The Citizen Gardener: Community orchards

A group of local community orchard volunteers. Photograph: Steph Goward

I like to consider myself a bit of a Hackney parks buff. I spend a lot of my time wandering through our local green spaces; admiring the planting, taking in the public art, counting the bumblebees.

I have an ever-changing ranking of my favourites (my current top three are West Hackney Recreation Ground, Springfield Park and Daubeney Fields). Getting to know the hidden parts of these public spaces feels intimate and exciting – the quiet under the canopy of the weeping willows in the Hackney Marshes, the lesser trodden paths in Abney Cemetery.

You can imagine my surprise then, when last week I joined a group of volunteers in one of the many community orchards across our borough, and realised that this was the very first time I had explored one.

I am not alone in my ignorance. Typically, our orchards are easy to miss because of their unkempt aesthetic. The grass is left to grow long, the boughs of the trees swoop low and they are often set back from the footpaths on unused council land. As the name implies though, they are for the community. Indeed, the reason I found myself in one was to join a team of volunteers laying a wood chip path to create a more inviting entrance to encourage passersby to meander through the space.

Our orchards connect us to the natural world. They are a marker of the seasons – from spring blossom through to autumn fruit – and a provider of some of the most delicious produce in the borough. Hyper-local, seasonal and organic, the fruit made by these trees belongs to everyone.

Historically, we were a nation of fruit-growers, and yet in recent years we have turned our backs on this home-grown natural resource.

In the UK, we import most of our fruit – two thirds of our apples and nine tenths of our pears, according to the Produce Marketing Association. The UK has over 2,500 varieties of apples (of the 7,000 that exist worldwide), meaning you could eat a different UK variety every day for over six years. As consumers though, we tend to eat the same few varieties, thus endangering the future of our more unusual options.

Community orchards, however, typically feature a mix of tree types, providing a space to preserve our heritage varieties, and an opportunity to taste our history.

But our orchards are worth far more than the sum of their apples; they are also places for nature to thrive. While working on the footpath, we spotted two rare butterflies fluttering through – the Essex Skipper and the Meadow Brown. Indeed, low-intensity traditional orchards have been found to support over 1,800 species of plant, fungi and animal, making them a rare and precious resource for us and our urban-dwelling wildlife.

Unlike most natural habitats, orchards’ biodiversity is made better with some human intervention.

One of the many varieties of apple grown in the UK. Photograph: Steph Goward

In a study conducted across Europe, researchers at the University of Hradec Králové found that “generally, orchard abandonment led to insect biodiversity loss. Therefore, active agricultural management appears to be essential for insect biodiversity conservation in orchards.” In short, our involvement and support of Hackney orchards is key to their success and the ongoing provision of habitat for Hackney’s animals too.

After decades of decline, the past few years has seen a change in the tide and we are recognising the riches that these orchards hold.

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.

Closer to home, Hackney Council’s commitment to addressing the issue of biodiversity loss means that our orchards are more supported than ever and there are lots of opportunities to get involved locally.

The Tree Musketeers are our homegrown tree heroes, and are always looking for new recruits. Take a look at their website for more information on how to get involved.

The Orchard Project is a national charity but regularly runs training and workshops around London.

If you are interested in taking a look at some of the established orchards in our area, some of my favourites are in Hackney Downs, Millfields Park, Springfield Park, and of course the Daubeney Fields orchard. If however, you are feeling grand and have some space, then why not plant some trees yourself?

Community orchards: where to start

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.

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.

‘James Grieve’ apple
The all-rounder dessert apple: good for eating, cooking, juicing and cider-making. Gorgeous blossom.

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

‘Victoria’ plum
Reliable, heritage-variety plum with sweet, purple-yellow summer fruit.

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

‘Stella’ cherry
A self-fertile and sweet-fruiting cherry bearing white blossom in spring.

Steph Goward is an ecological gardener and food grower. She is the postcode gardener for E5, a horticultural therapist at St Mary’s Secret Garden, and works with a number of gardening groups across Hackney. You can follow her at @steph_orla_gardens.