hospitals are joining in.

The traditional orchard offers a landscape of tall trees changing with the seasons, fruit of many kinds, good soil and an array of wild life. A Community Orchard adds to that rich mix, a place to learn and exchange knowledge, to hold festivals or seek quiet contemplation, a place for social play and work and somewhere to explore and show off how to live well with nature.

What are the most important things you need to start a community orchard?

Excited and committed people. Everything else can be researched, learned, found or funded along with a piece of well-drained land.

What resources are available to support, train and develop community orchards?

Many have gained funding from small grant givers and businesses locally, from the lottery. County and regional orchard organizations and some conservation groups offer courses in pruning, grafting, caring for orchards. See www.england-in-particular.info and www.orchardnetwork.org.uk

Are there many complicated legal issues involved in setting up a community orchard?

The Community Orchards Handbook has information on choosing a legal structure, and offers a model constitution, and example lease and tenancy agreements, as well as insurance ideas. None of these need be complicated, many people have been there before you. There are county and regional orchard groups, such as East of England Apple and Orchard Group, who can help and increasingly there are community orchards not far away. Chichester District Council is very supportive of community groups wishing to develop Community Orchards, and has published its own guidance notes.

When a group comes forward wishing to develop a piece of council land as an orchard, and the council decides to offer support, officers will put in place a very simple verbal or written agreement, along with an outline management plan. Other councils have simple, standard licences which allow the 'Friends of' group to manage the land on behalf of the council and the community.

How long does it take and what costs are involved?

You will be lucky if you find or ‘inherit' a well established orchard, and there may be little to spend if everyone brings their own tools and expertise along.

Starting from scratch may take five years for the trees to get above your heads and give a sense of ‘orchardness', though many trees will offer a few fruits in their first years. Finding a suitable place can be the most time consuming. Your local council may have land it would like a local community group to look after, or a farmer may be willing to lease a field on the edge of a town or village.

Leases, licences, tenancy agreements may take a while to negotiate, but there are many examples to draw on and we have the draft of one in our book to work from.

Good trees, especially if local and regional varieties are wanted, will take a while to prepare, so a nursery that specializes in fruit trees should be contacted as soon as possible. Bare rooted trees are available from December to March.

You are likely to need fencing, gates and guards to keep the trees safe from deer, rabbits, browsing sheep, cattle (horses and fruit trees do not go well together) and some people - it is easy to spend a few hundred pounds. In Bradwell, Derbyshire, the Orchard Group needed to repair a stone wall along one side of their orchard plot.

One- and two-year old grafted saplings (it is worth buying good stock) can cost £15 -25 each (less if you buy in bulk, more if you seek very particular varieties). You may want a picnic table, seats, a pond, a notice board - it is as long as a piece of string.

Insurance is important and can cost £100+ a year to cover people working and playing.

How do you know which fruits are best to grow?

Those that want to grow seek advice from knowledgeable people with fruit trees round and about, and consider what does well in the local area.

Add those that reinforce the particularity of the place with fruits and nuts that have historically done well, but also think about climate change, add to the mix for the future. Discover if any varieties of apple, plum, pear, damson, hazelnut etc were created in your county, make sure you keep those varieties going. And of course varieties that people like, that aren't in the shops.

What are some of the best parts of having a community orchard?

The thrill of blossom in spring, of watching woodpeckers, of first fruit, of organising Apple Day, selling juice you have made together (such as the Special reserve Apple Juice from Cornish Orchards pictured right), of learning to graft and prune, of wassailing in depths of winter, of having a place that you share with each other and with nature.

Can you point to recent success stories?

After years of organising Apple Day each October 21st to raise funds and interest (in 2009 2,000 people came) in the centre of Stamford, Lincolnshire keen cider drinkers and apple juice makers persuaded the council to let them plant trees.

The Community Orchard nestles in a triangle by a footpath between new houses and replaces waste land where all kinds of unwanted things had been dumped. Thirty six apple trees have been planted that include varieties with a local and county provenance such as Barnack Beauty, Allington Pippin, Peasgood's Nonsuch and Schoolmaster. Recently wild flowers have been planted amongst the trees transforming uniform grass into a wild flower meadow. Forty young trees have been grafted onto rootstock and are being grown on in an allotment for future sale.

Here is an example from New Ash Green Woodlands, Kent
'This group started out as an orchard group and then became more ambitious as they went on, and changed their name. They have put in about 3,000 hours of volunteer labour over the last three years to rescue an old and much neglected apple orchard right in the heart of the village. It is now once more a cherished place for all the community to share. We've done loads of other things besides reviving the orchard - making charcoal out of many of the arisings of our hard work, planting new native hedges on some of the boundaries; building dead hedges on some of the others; planting new apple trees to fill some of the gaps in our orchard - we've chosen old but very local north and west Kent varieties, like Fred Webb, Kentish Filbasket, Orange Goff, Cobham, Lady Sudely's Apple and Lamb Abbey Pearmain.'


The Community Ochards Handbook by Sue Clifford & Angela King (Green Books, 2011, £14.95)


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